Monthly Archives: August 2012

Sandpipers and other revelations

Pre-autumn Birders! We’re getting into shorebird season, which means I’m once again confused and flummoxed by most of what I see. I’ve learned to ID a Killdeer (what progress I’ve made! Two years ago, I couldn’t remember if the bird was called Killdeer or Deerkill) with its distinctive double neck-rings, but as for the rest — I just stare in wondrous admiration. It’s a difficult season — shorebird season — but then again, every bird season (except for the first Robins and Red winged blackirds) is an uphill battle.

Speaking of uphill battles, I went out on my own last weekend, partly to test my own progress, and also because we were dangerously low on Birds and Beans Brazilian coffee (chocolaty finish, bird friendly, shade-grown, lovingly assembled, freshly roasted — does life get any better?) and so I headed off to East Humber Bay, binoculars in one hand, Sibley in the other and notebook in my backpack (The Ardent Birder recommends taking notes when in the field!). And, dear faithful readers, the results were dismal. I successfully managed to ID four species with utmost certainty: Cardinal (both male and female, which felt like a coup nonetheless because initially, I mistook the female for an exotic species), Great Blue Heron, Goldfinch, Green Heron (even here, I cheat a little; I found the Green heron on account account of an almost-friendship I struck up with a photographer). I suppose I also saw a million swallows, Canada geese, Mallards (and a bunch of other folk who looked like mallards).

Photo of the inimitable Female Northern Cardinal by Maia Bird from here. One of the few female birds who rivals the male in beauty.

Initially, I came home crushed. I’ve been birding — albeit not at all seriously — since spring 2010, and all I can recognize are four species? But then I thought about it  and realized that even if it’s just four species, it’s still four more than I ever knew existed two years ago, and four awesome birds that made my morning. And maybe that’s what I love most about birding — no matter what, there’s always a positive spin on the situation. Going out birding has challenged me to refine my goal-oriented thinking patterns; I’m becoming less consumed by achieving results than taking the time to enjoy the incremental progress. And that brought me to my less-than-eloquent revelation of the morning: Birding Rocks.

Yesterday, I met up with my bird group, and we headed straight for Pickering to find the Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Tryngites subruficollis) and there he was, amidst Killdeer, ducks, and other shorebirds, running from the humid sun. It’s not a common bird in these parts, and I was thrilled to watch it roam around briskly, displaying its all-round buffness and elegant black spotted plumage on its back and head.

Photo from here.

Yesterday’s sightings also included my favorite Great Horned Owl at Thickson’s Woods, along with sightings of a female Black and white Warbler, a Wilson’s Warbler (yarmulke and all), loads of chickadees (which meant that there were also loads of warblers in the midst, but they were nearly impossible to see amidst all the foliage), an army of Great Blue Herons, and a bonanza of shorebirds, most of which were so far away that even with a scope, I had a hard time distinguishing them. The caspian terns (which I managed to ID) seemed absolutely thrilled to see me, and the feeling was mutual. The day also include a curious scope rescue mission after a birder accidentally left his scope behind upon spotting the Buff-breasted sandpiper (and after we compared notes on the magical Phalarope of two weeks ago and other sundry matters) . I’ll admit, there was something minorly thrilling about driving around with an illustrious birder’s scope in my trunk. I suppose I ought to have taken a picture…

My First Phalarope!

Curious Birders! I have seen my first Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus)! It’s an unusual, rather spastic little shorebird bird that can’t seem to decide which way to turn its head and which direction to swim in and keeps alternating — almost like it’s doing a little gig; the bird is a somewhat rare event in the Toronto area. My monumental phalarope sighting occurred at the sewage lagoon in Port Perry, after purchasing the antepenultimate sewage lagoon permit (for a not-so-modest fee of $10, considering they require one permit per birder) from a moderately good-humored fellow who, in a desperate and failed attempt at conversation, proudly asserted that he had just seen a crow. We decided to save communication with the permit-seller for another day and headed straight for the lagoon.

Here’s the phalarope in non-breeding plumage, looking pretty much like the one I saw today. Photo from here.

The Phalarope is remarkable in many ways. The bird happens to practice reverse sexual dimorphism, which basically means that the females are both larger and more brightly colored than the males — an extraordinarily rare feat, since most female birds seem to be doomed to eternal drabness. In addition, female phalaropes are also sequentially polyandrous, which entails mating with a male, laying eggs, leaving said male behind to incubate the eggs and then, unabashedly, running off with another (bigger, brighter, better, richer) male! Over and over again! How entirely progressive!

Sexual history of the phalarope aside, today was remarkable for other, perhaps slightly more mundane reasons, as well. It was the first day of Fall birding! I hadn’t used my binoculars in over two months, and I really missed them. It rained the entire drive out to Port Perry (located in the mellifluous township of Scugog), and by rain, I mean the kind of dismal downpour that pretty much left me with no visibility whatsoever. I was starting to panic because I had forgotten my rain jacket at home (first day of birding — I left everything behind, including my field guide), but once we drove north of Whitby, the skies opened and the weather warmed up, such that I had to don my Tilley hat. It felt miraculous, once we arrived — permit in hand — at the lagoon. Canada Geese initially barricaded the path, but once they saw our scope, they gallantly stepped aside and let us pass. We saw Yellow legs (greater and lesser), Killdeer, Spotted Sandpipers fluttering above the water, a gazillion Bonaparte gulls (they were molting! stellar works-in-progress!), Cedar Waxwing, Black Terns (which were juveniles, so totally not black, argh!!!), a Kingbird, a Common Yellow-throat, a few Osprey and a Merlin chasing and attacking (from above) a Red-Tail Hawk!

As soon as we were done with the sewage lagoon (and a delicious bacon & egg breakfast) and got back on the highway, the rain started up again. Just as dismal. Visibility back down to zero. The morning magically enveloped in a dreamy fog. It’s good to be out birding again.

Another Mystery

Learned Birders! While on my fabulous Scandinavian adventures, I encountered some waterfowl I hadn’t seen before. Can anybody ID this fabulously regal looking duck goose?

If you’d like to see different angles of this bird, or are curious about her ducklings goslings, let me know and I’ll post more photos of said wonder. If I were a more talented photographer, we’d be able to play this guessing game much more often. Alas, birds are too quick for me and my unprofessional camera. By the time I zoom in, the bird in question has long grown tired of posing and I’m left with a photo of a couple leaves or a pine cone. Anyhow, this duck Barnacle Goose (thank you Rick!) cooperated, and I have about a dozen pictures of her (him?). Photo taken in Stockholm, not far from the Museum of Modern art, where I was thrilled to see a replica of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third Communist International and slightly mystified by a curious installation that seemed to consist of a giant fishbowl full of mud that gurgled. Afterwards, we had a picnic which consisted of exquisite cardamom buns next to what looked like a theatre, I forgot about the mud-art, and life felt complete.

In other, slightly more birdful news, I also saw dozens of Magpies in Norway and Sweden! I wonder if they were the same ones I befriended in Banff last October. And I also managed to ID a Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba), of which we saw about a million, but which my camera was too slow to capture. I’ll spare you the closeups of gravel, blue sky, leaves, grass and wood. Here’s the real thing:

Photo by Mike Read, from here.

I’d love to tell you that I managed to ID this wondrous creature on my own, using nothing but my ingenuity and superior birding prowess, but I won’t lie to you, faithful readers. It turns out that the Pied Wagtail is one of Sweden’s most common birds and it appeared, in the form of a wooden replica, complete with English (!) name and Latin binomial, in every single tourist shop we visited. I think I vote Sweden not the world’s most birder-friendly country ever. By the way, the Swedes call the bird an Engelsk sädesärla.