Monthly Archives: November 2011


You’ll never guess what I saw this weekend in Niagara on the Lake? (I suppose the title of the post gives it away, but the sighting remains monumental nonetheless.) A Razorbill (Alca torda)! This bird is a coastal creature and makes its home in the Atlantic ocean. Who knows, it probably got confused and mistook the St. Lawrence river for the ocean and eventually ended up on the shores of Lake Ontario and the Niagara river! Quite the momentous sighting:

Well, I’ll be honest with you — I didn’t quite get a penguin-esque view of the bird. On Saturday, he was swimming around diving for Lake Ontario delicacies (to each his own!). It ended up being a thrilling day, in spite of tenuous beginnings. At one point, I was beginning to fear that our most exciting sighting was a 10 pound brown trout!

This past Saturday was an important Gull day, as it turns out. The Who’s Who of the Ontario birding world were out in the field with their binoculars and scopes and blackberries! At one point, we were trying to distinguish the Thayer’s Gull from a normal gull (apparently the Thayer has a darker eye) and someone screamed, “Oh My God! There’s a Kittiwake at Whirlpool!” And before I could assess what was happening, we piled into the car and sped down the road toward Whirlpool to catch a glimpse of the Kittiwake, which looked suspiciously like every single other gull flying below. People stared intently and every so often someone would narrate, “see there between the trees, yes black plumage on the tail, flying down below, on a raft up again toward the tree, hiding, back out again yes there oh look oh it’s definitely a Kittiwake, no wouldn’t mistake it for a little gull, no way, oh what a beauty,” and after a while I zoned out and pointed my binoculars at the group of people on the shore below us, on the American side of the whirlpool and found myself wondering whether they had enjoyed their Black Friday shopping experience and pondered what their Turkey must have tasted like.

I didn’t see the Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla). But it was wonderful to experience the Niagara area off-season, in mid-winter light. Verdict: Gulls are worse than sparrows which are worse than hawks in terms of my ability to distinguish them. Difficulties aside, it was a marvelous day.


I’m obsessed with how we describe home, how we gravitate toward home (no matter how far we attempt to run), how we define home, and all the difficulties that lie therein. I think (and write) about these things constantly and just came across an essay by E.B. White, who phrases his own homecoming so exquisitely:

What happens to me when I cross the Piscataqua and plunge rapidly into Maine at a cost of seventy-five cents in tolls? I cannot describe it. I do not ordinarily spy a partridge in a pear tree, or three French hens, but I do have the sensation of having received a gift from a true love. And when, five hours later, I dip down across the Narramissic and look back at the tiny town of Orland, the white spire of its church against the pale-red sky stirs me in a way that Chartres could never do. It was the Narramissic that once received as fine a lyrical tribute as was ever paid to a river—a line in a poem by a schoolboy, who wrote of it, “It flows through Orland every day.” I never cross that mild stream without thinking of his testimonial to the constancy, the dependability of small, familiar rivers.

Familiarity is the thing—the sense of belonging. It grants exemption from all evil, all shabbiness. A farmer pauses in the doorway of his barn and he is wearing the right boots. A sheep stands under an apple tree and it wears the right look, and the tree is hung with puckered frozen fruit of the right color. The spruce boughs that bank the foundations of the homes keep out the only true winter wind, and the light that leaves the sky at four o’clock automatically turns on the yellow lamps within, revealing to the soft-minded motorist interiors of perfect security, kitchens full of a just and lasting peace. (Or so it seems to the homing traveler.)

E.B. White “Home-Coming”

Meteorological Confusion and Beard’s Birds

Birds and Words can’t get enough of weather-talk. Maybe it’s a sign that I really am an octogenarian living in a 37 year old body, but seriously, folks, have you noticed that the Weather has developed a severe personality disorder of late? It’s November 16 and it feels like spring outside! Yesterday, the sun was shining, I was wearing my (pink!) spring jacket, and happened up a conglomeration of Robins (Turdus migratorius) who seemed utterly confused by the season. They were chirping up a storm, as if it was early May and they were in the midst of hoarding food. (Speaking of Robins, my favorite non-avian who goes by the name of robin, the writer, Robin Spano, is launching her second book in her fun crime series, Death Plays Poker, and though eschews writing about birds, it’s still a great read and you should check it out!)

I also saw the cutest Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) who looked exactly like this and I thought to myself, “hey, where is that red patch on its head? What happened to the Downy I used to know and love?” And…. lo and behold, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tells me that it’s a FEMALE (hence, less flashy). Nevertheless, a fabulous woodpecker:

There SHE is! I’m pretty sure dear female Picoides pubescens also thought it was spring-time. She kept looking up at the sky in utter confusion. After all, it was close to FIFTEEN degrees (celcius, my friends) yesterday, which is virtually unheard of in November. Other sightings on my walk included sparrows of all stripes and colors and a murmuration of Starlings.

In other bird news, Rick Wright linked to a fabulous book on his blog (which, if you’re a birder, I’m sure you already know, read and memorize) : Ms. Adelia Belle Beard wrote a tremendous book in 1912 with instructions about how to make life-size, standing birds out of paper with adjustable wings! Just think — you could make your very own American Robin! She even instructs you on the correct coloration of the bird. In  her introduction, Beard emphasizes that the book can be used as a teaching (and mnemonic) tool, for adults and children alike! (No binoculars needed.) Included are endorsements from the Audubon Society and the New York Zoological Park. What would possess anybody to let such a gem go out of print?


Did you know that a group of Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) is called a Murmuration? Thanks to a dear friend out West, I learned that The Washington Post recently linked to a Sophie Windsor Clive’s fabulous video that captured a murmuration of starlings.


The Post also informs the curious of other collective nouns used to describe birds: “A parliament of owls. A nye of pheasants. An unkindness of ravens.”

Nostalgia Tour

Birds and Words has just returned from a full-fledged Nostalgia Tour.

This is my old dorm, Hope College, where I lived in 1994-1995, fourth floor, fourth window from the right, for those of you who are extremely curious. I’d been resisting a trip back to my undergraduate haunts because I feared I’d have a Chekhovian-style emotional meltdown (a la Ranevskaya, from The Cherry Orchard) and would walk around wailing, “Good bye, My Precious Youth! Farewell!”

Thankfully, I managed to maintain a modicum of decorum. I will admit to one truly melodramatic outburst, which took place right as I was taking a photo of my old dorm: I wanted to share the extent of my nostalgia with a passing janitor and proceeded to tell him all about my old dorm room, how much I missed it, how much I loved my undergraduate years, and how happy I was to be in Providence again, and he responded by telling me this was the first snow fall they’d had this early in the season since 1978. No mention of my dorm room, no response to my tear-stained voice. Perhaps the world really had moved on since I graduated back in 1997.

I did go a little overboard on my nostalgia-induced shopping spree, including two pounds of freshly roasted coffee (and a mug) from my favorite coffee shop on Wickenden St., The Coffee Exchange, and a t-shirt from the Brown bookstore. I showed my husband all three dorms I lived in, the rare books library where I once worked, the music department where I played my first chamber music concert (Beethoven’s trio for clarinet, cello and piano), the library where I first read The Brothers Karamazov, the cafeteria where I ate brown rice with lentils for the better part of a year, but it tasted ok because the company was so good… I could go on and on, but even my dear husband lost interest in the minutiae of my nostalgia, so I’ll stop here.

I did squeeze in a walk around campus at 7:30 am one morning — I wanted to have campus to myself, to feel like it was mine again. The strange thing is that I found myself paying attention to things I never would have noticed as a student, 15 years ago: morning light bathing the Georgian buildings, a sparrow of one persuasion or another stopping in its path, head tilted upward, calling out to his companion, autumn leaves reddening past a brightness I recognized. The place belonged to me then, certainly, but I was also surprised to recognize that it also belongs to me now in fuller, more nuanced hues. Perhaps the passing of time has its own advantages.

We returned home via Boston and made an obligatory stop at the MFA. I came home with Audubon bird note cards (hardly surprising). Not something I would have chosen in the mid 90s, but then again, I didn’t know what I was missing.