Monthly Archives: May 2011

Birds and Love

Jonathan Franzen wrote an illuminating op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday, excerpted from his Kenyon College commencement speech, where he addresses the limits and dangers of technology in enabling us to experience real emotions, and love in particular. His understanding of what it means to love coincides with his discovery and infatuation with birds:

BUT then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.

And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love.

I read this passage and screamed YES! because this is exactly how I feel. Lately, I haven’t seen much in terms of stellar, stunning, mention-worthy avian greatness (minus this past Saturday, which I will blog about shortly), but it’s the absolutely ordinary birds in my neighborhood that I’ve been delighting in and staring at, in absolute wonder. How can one feel rapture at the sight of a robin? (I wouldn’t go as far as the pigeon, usually, but I do have my pigeon-infatuation-esque moments, which I’m only admitting in this semi-confessional forum.) Lately, I’ve found that the sight of any bird excites me! They call out to me, I have absolutely no clue what they’re talking about, and yet I’m convinced we’re having a conversation, of sorts. Delusional? Maybe. Happy? Definitely.


Once you start to look at birds — once your eyes follow the flight of a passing crow or a bunch of starlings whirling across the road without any conscious decision having been made — then sooner or later you will have a sight of such wonder and perfection that you will always be a birdwatcher. This is nothing less than a statistical certainty. It is a sight, a moment that confirms your growing interest and makes it part of your life for ever afterwards. It is the moment when you realize that birdwatching isn’t something to do with other people. You, too, can see wonders.

(How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, by Simon Barnes)

Simon Barnes pretty much sums it up. It isn’t hard to see wonders when you’re willing to take the time to look. And speaking of wonders, the fabulously creative people behind To Be Shouted have dedicated the month of May to posts about Birds! Check out their website!

Bird News

I’ve just come across some fascinating bird-related creative projects that I wanted to share with you. The wonderful writer and bird enthusiast Meera Lee Sethi has an amazing project planned for the summer: she’s going to Sweden to volunteer in an ornithological research center and write a book of essays called The Language of Birds (which I totally can’t wait to read!!). You can check out her fabulous project (and support it!) here.

Through Meera’s project, I discovered a stunning artist, Diana Sudyka, who paints the most exquisite birds, among many other things. Her artwork will be on the cover of Meera’s book, so all the more reason to support the project! Diana also blogs at The Tiny Aviary, which is something I look forward to reading regularly. I’ll leave you with an image of Mr. Snow, which you can purchase on Diana Sudyka’s Etsy site:

It’s Warbler Time!

You wouldn’t believe how excited I am. Yesterday I identified a YELLOW WARBLER! OK, this is about 80% factually accurate. Someone had heard the yellow warbler’s song, but I was the first to find it! And if it’s the case that you’re having trouble believing that, trust me, you are not alone. Everyone in my group was more or less stunned that I had actually managed to be of birdful use. It was a first on many counts.

Yesterday was a dreamy day for Spring birding. Most trees in Toronto are still bare, so this made finding the birds all that much easier! Though I can’t yet recognize and identify most of what I see (unless it’s a yellow warbler, obviously), I’m getting much better at pointing my binoculars. I did have a few mishaps yesterday, where the striped, swiftly moving, cackling animal turned out to be a chipmunk rather than a sparrow of one sort or another, but these accidents are bound to happen. Please don’t think less of me.

We began our day in Thickson’s Woods in Whitby (world capital of unabashedly cute owls and also the birthplace of Jessica Westhead, awesome Canadian writer whose short story collection, And Also Sharks, you should all read) where we were greeted by copulating chickadees. Apparently the female likes to shake wildly and do a little feverish gig to attract the male who then basically responds by pouncing on her. The whole scene was a little x-rated, but quite educational and it is breeding season after all. So, I wish them all fruitful reproduction.

For all you exacting readers, you might remember that Thickson’s woods was where I caught sight of a winter wren shouting vigorously and couldn’t believe that such a tiny bird could sing at such mind-numbingly high pitch. Not for the faint of heart.

After the chickadee action, we saw countless Yellow-Rumped Warblers (Dendroica coronata). Since the trees were bare, they weren’t that hard to locate in the trees, and after about fifteen minutes of staring up at the heavens, I developed my first neck pain of the season (otherwise known as warbler neck) and immediately felt like a professional birder. The yellow-rumped warblers were exciting until we realized they were ubiquitous: every single bird in every single tree turned out to be a yellow-rumped warbler, and we began to get a little restless.

We also saw an apparently stunning panoply of sparrows, but since I’m a beginning birder, I have to admit the crass reality that all sparrows look the same to me at this point. They’re like hawks and I don’t (yet) see the appeal of the sparrow. So far, I’m all warbler all the time.

And then, just when we began to despair that the yellow-rumped warbler was the only bird left on planet earth, we caught sight of Black and White Warbler! In plain view! After that, things really took off: a brilliant orange Baltimore Oriole against a backdrop of cloudless blue sky and an Orchard Oriole greeted me when I was least expecting them. The Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) is a life bird for me (not that hard; most birds are life birds for me and that’s the beauty of being a beginning birder!) and I could have stared at the burning shade of its rusty belly for hours. But I was thirsty and hungry and craving my morning cup of coffee and, alas, those absolutely mundane bodily needs took precedence over the sublime rusty hues on the Orchard Oriole.

We headed to Second Marsh in Oshawa after our much needed coffee stop and saw the piece-de-resistance, the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus ), my first endangered species on my life list! The walk along the rocky shore of Lake Ontario toward a sandy patch was possibly the best part of the day. I admit to being slightly underwhelmed at the sight of the piping plover, but I got excited after realizing that there are only 25 piping plover couples in Ontario!

It was a beautiful day. My neck hurt, I came home muddy and the 5:45 am wake-up-call didn’t even feel like a big deal. I even managed to point my binoculars at a swarm of bugs (when I got tired of looking for warblers), and that’s certainly not something you get to do everyday.