Monthly Archives: May 2012

In which I embrace the process

Empathetic Birders! Yesterday was a day of spectacular birding gaffes on my part. I mistook a female redwinged blackbird for an exotic migratory species; I unintentionally insulted a Kingfisher by calling him a Blue Jay; I stared long and hard at an Upland Sandpiper, which turned out to be a piece of wood in a field; I deeply offended a female Rose Breasted Grosbeak by boldly stating that she was a disappointment compared to her male counterpart (to which she hissed and crackled and belted out a few call notes that taught me not to anger her any further). The list goes on. A year ago, I was too shy to even attempt to ID a bird. Now, I’ve grown both intrepid and entirely comfortable with being wrong 99% of the time. So it goes. I knew, from the outset, that birding was all about process; I guess I had no idea how humbling (and, surprisingly, enjoyable) that process would be.

The day began when my alarm clock rang at 4:20. By 5:10 am, we were on our way to Carden Alvar, a birding hotspot and a designated IBA (self explanatory acronym that means “important birding area”), much to the chagrin of the locals who aren’t fond of obsessive birders standing by their properties with binoculars. (We did encounter an unusually friendly local who told us where to stand to catch great looks of Moose (!) and then returned to show our fearless leader a photo of said moose on his iphone!)

We began the day with a fabulous look at a Snipe (Gallinago delicata), who looked just like this:

photo from wikipedia

(If I had any photographic talent whatsoever, and any serious back and shoulder muscles with which to support stellar photographic equipment, I’d take my own photos. If any of fabulous readers have photos they’re willing to share, please please let me know and I will credit your every snapshot, I promise!) Some of us with sharp ears even heard the snipe. I shouldn’t admit this, but since we’re on the topic of process and birding gaffes, I’ll be honest and tell you that the only bird song I can honestly recognize is the call of the Redwinged Blackbird. Yes, there remains MUCH learning to be done…

Carden Alvar is also particularly important since it’s one of the last remaining Canadian habitats of the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus migrans), a critically endangered species. (FYI: the species is critically endangered here in Canada — not in Texas, it would appear, since they’re everywhere!)  And we saw the Loggerhead Shrike twice! He’s a fierce looking bird (much like the Northern Shrike, which I accidentally saw in April) who sports a black eyeband, much like Ray ban sunglasses.

Photo from here

And from there, the bird sightings exploded. We had Golden-Winged Warblers, an exquisite look at the elegant, poshly outfitted Prairie Warbler, Eastern Bluebirds (classiest bird around), Kingbirds (Bird with the Best Scientific Name Ever award: Tyrannus tyrranus), Eastern Phoebes (they get the Drabbest bird of the Day award!), countless Eastern Meadowlarks (I could have watched them all day, with the burning yellow patch on their tummy), Baltimore Orioles, Indigo Buntings (Most Stunning Color award!), Bobolinks (Best Hair Dye Award of the day!), Barn Swallows, Tree Swallows, and, possibly the piece de resistance, the American Bittern, who sat there posing for us — a little coquettishly, I might add — in the plain for over half an hour!

The day also included a fair bit of birdy banter. I also learned (from Ric and Anne of Rondeau Park) that there are three types of bird sightings: the seen (which is what I practice), the heard (what I wish I could do) and the heard about (haha). There’s also the “Just flew” bird — a very common one for me! And the “should have been here tomorrow” birders (I’m not one of those; I’m quite satisfied with the “Today” birds — usually an overwhelming spectacle anyhow). It isn’t easy to relate birdy banter — so much of it is so hilarious in the field and fails to translate well the next day. Oh well…

There were more sightings, including a corpulent beaver, but I ran out of steam after lunch. It was a long day, the heat was scorching (Birds and Words is a Nordic girl at heart; I tend to wilt in the blazing sunshine, even from under my Tilley Hat) and I fell asleep in the breezy car while other — more industrious birders — stood diligently at the marshes waiting patiently for Virginia Rails, Sora and other illustrious avian creatures to poke their heads out of the reeds and grass. Meanwhile, I reclined peacefully in the backseat, dreaming of Strawberry Rhubarb pie…

Jewish Warblers!

On Saturday, I went out birding with the good people at the TOC (that’s Toronto Ornithological Club, by the way), since my own peeps were out doing a fabulously ambitious birdathon at Rondeau, Pelee, St. Clair Marsh etc, and I couldn’t commit to such an ambitious outing because I was expecting a house guest and bathrooms had to be cleaned, floors swept, dust removed, etc. Nevertheless, I experienced my first TOC bird outing, led by the knowledgeable and good humored Jim and Petra Grass, and it was a lovely morning (which, alas, I had to cut short due to aforementioned domestic duties, which ended up being entirely worth it because I had a fabulous time with my dear friend who came all the way from my former digs in mid-Missouri).

And off we went, all 30 of us, to find Whimbrels (we were early; whimbrels are due to arrive a day or two from now, sigh), warblers, the King Eider, and other goodies at Kipling Spit. We immediately saw a Wilson’s Warbler (Cardellina pusilla), immediately recognizable by the black patch on his head, which one of the more experienced birders referred to as his yarmulke!

Photo from Wikipedia

Yes, I’ve finally met a Jewish warbler! We locked eyes, discussed our faith briefly, and off he went, fluttering from branch to branch. (In Yiddish, a Wilson’s Warbler is a Wilsonztrilerl, according to Hirsh Perloff, the Yiddish Bird Expert Lexicographer.)

I saw my first Magnolia warbler and Blackburnian warbler of the season and the latter took my breath away with his bright orange neck and its orange-yellow streaks around the eyes. The Magnolia was as elegant as ever, with a majestic greyish blue head covering. Canada warblers, warbling vireos, red eyed vireos, Swainson’s thrush (note the stunning polka dot design on its breast!), and there were more warbling wonders, but after a while my neck ached and I knew the morning was coming to a rapid end for me.

We saw a first year male King Eider and he adopted a rather seductive and somewhat fetching pose for us, almost like he was waiting to have his photo snapped. And there was a Black Capped Night Heron camouflaged among the rocks, a gigantic turtle flirting with a Cormorant, Red necked grebes, and a fabulous Horned Grebe who looked like he’d just gotten a platinum streak in his hairdo.

A delightful morning. Needless to say, things ended brilliantly with a coffee and a muffin in the shape of a cookie from Birds and Beans.


Here at Birds and Words we love birds, books, coffee, elegant sentences, red clogs, Tilley Hats, Carl Zeiss, puffins in Iceland, Rothko paintings, Bach preludes and fugues, among many other things. But if I had to narrow things down to one all encompassing favorite thing ever, it would be mail. Nothing pleases us here at Birds and Words more than letters and packages (and we respond to packages with thank you notes, promptly; it’s one of our talents, though the need for such talents is a little retro, I’m afraid).

Yesterday I came home to find a fabulous package awaiting me, and the package contained my second favorite thing on earth: note cards!

Notecards of Owls by artists from Cape Dorset, otherwise known as the capital of Inuit art! Here is my favorite image, Owls in Moonlight, by Ningeokuluk Teevee, an artist I look forward to getting to know better. I love the three owls in one — almost like Russian nesting dolls — and how each bird has a distinct personality, conveyed mainly through its eyes, coloring, and peculiar nocturnal glow. At the same time, there’s an something mysterious, almost sinister, wafting through the painting. And if you’ve ever seen an owl — that fierce, stealthy, silent flier — that’s exactly how the experience feels: otherworldly, miraculous and a touch forbidding.

A lovely unexpected surprise.

On a somewhat unrelated note, if you happen to live in Toronto, don’t miss the Picasso exhibit at the AGO. The exhibit covers the progression of his art over seven decades. What struck me this time was the raw energy in Picasso’s work. The fearless enthusiasm for seeing the world from new perspectives, new dimensions, new angles. The elemental, pulsating, yet childlike creative energy. The exhibit surprised me at every turn. Here’s a taste:

Wounded Bird and Cat, 1939

In which I too solve a mystery!

Birdiest of Readers! Ever since reading about the literary mysteries solved by one of my favorite bloggers, Pickle Me This, I’ve wanted to solve one too! And then suddenly, it happened.

Remember I once posted a photo by my birder-photographer friend Benito? Well, it turns out he lost an Ipod this weekend at Rondeau (where I too would have been had the Automotive Gods not conspired against me in the cruelest of ways possible) and a certain Steve found it, posted a comment on my blog (in which he addressed me as Benito, but such errors are bound to happen, and I must admit I was a tiny bit flattered; would that I had B’s photography and bird identification skills!) with his coordinates. I quickly forwarded said message to B, and guess what? Thanks to Birds and Words, the internet, Steve’s googling know-how, B and his Ipod will soon be reunited!

Here’s to retrieved Ipods (great tools for learning birdsongs etc), migratory birds, and solving avian mysteries.

I love Birds!

Worldly Birders, it’s true! I love birds! Even hawks and sparrows! And every single warbler I can’t ID correctly — in spite of all that, I’m overflowing with affection for avian creatures. It may well be the effects of May, and it could be that I now recognize more than 5 birds, and it might well be the effects of good old Zeiss (one can never underestimate the power of superior optics). In any event, bear with me as I gush!

Before the gushing, I should add that Birds and Words didn’t make it out to Long Point and Rondeau this weekend as planned. Instead, I had the unfortunate experience of being rear-ended by an intoxicated driver, which promptly turned into a gargantuan insurance saga, and all of this excitement was immediately followed by a speeding violation by yours truly and an unsavory interaction with a cop who was neither moved by tears nor sobs. So by the time Saturday morning rolled around, I was in no state to set the alarm for 4:30 am.

And then something strange happened. My husband, my dear husband who likes nothing more than sleeping until noon (and later) on Saturdays, knowing how upset I was to miss a day of Prime Birding, offered to take me birding somewhere in Toronto, and suggested Leslie Spit (Tommy Thompson Park). And guess what? There was a Spring bird festival! It turns out it was International Bird Migration Day! And all of this was written up in Toronto Star. And I met one of the owners of Birds and Beans coffee shop, and that’s when I finally knew that I was at the right place at the right time.

This was my first time doing solo birding, so I saw about 1% of what was actually out there, but my husband was impressed. I pointed out the obvious yet thrilling suspects first. The Red Winged Blackbird, the Tree Swallows, the Robins, the Sparrows (sorry, I couldn’t narrow it down, there was a nifty white stripe by the eye, but that’s about as far as we got), the Common Terns (yippee!!). OK — it was impossible not to recognize the common terns — Tommy Thompson Park had set up a breeding platform for them and there were about 100 terns, but I knew they were Common terns even before the sweet Park volunteer told me so and even before I read the 62 signs all over the place that said COMMON TERNS BREED HERE.

And then, I saw a Baltimore Oriole! I think it was even more fun to watch my husband discover the Baltimore Oriole (through my Zeiss, no less — he’s spoiled for life) than to see it myself. He thought I was joking when I called the bird’s coloring electric orange. We found the banding station and watched a kind and generous expert band a Veery, a Warbling Vireo, a Black and White Warbler, and, the piece de resistance, a Rose Breasted Grosbeak.

Photo from Wikipedia

The Rose breasted Grosbeak wailed at the top of his lungs and proceeded to chomp on the bander’s thumb a few times. I’d been wanting to see this particular bird up close ever since reading Rick Wright’s wonderful account of how the Rose Breasted Grosbeak sparked his love of birds! The bird certainly had personality and flair and a strong penchant for independent thought and reasoning. I could see myself getting on splendidly with the Rose Breasted Grosbeak!

We left the banding station energized and then I proceeded to find nothing but Yellow Warblers for the next half-hour. At this point my husband began to doubt my great birding abilities and suggested that I do some more reading and studying before our next outing together. And then, before I had any time to express great outrage at his last statement, we happened upon this:

Double crested Cormorant nests. Photo from here.

A strange and foreboding sight. Hundreds of double crested cormorant nests. Vociferous cormorants. Everywhere. After a while, I had to looks away — it was almost unsightly. Positively Hitchcockian (though I’ve neither read nor seen “The Birds”; forgive me, I don’t do horror).

Full disclosure: someone helped me ID the cormorants. But I’m still learning, right?

In any event, an unexpectedly perfect birding day and my first Tilley Hat-wearing day of the season. (Trust me, I was not the only one out there sporting a Tilley!) And, the best news of all: my husband wants to plan a trip to Pelee next year!

May! May! May!

Oh Birders, need I say more? Spring migration is in full swing, I’m already afflicted by warbler neck, but what’s an extra trip to the chiropractor when I can savor a closeup of an American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) singing at the top of his lungs? It was a glorious morning.

Photo from Wikipedia

The day began rather ominously for me at Kipling Spit. Every great bird I thought I saw turned out to be either a tree leaf, a pine cone or a Robin. I was a bit worried when our fearless leader pointed out a Black and White Warbler and all I saw were the little bugs flying overhead (mind you this time, thanks to Zeiss, I managed to catch the intricate formation of the swarm of bugs; fascinating, but I’m not much of an insect-watcher). The binoculars did a great job of focusing on pretty much everything other than the warblers! A half hour in and the most exciting thing I’d managed to see was a fat raccoon diving head first into the hole of an oak tree. I didn’t check to see if it ever made it out.

And then, suddenly something clicked. I saw a Yellow Rumped Warbler. And then I saw it again. And again. And after the twentieth time, I didn’t need to wonder whether it was perhaps possibly a yellow rumped warbler. Suddenly, I knew the bird. And then the Palm Warbler, doing its wild tail wagging routine. And the Black and White Warbler creeping up a tree, pretending to be a Downy woodpecker! A few minutes later, I caught sight of a Yellow Warbler, which I recognized off the bat, from last year, and a Baltimore Oriole. Unexpectedly, I was on familiar ground. It felt like a reunion among old friends! That’s the beauty of May — though it’s the same every year (but better! because I know more birds), I’m beginning to think it’s the sameness that I relish. And the knowing.

We also paid a visit to Rattray Marsh and eavesdropped on what could only have been flirtatious banter between a male and female Common Tern (Sterna hirundo). Afterwards, a Caspian Tern (Sterna caspia) appeared on the horizon — with lunch (a delectable fish) in its bill — and I discovered that a Caspian tern is about the size of three common terns. There were also gregarious Solitary Sandpipers (an oxymoron if ever there was one), Least Sandpipers, swans, gulls, a lone Brown Duck, goslings, ducklings. And, the biggest surprise of all — a Screech Owl perched on tree, nearly entirely camouflaged and looking very much like a branch.

And this is only the beginning…

Magic, Part 2

Strange things happen in the land of Birds and Words. When I read through my user’s guide to my new state-of-the-art Zeiss binoculars, I noticed that they’re supposed to come with a Lens Cleaning Cloth. This extra tidbit really thrilled me because I love receiving little bonus gifts and I searched all over for said cleaning cloth. In fact, I ripped apart the packaging just to make sure it wasn’t lurking somewhere in the recesses of the container. Alas, no cloth.

Now, usually, I’m able to let these things go. But three days later, I was still thinking about the cleaning cloth. I began to imagine what a state-of-the-art lens cleaning cloth to accompany my wondrous binoculars would feel like. The texture would be smooth against my skin, almost tingly, it would likely be a soothing color (perhaps bright red? here at Birds and Words, we find peculiar things soothing), and it would help me identify warblers! Yes, after three days of visualizing this magical cloth, I’d decided that there was a direct correlation between possessing a Zeiss premium lens cleaning cloth and my ability to ID migrating songbirds. I needed the cloth.

So, I took matters into my own hands and called the Zeiss North American Headquarters in Virginia. I explained my plight to an understanding (if slightly baffled) customer service representative who assured me that he would do everything in his powers to send me a Premium lens cleaning cloth as soon as possible and in the event that such a package could not be sent to Canada (?) he would talk to his supervisor and they would resolve the issue. I took the opportunity to tell him that I was a novice birder and that these new binoculars and, by extension, this cleaning cloth were about to catapult me into the ranks of a not-so-novice birder. The fellow on the other end of the phone listened to my delirious ramblings patiently and told me I need not fear and I wouldn’t be disappointed with my new purchase.

And guess what? Today I came home to find a package waiting for me! Carl Zeiss’ optic legacy continues to thrive, even in the customer service department. Here’s what I received in the post (minus the cleaning fluid and the nifty case; all I got was the actual microfiber cloth, but that’s the one, with the logo and everything!):

And for some unfathomable reason the customer service rep included a brand new 2012 Hunting Optics catalog with my cleaning cloth. Who knows… Perhaps, unbeknownst to me, I’ve been aching for a riflescope all these years?