Monthly Archives: August 2011

Foggy Birding

A terrifically strange, but delightful morning of birding this past Saturday. The day began colossally foggy (as in I couldn’t see past my own car as I drove along the 401), but things cleared as we drove north toward Port Perry, via a hamlet called Brooklin (note the spelling), which I wouldn’t recommend visiting unless you had no other choice, or for some reason found the spelling provocative. Once we hit the vicinity of Port Perry, we went straight to the Waste Management Office to buy a sewage lagoon permit! I should have taken a photo of the place — there were about 50 old toilets lined up next to dozens of microwave ovens and refrigerators waiting to be transported from toilet/microwave/refrigerator purgatory to toilet/microwave/refrigerator paradise. I hope they make it! One of the joys of birding has been getting to know various sewage lagoons in Southern Ontario. Of course, nothing could rival my sewage lagoon permit from Brighton, signed by a man who goes by the name of Tiny but who is anything but tiny himself. Sadly, my Brighton permit is expired, and I think they’ve stopped allowing birders anywhere near their sewage.

Once we got to the Nonquon Sewage lagoon, we saw dozens of Bonaparte’s Gulls, an equally number of rowdy ducks whom I couldn’t identify, and a couple extraordinary Black Terns doing a tern-like dance a few inches above the water. It reminded me for a minute of Iceland, where the Arctic Terns also regaled us with elaborate pas-de-deux, almost fluttering along the water. Iceland aside, the lagoon brought back memories of Columbia, Missouri. I used to live directly on a railway line (the Kansas-Texas line) which was converted into a wonderful biking/walking/birding trail called the Katy Trail. Sadly, my Missouri years date way back to the time before I ever picked up binoculars, to my pre-birding existence. I used to ride my bike 15 miles west of Columbia and end up at a fabulous sewage lagoon. It was enormous, smelled horrible, and I biked around its circumference three or four times, until the mixture of smell and fatigue lulled me into a stupor, such that I no longer remembered that I was living in Missouri.

From Port Perry we traveled south to Ajax and had breakfast at a great diner called Scrambles, where “All of Ajax Meets for Breakfast”. My eggs and bacon were cooked to perfection. Before indulging in high-cholesterol fine-dining, we stopped at a park right by the lake and saw a Cow Bird running around acting like a Robin! Cow birds are parasites and leave their eggs in other nests. This particular one was raised by Robins and the Robins clearly thought the cow bird was one of their very own or at least they accepted the cow bird, even if it did look a little funny to them. Here’s what the Cowbird who thought he was a robin looked like:

Here’s the Robin who must have wondered why her baby didn’t really look like her, but yet accepted the cowbird as one of hers anyhow:

And then, the piece-de-resistance: an enormous Great Blue Heron and a smaller, more elegant Green Heron, and an Great Egret standing around looking puzzled. The Green Heron was busy eating fish, the Great Blue Heron was walking around slowly, methodically, lifting his leg out of the water, pointing his foot out until it was at a right angle and placing it down, quietly, stealthily back into the water. He had a fabulous rhythm going, like he had enrolled in dance class! Oh and there were fall Warblers and a Warbling Vireo and I stared at them long and hard and remembered just how challenging being a somewhat birder actually is. Then again, it’s good to be reminded.

We also had Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, which I never would have been able to tell apart had they not been standing side by side. You guessed it: the Lesser Yellow legs is slightly smaller than the Greater. I’m certain I’ll confuse them for the rest of my birding career (lest I witness them side by side again), but it’s nice to know they really are different! I think I can finally ID a Caspian tern: bright orange bill, black patch on its head, I think I get this bird. In the end, what began as a dismally foggy, drab, seemingly unpromising day turned out to be most rewarding!

Paradise on Georgian Bay

I spent the weekend in paradise. On an island 50km or so north of Parry Sound. Right here:

The beauty of the place was so arresting that I didn’t miss the lack of electricity one bit. We felt like we’d stepped into a Group of Seven painting for the weekend, tilted pine trees and all. I wasn’t expecting a particularly birdful weekend, but we saw about a dozen Common Loons convening on the water for what was either a rowdy party, a sincere and earnest gossip session or a political gathering. They intoned their distinctive, high pitched call repeatedly. If I were more musically inclined, I might have been able to discern a harmony. If I were Olivier Messaien, I would have gathered enough material to write a whole new symphonic poem. They were louder than I’ve ever heard loons, but because this was the first time I’ve seen so many active loons so close up, I was captivated. Here are the last two loons, after the party had pretty much disbanded, making plans for their next rendez-vous.

I even saw a Black and White Warbler chirping away in a pine tree. He was deeply engaged in a singing contest with the local Chickadees. Given that I tend to judge primarily by appearance, embarrassingly shallow birder that I am, I’d say the Black and White Warbler won hands down. I didn’t even need binoculars to make eye contact with him! Just when I thought I wouldn’t see another warbler until Fall, when they’d all be a uniform shade of brown and I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart, I caught a glimpse of my all-time favorite warbler, still sporting its breeding plumage. I’m telling you — this weekend really was heavenly!

I fed bits of steak fat (left over from our feast) to a group of rabid seagulls; about twenty of them descended on the granite rocks to claim the loot. Here’s the beginning of the action:

I meant to read, but all I ended up doing was stare at the water, the trees, the sky, the rocks, and the birds (all of that in my Tilley hat, of course). A perfect weekend.

Hello Ohio!

Yesterday, I saw Ohio through my binoculars. We were looking for shore birds at Rock Point Provincial park, on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, and when I surveyed the horizon I noticed some buildings. It turns out I was looking straight at Ohio!

After a two month birding break, it was lovely to get out yesterday. Even though the algae at Rock Point smelled like the worst morning breath you could possibly imagine, we still had a fabulous day. The water was clear, the sky was picture perfect blue, and I saw incredible fossils! I must have seen fossils before, but never paid attention. yesterday, they were particularly striking. (Apparently 350 million years ago, Rock Point Provincial Park lay at the bottom of a tropical sea! That was before the continental drift, back when the earth was one big land mass. Once the drift started, the organisms in the sea gradually died and their skeletons sank into the mud that was rich in lime. Lake Erie was actually the result of a melted glacial field!)

I marveled at the Killdeer (Caradrius vociferus) running along the rocky shore. They were joined by Semipalmated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus), which are not at all to be confused with Semipalmated Sandpipers (Calidris pusilla), which we also saw but I don’t think I could recognize on my own. The Semipalmated Plover is actually very similar to the Killdeer but only has one black ring around its neck, whereas the Killdeer has two (and is slightly larger). The Semipalmated Sandpiper, on the other hand, is quintessentially shore birdy — grey, brown, light on his feet, striped and polka-dotted, and indistinguishable from most other shore birds. It’s amazing how many different hues of grey and brown shore birds actually have! I’m beginning to feel color blind when I describe a bird, because there are only so many words I know for grey, black, and brown!

I was thoroughly relieved to encounter the Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), mainly on account of the fact that it’s a bird that finally looks like its name! Yes, the legs were yellow! A bird, much like the Red Winged Blackbird, that makes sense to me.

We also saw a Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), which left me entirely confused because I failed to see one of its most defining characteristics: the green legs. To me, the Least Sandpiper’s legs were the color of all shore birds’ legs: yellowish-greyish-brownish. Do these look GREEN to you??

It could well be that my color recognition isn’t top notch, but I’m sorry — these legs just aren’t the kind of green I’m used to associating with the idea of Green! And then that got me thinking — perhaps my conception of color is based on a color’s ideal form rather than its real nature? Maybe it’s time to revisit some Plato? To me green is the color of salad and green beans and pine trees and grass before the hideous heat wave in Toronto. I rarely think of other forms of green. Perhaps it’s time to expand my range of green possibilities.

I can already sense that shore birds are going to be almost as challenging as sparrows. I guess that’s the beauty of birding — it gets more familiar, but not necessarily easier. Actually, I don’t ever see it becoming easy. And that’s probably what I love about it: birding is an endless exercise in seeing and remembering. The more you are able to see, the more you sense that you’re only scratching the surface. Where was I for the first 35 years of my potential birding career?