Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Lost Soul?

Now that I’m officially into birds, everyone I know seems eager to share their bird lore with me, which pleases me to no end. Not only am I introduced to the greatest websites and blog posts, but I also learn essential news tidbits that I might have otherwise overlooked.

Last week Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) accidentally and most miraculously made its way to Newfoundland! In January! All the way from the West Coast! Here’s the bird, looking as regal as can be.

You can listen to the fascinating story (and marvel at a swell Newfoundland accent) on CBC’s website. The bird is named after Anna, the Duchess of Rivoli, who lived to the ripe old age of 85, and became the mistress of the household to Empress Eugenie, otherwise known as Napoleon III’s wife. I do wonder what possessed dear René Primevère Lesson to name the hummingbird after said Duchess, but bird names always elude me. Lesson circumnavigated the world in the 1822; the trip turned him into a bona fide hummingbird-nerd. Upon his return, he was the first naturalist to describe one third of the world’s hummingbird species! Here he is with hummingbirds on his mind, no doubt.

There are many things I’d ask Lesson if I could have dinner with him. Of course, we’d talk about the Duchess of Rivoli (was it a crush? an obsession? did she really have a pointy nose? a hot pink head? did she flap her arms around when she talked?), I’d ask him about remedies for sea-sickness, which he must have endured repeatedly, what sort of hat he wore while on board the ship and whether his hat was as fabulous as my Tilley Hat, and finally I’d inquire, ever so discreetly, if given a second try at life he would be so kind as to name a bird after me?

Pigeons, Sparrows and Kievan Rus

I’ve never really stopped to think about pigeons. In fact, I barely even consider them birds. OK, full disclosure — I’ve eaten pigeon and the whole experience was just fine by me. When it comes to sparrows, they frustrate me because there are about thirty different kinds of sparrow and all of them look identically brownish with some sort of stripes or a sprinkling of orange-ish brown spots.

The other day, I was rereading my favorite part in the Russian Primary Chronicle (Tale of Bygone Years) wherein Olga of Kiev takes revenge on — and thoroughly decimates — the Derevlians (an east Slavic tribe that nobody really talks about much, except in conjunction with Olga’s monumental revenge) for murdering her husband Igor in the most creative ways possible. I had completely forgotten about the presence of pigeons and sparrows in this narrative. It’s a stunning part of the Chronicle (written in 1111-1113 about the founding of Kiev in the 9th century) because it’s the first time a robust, exciting female character appears. Olga is fearless and means business: once poor Igor is killed by the Derevlians, she invites all of their ambassadors to Kiev, gets them rip roaring drunk in her steam bath (banya) and sets the place on fire!

She then proceeded to massacre 5000 other Derevlians before coming up with her ultimate revenge. She asked the Derevlians to hand over three pigeons and three sparrows from each house, which they did without suspecting anything (I’m gathering, at this point, that the Derevlians are a somewhat SLOW people), and she had her soldiers attach a match and a piece of cloth to each bird. Once the birds reached their porches, coops, and houses, they set the entire town on fire! The Primary Chronicle writes, “There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught fire at once.”

Go pigeon, go! And that was pretty much the end of the Derevlians. Olga went on to become the first woman of Rus to convert to Christianity and was instantly canonized by the Orthodox Church. I love her for her ingenuity and fearlessness; she adds dramatic tension to the Chronicle and arms me with great cocktail party tales of medieval Russian lore.

Hopefully no pigeons and sparrows were harmed in this story. The Primary Chronicle doesn’t tell us either way.

Owl Season

Beloved Birders! Thanks to the illustrious Rick Wright, I now know that what I saw this past Saturday was in fact a Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula) and not a Brown Hawk Owl (Ninox scutulata), since those are virtually unknown in the Americas as they hang out mainly in south Asia and southern China. I made a few other gaffes in my previous post, but I’ll correct those in due course…

There he is in all his majestic glory. I’m afraid we didn’t make eye contact, but I did get a hearty look at his plumage. (The coloring in this photo reminds me of a fabulous cake I recently ate — layers of sponge cake smothered in vanilla-hazelnut custard. It tasted a whole lot better than it sounds and looked exactly like this Hawk Owl’s furry torso.)

In honor of Owl Season, here is a great take on the bird by the awesome poet, Mary Oliver:

The Owl Who Comes

The owl who comes
through the dark
to sit
in the black boughs of the apple tree

and stare down
the hook of his beak,
dead silent,
and his eyes,

like two moons
in the distance,
soft and shining
under their heavy lashes —

like the most beautiful lie —
is thinking
of nothing
as he watches

and waits to see
what might appear,
out of the seamless,

deep winter —
out of the teeming
world below–
and if I wish the owl luck,

and I do,
what am I wishing for that other
soft life,
climbing through the snow?

What we must do,
I suppose,
is to hope the world
keeps its balance;

what we are to do, however,
with our hearts
waiting and watching–truly
I do not know.


First Birds of 2011!

I almost didn’t make it out birding on Saturday. On my way to our carpool meeting place I saw a Mercedes SUV flipped on its side, tires tangled in snow; not exactly an auspicious sight at 7:15 a.m. Given that my honda civic is about one tenth the size of the SUV, I felt a little intimidated and nearly made a u-turn and drove straight home. But boy am I happy I didn’t. My first birding day of 2011 was amazing! Of course it ended with a Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) chase that nearly rendered me comatose, but such is the trying life of a somewhat birder. Imagine scanning miles and miles of this:

(OK, it didn’t *quite look like that* since we were on Ravenshoe Rd. somewhere near Whitby which looks more like the Tundra, but all the Tundra pictures I could find online had moose in them, and I wouldn’t want to mislead you and give you the wrong idea about this birding trip of ours.) Imagine the above scenario with about a dozen crazed all-terrain vehicles working their magic. In any event we were looking for this:

I don’t know how good you are at seeing white on white, but I found this (hour long) exercise to be pretty challenging, verging on stultifying. In the end, our fearless leader saw what he thinks was a snowy owl, but it was too far away for me to see anything other than a white blob on a white carpet of snow. A bit on the underwhelming side of the spectrum. Thank heavens there was a flock of Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) in all their black and white glory, circling around the snowy fields.

Now for the awesomeness, of which there was plenty. Remember my fascination with Cedar Waxwings? Well, I met their immediate kin, the fabulously striking Bohemian Waxwings (Bombicilla garrulus). Like its Cedar counterpart, the Bohemian waxwing sports a stunning hairdo that rivals any fancy artistry that my hairdresser Loretta is able to come up with. Check him out in all his glory:

You’ll notice that the Bohemian waxwing is more corpulent (and grayer in coloring) than the Cedar variety. And possibly a bit louder, too. Anyhow, they were having a sing-a-thon out there, early on a Saturday morning in the freezing cold. We stood around for about 20 minutes and continued on our merry way. From there, things went wild: we saw Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) in large numbers, Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea), which looked anything but common to me, and the coolest sight for a novice birder — a fantastic Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) UPSIDE DOWN, drumming away at a suet feeder! There he was, looking approximately like this (thanks mudder_bbc on flickr for providing the photo):

Only he was so much larger and more spectacular and, obviously, louder than this! I feel like Hairy woodpecker is misnomer — shouldn’t it have been Hairy Waxwing instead of bohemian, and perhaps Bohemian woodpecker instead instead of hairy? There’s no logic to bird names. And in case you need a refresher on the difference between the Hairy and Downy woodpeckers, hairy is basically a downy but just bigger. There were a bunch of blue jays flying around all this action, but the jays resembled gargantuan monsters next to the elegant, delicate 12-14 cm long Common Redpolls and marginally larger Evening grosbeaks.

All of these birds, including the stupendous Hawk Owl (oh no, I have no idea if it’s a Brown Hawk Owl or a Northern Hawk Owl — I’ll get back to you) we communed with on our way into the greater Orillia area are LIFE BIRDS for me! First time sightings! 2011 is off to a splendid start (in spite of the damage done to the poor SUV).