Monthly Archives: November 2012

Birds and Birthdays!

Birthday-loving Birders! I’ve already mentioned that birthdays around here are getting birdier by the year. This time around, I received a stunning Hen Scarf (which I’d recommend for your nearest and dearest, but it sold out in a matter of weeks, alas), a bird necklace, a bird vase (yes! it’s great!), a bird calendar, and, of course, bird stationary. A few weekends ago, we celebrated my husband’s birthday, and I made sure that the wine selection boasted a bird on every bottle. I hope the Pelee Island Winery appreciates our business! They sure do make fine-looking wines (and if I were more of a connoisseur, it’s quite possible that I wouldn’t pick bottles based on the aesthetic appeal of their labels, but these days when I see a bird on a bottle I’m sold!) My husband didn’t protest my wine-purchasing strategy, but the saleswoman found my criteria more than a little perplexing. I found this label particularly fetching, and the wine didn’t disappoint either!  How can one go wrong with Indigo Buntings?

23_Shiraz Cabernet 2009But wine and Indigo Buntings aside, the piece-de-resistance birdy Birthday gift of the season was a stained glass Owl, handmade and designed by my nearly-93-year-old grandmother! Have a look at her masterpiece, made on the occasion of my birthday. Thank you, Babushka! I only hope that I have a fraction of your energy, creativity and love of life when I reach my 90s!


Not sure of the Latin binomial for this particular owl-species, but I welcome suggestions!

Magical Juncos

The first time I saw a Junco (Junco hyemalis), back in spring of 2010, the bird just seemed entirely, unremarkably grey and drab. And then, a few months ago, I encountered the Junco in Don McKay‘s poem, and since then the bird has acquired a whole new dimension:


Where “shades of grey” acquires
esprit: slaty, dark-eyed,
sooty, dapper, hooded —
quick bits of dusk stitching fir
to birch to rock the boreal
All winter
they animate the understory, inscribing
runic ciphers in the snow
and discrete diacritical chips
along their flight paths.
One oriole,
it is said, can shift the heart
into its own outcry.
But it’s the juncos,
in their undertaker outfits,
who slip unnoticed into melancholy
smuggling minims of lift.

Bless them. They exit
with a wink, tail
snapping open like a card hand to reveal
white feathers at each edge:
Come spring
they’ll find the tallest spines of spruce
and trill the sun from one
saw-toothed horizon to the other.

from Don McKay’s Paradoxides (2012)

Not only is birding teaching me how to see more clearly, but it’s also helping me become a better reader of poetry. What a gift that I can now visualize the exact bird McKay has in mind and though I hadn’t attributed any particular “esprit” to a Junco before, the greyish coloring now appears in a new, slightly magical light.

Photo from here.

Prosody-loving birders! Are you reading Don McKay? If not, you’re seriously missing out, and I envy the thrill you’ll experience reading his books of poetry for the first time.

In other news, my 2013 Sibley Bird Calendar has arrived and I’m thrilled to report that my Birthday Bird (September, folks) is a Wild Turkey. OK, in an ideal world, Mr. David Sibley, September would be graced with a Scarlet Tanager or an Indigo Bunting, but I’ll take the Turkey over a Canada Goose (sad, sad 2011 occurrence) any day! And while we’re on the topic of your calendar, Mr. Sibley, I think I liked it better when the birds themselves occupied more space and there was less white space on the page, but these are minor details. The package that delivered your calendar to my door, Mr. David Sibley, was the highlight of my day.

Hooded Mergansers

Oh birders, gone are the days when I found ducks particularly tiresome, noisy specimens that all looked the same! How ignorant it appears I was, just a few weeks ago! Yes, intuitive birders, you guessed it. I saw my first Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) yesterday morning at Humber Bay Park. (I went birding with the delightful people at CCFEW on a walk led by the remarkable Glenn Coady). The morning started out with the obligatory owl search (alas, nothing), and then we happened upon this otherworldly sight:

Photo from here.

And I was smitten. I already knew I had a slight crush on the Red Breasted Merganser (mainly for its hairdo in the spring), but had no idea what was in store for me when I locked eyes with the Hooded Merganser. It was as if I had discovered a new species! A fashion statement of a duck! And it was a duck-y morning for us, with good looks at Redheads (Aythya americana), Long Tailed Ducks, Buffleheads (another longstanding favorite), scores of Gadwalls, Greater and Lesser Scaup (would that I could distinguish them!), the obligatory million Mallards, and many others including one with a wonderfully erect tail, whose name I promise you I’ll remember soon. (Thanks to Rick Wright, I now know it was a Ruddy Duck!)

The day was particularly extravagant because it began and ended at my favorite coffee shop, Birds and Beans (first with a fabulous cup of coffee and an obligatory breakfast muffin in the shape of a cookie, and then with a green tea). It turns out the path from Humber Bay East now extends all the way to the coffee shop! What a feat of urban planning and engineering!

But perhaps the best news of all is that my birding wardrobe is finally complete: I splurged and bought myself a pair of thin merino wool long underwear and they’ve changed my life! There I was, flirting with the Hooded Merganser in my REI weather-resistant, stretchy pants (in which the saleswoman claimed to have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro!), my Icelandic wool sweater (purchased at the factory in Vik, a small village famed for the Elves who inhabit the vicinity — they probably knit my sweater!), my Zeiss binoculars, my windproof jacket, Goretex hiking boots, Smartwool socks, a hand-woven wool hat with a pointy tip that makes me look a little like an elf, and now, extraordinarily thin yet warm long underwear. I swear, the Hooded Merganser appreciated my outfit.

Oh, and I also saw a Red breasted Nuthatch, a charm of Goldfinches, a pair House Finches, Golden Crowned Kinglets, a hyperactive Downy, chickadees, and a whole team of mute swans, and a lone Cormorant. By the way, I learned that the gulp of Cormorants on Leslie Spit numbers at least 17,000 pairs! That’s neither here nor there, but I just looked up the collective noun and couldn’t resist.

And now, a trivia question for you, courtesy Glenn Coady: What is the fastest flying (in level flight) bird in Canada? The winner will be profiled on Birds and Words!

All in all, a fantastic morning, Hooded Merganser, long underwear, coffee and all.

The Moment You’ve All Been Waiting For

In my non-birding life, beloved birders, I’m also a writer and I guess it’s about time I give you glimpse into that other parallel universe of mine. There’s a game of virtual tag going on among writers called The Next Big Thing, where writers are invited to answer 10 questions about their work-in-progress, and then pass the baton over to five (or in my case four) other writers. And on it goes.

Many thanks to the awesome writer and martial artist Laure Baudot for tagging me.

1.     What is the working title of your book?

Migrating Home

2.     Where did the idea come from for the book?

I lived and worked in Mid-Missouri for a few years and couldn’t quite get my head around the place. Everything about it eluded my understanding and I never felt at home there. I started writing about what it felt like to be displaced, misplaced, out of place, removed from a place, and slowly the material developed girth and I began to sense it was robust enough to craft into a story.

3.     What genre does your book fall under?

It’s creative nonfiction, with a great deal of emphasis on creative. It’s part memoir, part travelogue, part Bildungsroman. Definitely a hybrid of sorts. Some days it’s a memoir with a whole lot of fiction thrown in, and other days it’s fiction with a strong component of memoir. I’m still working on pinning down the genre.

4.     Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh fun! I would want Sarah Polley to direct the movie. Since the book is structured as a series of vignettes, I would need a great ensemble cast. Perhaps Michelle Williams could play the protagonist. I’d love to have Bob Costas play himself. Perhaps Jeremy Irons would grace the screen with a cameo as an older professor with a predilection for competitive ping pong.  Hopefully, Ewan McGregor would agree to play the protagonist’s eventual husband (though he would need to undergo an intense weight training regimen). Judy Davis and Colin Firth would play the protagonist’s parents and Helen Miren would shine as the grandmother. Sarah Silverman would get the role of her life as a midwestern Gym recruiter. Oh my goodness — I can’t wait to see the movie!!

5.     What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Migrating Home follows the trials and tribulations of a displaced 30-something year old Russian literature professor who tries (unsuccessfully) to make a home for herself and find love in mid-Missouri. It’s also about family, food, Russian emigre identity, and an unintentional crush on Bob Costas. (oops, that’s 2 sentences!)

6.     Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

This is still a work in progress. I’m just trying to write the best book I can write, and I’ll start to worry about the agent/publication issues when the time is right.

7.     How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Longer than I’d like to admit. (I was actually going to skip this question!) The manuscript keeps changing and growing and shrinking and veering off in a new direction and circling back again and I guess that’s just my writing process. It’s the story of a particularly challenging moment in time, and I’m still working on articulating its strangeness in ways that are both honest (in terms of its pain) and compelling to a reader looking for a satisfying story.

8.     What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

There’s a fabulous tradition of Russian emigre writers, writing out of the US and Canada — David Bezmozgis, Lara Vapnyar, Sana Krasikov, Irina Reyn, Gary Shteyngart, to name a few — and parts of my book have strong ties to that tradition. Isabel Huggan’s Belonging andJonathan Franzen’s Discomfort Zone both interrogate the notion of home and have broadened my own understanding of what it means (or doesn’t) to be at home.

9.     Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The extraordinary Maureen Stanton was the first person to read excerpts, when we both lived and worked in Missouri, and she encouraged me to push the material further. She was the first to see that I had a story worth telling. I write a great deal about my family, and they continue to inspire me in their strangeness, their tenacity, their fearlessness, their success in making a home for themselves in a new country, and their captivating identity, which I’m constantly striving to understand.

10.   What else about your book might pique your reader’s interest?

You can read excerpts in the upcoming winter issue of the Threepenny Review and in the next issue of PRISM International. And yes, the book does feature some migratory birds! The book is both funny and sad, with a healthy dose of the absurd — kind of like life!

And now, find out what these awesome writers are working on…

Robin Spano

Aga Maksimowska

Sandra Jensen

Mark Sampson

Message for tagged authors: Rules of the Next Big Thing

***Use this format for your post

***Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)

***Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.
Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

What is the working title of your book?

Where the idea come from for the book?

What genre does your book fall under?

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged.

Be sure to line up five people in advance.

My First Barred Owl!

Sorry for the misleading title. It should read My First TWO Barred Owls, followed by multiple exclamation marks and excitable squeals. Yes, it was that kind of birding day, which more than made up for the disaster I faced last weekend, wherein I saw very little apart from 20 freezing, overly vociferous Canada Geese. In fact, yesterday was the rare birding day where we managed to see every single one of our target birds.

We spent the bulk of our morning in Thickson’s Woods (and Thickson’s Point), about 40 minutes east of Toronto, in Whitby, where we met Mr. Van der Zweep, a generous and knowledgeable birder from Cornwall (ON), who immediately pointed up at the tree he was standing under, and there it was in all its glory: a BARRED OWL (Strix varia)!

This photo was taken by my birding friend’s office mate who lives in Coburg, Ontario and saw a Barred Owl in his backyard! The one I was yesterday looked quite similar, but we failed to make eye contact, alas. Yesterday’s owl was mostly asleep, and when he did stop to open his eyes, I happened to be elsewhere.

Anyhow, he was majestic and regaled us with a wonderful head-twisting routine. I got a few great looks at his stripey plumage, and decided that I’d like a winter jacket to match his color scheme. I think it could be quite elegant. Speaking of stripes, we also got great looks at about five Fox Sparrows (Passerella iliaca). This wasn’t my first Fox Sparrow sighting, but it was the first time I took the time to admire one and found myself quite taken with its rusty colored streaking on its breast, and its long, somewhat flirtatiously wagging reddish tail.

Photo by Laura Erikson, from here.

(Shortly after the phenomenal Fox Sparrow sighting, I accidentally mistook a wooden owl for a real one — a particularly low point in the morning that I don’t feel the need to dwell on. Sadly, before I realized the owl was made of wood, I announced my sighting to all 15 people around me. This moment of birding glory was also followed by three other rare bird sightings, which turned out to be autumn leaves fluttering to the ground.)

And I saw my first White-Winged Crossbill (Loxia leucoptera) with its ingeniously curved bill that functions like a hook to extract goodies from coniferous tree cones. And there were Juncos, and a Red-Breasted Nuthatch (my first!), ANOTHER Barred Owl, white-breasted Nuthatch, a gazillion rabid Chickadees (including one who nearly mistook my glasses for a branch), Yellow-Rumped Warblers (STILL!), Pine Siskins, Golden Crowned Kinglets, Harrier Hawks, five Brant (Branta bernicla), and many other avian wonders. I felt badly that I couldn’t muster up the excitement that these five Brant deserved, because by that point in the morning I had been over-stimulated by the Owls and Sparrows. A bit sad how these things happen, but there will be more Brant!

Not only was this the birdiest morning I’ve had all month, but it also happened to be the first time that blue skies graced Toronto in over 8 days! I soaked in all the late-autumn sunshine I could get, and came home happy and ready to attack all my household chores. The chores ended up morphing into a long, long afternoon nap, but I did manage to make a delicious Borscht!

In other, slightly more bookish news, it’s literary awards season in Canada, and if you haven’t read Carrie Snyder‘s moving and tremendously well written, Governor General Award-nominated novel-in-stories, The Juliet Stories, you really ought to! I envy any reader who’s reading the luminous book for the first time.