Monthly Archives: October 2012

Sparrows and Sharpies

Delightful birders! I went out with some new birding friends last Sunday, because my usual Saturday outing was interrupted by a piano lesson. I’ve been struggling through Chopin’s Valse Brillante #2 for a few weeks now, and things weren’t sounding any better, and I noticed that I was still stuck somewhere on page 4, so I decided to turn to the masters and went to visit my parents for a much-needed piano lesson. (I’m the offspring of pianists; really, there was little excuse for the sorry state of my Chopin-playing, but such is life.) Sure enough, they quickly diagnosed my “issues”, and helped me make the piece sound like music again!

Anyhow, Chopin-waltzing aside, I did manage to make it out birding last Sunday at the Leslie Spit. We went looking for Short Eared Owls (Asio flammeus), and after four hours of intense searching (including two longish walks through thick overgrown terrain), I decided to call it a day. Needless to say, the Short Eared Owl appeared about ten minutes after my departure. Here is the bird I did not manage to see (photo courtesy the awesome writer/birder Ed O’Connor):

Here is the famed owl, clearly looking for me, and more than a little shocked that I missed him by a mere ten minutes. Ah well, not every day is an owl day!

Dismal owl performance aside, the day still managed to bring wonderful surprises. I looked closely at lovely immature White Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) sporting his fine fall plumage, which, incidentally, looks absolutely nothing like his Spring plumage, which would have made it impossible to ID the bird on my own, but thankfully I was in the company of two genius birders, so I was spared that problem… Remember when I said that I could never get into Sparrows? Well, I think I’m finally ready to retract that statement in its entirety. This particular White Crowned Sparrow displayed glorious copper coloring on its head and had an elegance about him that I found quite fetching. Then again, it could have been the superpowers of my Zeiss binoculars. In any event, I’m ready to take Sparrows more seriously now. I think there’s a distinct possibility we could get along splendidly.

Not only was I overly hasty in dismissing sparrows, but it appears I also lumped hawks into the same category of “they-all-look-identical-and-could-never-hold-my-interest” birds. When we saw four Sharp-Shinned Hawks (Accipiter striatus) flying low overhead and I got a glimpse of their fabulously striated plumage, I admit I was entranced. Maybe I was taken with their nickname — Sharpies! — which immediately calls to mind my favorite multicolored markers. Or maybe Zeiss is responsible, yet again. Regardless, I can’t wait to see more!

And we saw Yellow-rumped Warblers galore (still!), a Kingfisher, a Pine Siskin, a greenishly clad Phoebe, an Egret, a Great Blue Heron, and loads of ducks swimming peacefully in a pond until a Peregrine falcon swooped down and terrified the bunch. I think he left them trembling.

This morning, I went out birding in search of Cave Swallows (Petrochelidon fulva), which were apparently seen in large numbers yesterday due the inclement weather — a prelude to Hurricane Sandy. Alas, the rain was so heavy that all we saw were about 20 Canada Geese, a lone Bluejay (the highlight of the day!), a bunch of gulls, a red tailed Hawk and a bunch of starlings. The rain was beating down horizontally, and we only managed to venture out of the car for about 25 minutes, which left me chilled to the bone. Ah well… Another character-building extreme-weather birding experience.

Me and the Tufted Titmouse

Devoted Birders! An unbelievable thing happened yesterday: I held a bird in my hand for the first time ever. It was a sweet, diminutive, remarkably complacent Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), yet I was terrified. Rick, the generous banding expert at Ruthven Nature Park, insisted I hold the Titmouse (after I adamantly refused to handle the stunning Golden Crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) for fear that the miniscule creature would attack and eat me). Rick keeps a fabulous blog with ample photographic evidence of spring and fall migrants in the Cayuga area in Southwestern Ontario (basically between Hamilton and Lake Erie).

Here we are. Photo taken by the good people at Ruthven Nature Blog. If I look slightly dazed and moderately shell-shocked, it’s because I was. In the end, the Titmouse and I got along just fine. In fact, the banded Titmouse intimated that he’d like to be held again any time that I was willing!

It turned out to be a glorious day bathed in fall colors. The birds fluttered around, weaving their way in and out of trees, and I was once again reminded of the challenge of autumn birding. I frequently mistook falling leaves for birds — they frequently float through the air just like birds. The greenish-greyish-golden-reddish-rusty color scheme of the leaves also tends to camouflage the trilling avian creatures. Basically, the only birds I could safely ID were Turkey Vultures flying overhead in large numbers.

At the banding station, I saw a Red-Bellied Woodpecker up close and found myself simultaneously mesmerized and terrified by his immensely sharp bill and long, slithery, lizard-like tongue that kept poking out while the bird shrieked with frustration. It’s a different sensation to see a bird in someone’s hand (or to hold a bird in your own hand) — a sense of precariousness, of fragility, of utter dependence, so unlike a bird’s usual soaring, fearless demeanor. I’m not sure how I feel about it all, and haven’t yet figured out the words for it, but I can tell you that holding the titmouse in my hand had a dimension of magic to it. A life enclosed, encapsulated, for the briefest of moments. OK folks, it’s official: I want to volunteer in a banding station.

With that, I’ll close and wish you all a wonderful thanksgiving. I’ll be busy tomorrow making purple potatoes (!), butternut squash soup, green beans, and apple crisp (thanks to my amazing CSA for the fresh, local and spectacular produce!).