Monthly Archives: September 2012

Neither here nor there

Here at Birds and Words, we’ve gotten a year older! To mark the momentous day, I’m going to share one of my favorite paintings with you:

“A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle” by Hendrick Avercamp (National Gallery, London)

I love the mood in Avercamp‘s painting — it has that never-ending Sunday feel to it. And I also love that no matter what angle you look at the painting from, you can conjure up a different narrative. And, if you look very closely, there are three birds in the branches of the tree. Sometimes I imagine myself there, in the background, having just devoured a cardamom bun (did they eat those in 17th century Holland or is that just a Swedish delicacy?), binoculars in hand, staring straight up at the tree — and who knows, I might just have been able to ID those birds…

A Nuthatch and a New Year

Yesterday, I felt like a hardcore birder for the first time ever. It was raining when I went to meet the TOC group at Lambton Woods (and raining rather hard for the first hour of our walk), and there I was, binoculars in hand, traipsing through mulch, in search of elusive warblers (of which I think I saw a couple but they flitted by too quickly and I couldn’t describe the greyish brown patches to the group, and off they went to warmer climes, no doubt). A few years ago, this would have been unimaginable for me. And yet there I was… My regular group was off to see the fall wonders of Long Point, but I couldn’t manage a whole day of birding, so had to content myself with a more local outing.

I’m happy to report that the magic birding pants I purchased at REI in San Francisco are indeed magic: rain water rolls off them inconspicuously and I was left dry. The saleswoman at REI assured me that the pants wouldn’t disappoint; she herself had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in them. And apparently, they’re great for cocktail hour too, she said (I admit, she was rather appalled that I was buying pants for bird watching rather than climbing boulders). My gortex hiking boots (purchased four years at at EMI headquarters in Peterborough, NH) held up beautifully, and my rain jacket performed exactly as the label claimed: H2NO. (I’m a true sucker for gimmicks.)

The aforementioned paragraph has absolutely nothing to do with birds, but I was so pleased to be comfortable in such averse weather conditions that I thought it necessary to share my vestimentary success.

Anyhow, we saw two tremendously bizarre Mallard-Black duck hybrids floating around: larger than life Mallards with big white spots on their necks. Plenty of Cormorants, Herring gulls, a Great blue Heron flying overhead, dozens of chickadees, flocks of Blue Jays (which I’m embarrassed to say I still find stunning), a juvenile Black Crowned Night Heron, a Downy woodpecker up close, a Red eyed Vireo, and wonderful White-Breasted Nuthatch, which I’d seen before but had never stopped to listen to.

White Breasted Nuthatch. The one I saw was neither upside down nor holding onto a snow-covered branch, but you get the idea. I haven’t taken up photography yet! Photo from here.

Their nasal staccato call had a certain maniacal restlessness to it. I bet they were just hungry. In Lambton woods, people feed the birds regularly and the birds have grown so tame legend has it that even Downy woodpeckers can eat out of your hand, though honestly, the last thing I want is a Downy pecking away at my little fingers! (I wouldn’t want anything to get in the way of me and the new Brahms Intermezzo I’m learning — op.117, #3 for those of you who are dying to know.)

In spite of the rain, it was a glorious morning. Speaking of wonderful things — last week, we celebrated the New Year, dipped apples in honey, and I contemplated things I have to be thankful for. And you know what popped into my head almost immediately? Birds! They make me happy. Even on mornings when I’m out in the rain, seeing things I’ve seen before, albeit everything looks bigger, brighter, and better through my Zeiss binoculars, I couldn’t be happier.

In the spirit of new years, I decided to put some order in my desk drawers and came across a postcard with a quote by Paul Valéry, which is a motto for my other, non-birding life: “Que faire d’un passé? Mais tu le sais bien! des phrases.” Loosely translated as: “What to make of one’s past? But you already know! Sentences.”

Happy New Year!

The end of summer

It feels official. The weather in Toronto has turned colder, we’re back from our marvelous trip to California, work has started up again, and summer suddenly feels far away. It’s hard to believe that one week ago we were here:

We spent so much time staring at the phenomenally tall Redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) in Humboldt Redwoods State Park that it felt like I’d been afflicted by Warbler neck all over again. The trees were wondrous, and we couldn’t get enough of them. We walked through the Rockefeller forest (John D. Rockefeller donated a million dollars to the park in 1927 and in return, he got the largest concentration of old growth redwoods named after him — a fair trade), did the Founders Grove trail, and a few others. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so entirely miniscule in the grand scheme of things. A good reminder, I suppose.

Here’s an upturned tree root. Did I mention how miniscule I felt? (I couldn’t even climb on top of this one, it was so unwieldy and colossal.)

We drove along the Avenue of the Giants, where natural beauty (and sheer magnitude) completely dwarfed us. After a quick shopping break in Eureka, we drove north to the tiny coastal community of Trinidad, where I ate the best smoked fish ever, and walked along the most stunning beach I’ve ever seen. The fog wove in and out of the trees and boulders as we made our way to Trinidad State Beach.

The next day, we traveled north to Prairie Creek Redwoods state park, along the somewhat treacherous one-lane 101, where we were humbled by more redwoods, and in response to humility, proceeded to devour the most delicious picnic lunch I’ve ever had: magically sweet tomatoes, lemon-cucumbers (!!), tree-ripe pears all purchased from a farmer’s market stand somewhere near Pepperwood, California, and cheese purchased at the Loleta Cheese Factory (located in the eponymous township of Loleta, which is wholly uneventful place where we managed to encounter a bearded driver who had a predilection for driving on the wrong side of the road, but oh the cheese! the cheese!). We paid our dues to dear Fern Canyon (home of Steve Spielberg’s Jurassic Park) — an enormous canyon with 60ft walls covered in ferns on either side of you. Yet another “oh-my-god-this-is-so-beautiful-who-do-I-find-the-words-to-blog-about-it” moment.

In retrospect, I think I may have finally understood the meaning of sublime.

And sandwiched in between all of that is, of course, the piece de resistance — our birding adventure at the Arcata Marsh! I booked a tour with the fabulous Rob Fowler, who guided us through the wonders that constitute the marsh, patiently answered our questions, and regaled us with incredible close-ups (a scope! a scope!) of a Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) — a life bird for me!! — and an Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte Anna), which patiently posed (and sang a rather loud cacophonous tune) for us while we marveled. There were other sightings, including a bunch of ducks in fall plumage (not my favorite — they all look female and I can’t tell any of them apart!), and other fine specimens. I hope to revisit the Arcata marsh one day…

From there, we left mother nature behind and traveled onwards to San Francisco. (Mother nature did manage to get back at us for abandoning her by submerging us in impenetrable fog and stranding us at the Arcata airport for 4.5 hours.) I think I had forgotten just how wondrous San Francisco is, and we walked the city until our feet hurt. Craving a quintessentially Californian book, I bought Joan Didion’s Where I was from (as always, based on the sage reading advice of Pickle Me This; for those of you who don’t yet know, Kerry Clare only ever gives good advice) and it didn’t disappoint. I could have gone with John Muir, I suppose, but I was looking for something a little more nostalgic in its prose, something to match my mood at the time. You see, I once lived in California, and so in some ways, this trip was a geographical homecoming of sorts, but also a realization that I’m thankfully no longer the person I was in 2004, and it was, in a sense, a trip all about the marvel of what passing time can do.

All in all, a perfect end to a summer which was very fine indeed, extreme heat notwithstanding.