Monthly Archives: October 2011

For the future Pine Grosbeaks in my life

Literary Birders! I don’t think I’ve laid eyes on a Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator) yet, since it’s a Boreal bird, and Toronto isn’t exactly in the middle of the Boreal forest.

Here he is in all his radical red glory! This bird is reason alone to visit Alaska and the Yukon, where he regularly hangs out. The Grosbeaks I’m accustomed to seeing around here are Rose-Breasted and, on occasion, Evening.

I encountered the Pine grosbeak a few weeks ago, in Banff, in Clea Roberts’ wonderful poetry collection Here is Where We Disembark (Freehand Books, 2010). Clea is a fabulous poet living and writing in the Yukon. She writes beautifully about the Northern landscape and equally exquisitely about birds! She also has amazing taste in childrens’ socks — if you meet her stunningly cute children, you’ll be mightily impressed by the argyle patterns covering their feet! Here is one of my favorites from her collection:

Pine Grosbeaks

In February
even borrowed
colour is welcome.

Birds as red
and plump as apples
bob in the pine trees,
sharpen their beaks,
dream fine, green buds
months away.

Birds. Words. And James Bond.

Delightful Birders! I am back from the Rockies. Though I didn’t manage to ID much other than a Black Billed Magpie, I did manage to see about a thousand of aforementioned bird, and marvel at them each and every time. I also caught an exquisite looking woodpecker working his magic on a tree in Downtown Banff. I stared and stared and tried my hardest to identify some defining features, but came away with nothing but polka dots. White on Black. Or was it black on white? In any event, I think it was a Downy (as usual), but I was hoping for something infinitely more exciting. My genius bird group would have come in handy, that’s for sure.

photo by: Kirsten Alexander

My Identification problems didn’t end with birds, unfortunately. While ambling down the streets of Banff (I think I was near the intersection of Muskrat and Buffalo; all street names in Banff are, in fact, animal names) when I came face to face with what I immediately assumed was a horrifyingly large ELK. I did exactly what I was told not to do: I stared him in the eye and promptly turned around and ran screaming in the other direction. I did run, and I did let out a yelp just as a woman was getting into her car. Frantic, I told her there was a huge elk at the end of the street who looked like he was about to eat me! (I have this innate fear that ALL animals, no matter their size, are on the verge of eating me. It goes back to my childhood, but I’ll spare you the details. No, I’ve never been bitten by an animal, but growing up my parents always said “see that dog? Don’t go near it. He bites. HARD.” And being the diligent child I was, I believed them.) She took one look at the “elk” and then turned back to inform me that it was a harmless deer. What can I say — I’m new to the animal world! (She also asked me where I was from, to which I could think of no other answer than, “I’m an artist.” Our conversation went no further.)

I’ll spare you my other misdemeanors in the realm of animal IDs.

In other news, the wondrous Elif Batuman has a fabulous article  in this week’s New Yorker complete with stellar podcast — all about a conservationist in Turkey and birds (and words! and Pushkin!) in the Turkish town of Kars, on the border with Armenia. I was quite taken with her analysis of birders:

In certain respects, the lives of birders resemble the lives of the saints: the early portents, the moments of revelation, the physical mortifications, the miraculous apparitions and violent ends.

I don’t know about the violent ends, which I hope to eschew, but I’ve certainly witnessed many a miraculous apparition! What a novel idea of think of birders as types of saints. I rather like that. Batuman seems to be a font of knowledge in any subject matter; I also learned from her a fascinating tidbit about Ian Fleming, author of James Bond:

Ian Fleming, both a secret agent and a bird-watcher, borrowed the name James Bond from the author of a manual called “Birds of the West Indies.”

Who knew Ian Fleming had birds on his mind, perhaps in this very photo?!

A New Favorite

Delightful Birders! I’m in the Canadian Rockies for a few weeks and just managed to ID a fabulous new bird! BY MYSELF! (For those of you who know me, you’ll appreciate this monumental feat!) The Black-Billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) is a regular in these parts of Western North America — the Cornell birding site calls it “common and very conspicuous” — but it was still a tremendously exciting sighting for me. I guess that’s the beauty of knowing very little about birds — everything is both rare and wondrous to me! Here it is:

I love the fantastically long tail and the metallic blue on its wings. That blueish coloring reminds me of tree swallows — another super common bird which I can’t get enough of. Apparently, Black Billed Magpies spend up to 40 days constructing their elaborate nests! Quite a project! But you’ll be happy to know that such heavy duty construction work only accounts for 1% of the bird’s daily energy output.

I’m finding that I love seeing common birds as much as rarities. Maybe part of the pleasure of common birds is that I can identify them! In any event, The Black Billed Magpie is quite majestic: with a tail weighing just about half his body weight, how can he be anything other than extraordinary!