Monthly Archives: August 2013

Empidonax! Empidonax!

Sometimes extraordinary things happen. There’s no other way to say it. What should have been the most ordinary, verging on boring, birding outing turned into a moment of magic. While we were in Oshawa, overlooking an enormous marsh (conveniently named Second Marsh, though I have no idea where or if First Marsh exists) with approximately a million Cormorants fluttering about, punctuated by a few Great Blue Herons and a lone juvenile Bald Eagle, I succumbed to a few seconds of boredom and turned my attention away from the marsh and toward a tree. And suddenly I saw a small, brownish bird with whitish wingbars and a cream-colored breast, and immediately recognized it as a Flycatcher! We had just banded a few the day before, and the bird’s coloring was fresh in my mind — the bird reminds me of JCrew catalog clothing that accentuates the understated elegance of khaki shades mediated by white or off-white tones. Back in the days when I bought “teaching clothes”, I now realize I was dressing like a Traill’s Flycatcher. (Don’t worry, my hair looked quite a bit better than this toupee-like version below.) Who knew?

Photo from here.

Photo by Kelly Azar from here.

Since the bird didn’t sing for us, we weren’t able to determine whether it was an Alder or a Willow Flycatcher (they look identical and are only distinguishable by song), so we went with the banding station nomenclature (thanks Pyle!) and called it a Traill’s. (Thankfully the flycatcher didn’t emit a sound; I haven’t yet learned the calls and definitely wouldn’t have been able to tell the alder and willow apart!) Yep. That was my unexpected moment of glory on Saturday morning! I recognized an Empidonax, which would have seemed like a random drab brownish bird just a few months ago! The regal, authoritative sounding genus “Empidonax” actually means “king of gnats”, which shatters some, but not all, of its mystique. I suppose it’s better to be a king of gnats than a servant of gnats; if I’m going to be anywhere in the gnat hierarchy, King is where I’d rather be.

Anyhow, I digress. Cormorants aside, it turned into a fabulous morning. I also correctly ID’d the song of the Caspian tern, which isn’t overly difficult because it sounds like a cross between a dog barking and a squirrel screaming. A hideous sound for such a gorgeous bird. But thankfully extremely easy to remember: nothing else sounds quite so grating and downright ugly. Thanks, Caspian Tern. I’ve just added you to my “memorized bird song” list! Woohoo!

The morning also included a dozen Wild Turkeys hanging out in the middle of a country road, completely unintimidated by our presence, a grey-blue gnatcatcher (!!), a few cardinals, crows, hungry chickadees, a least sandpiper, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, a Stilt sandpiper, which I couldn’t get excited about properly because I had to rush off to get ready for a wedding and was already starting to fret about my upcoming evening toilette (here at Birds and Words, we don’t get out that often…). And I also saw my first fall warbler: a glowing Magnolia. I’m already excited about autumn!

An unexpectedly beautiful day. My Tilley hat got a workout, and I couldn’t be more grateful for these wonderful (humidity-free!) last days of summer.

The Joys of Being a Scribe

Beloved Birders! Some of you know that I’ve been volunteering at a bird banding research station in Tommy Thompson Park here in Toronto. I was there once a week to help with spring migration monitoring, and now fall season has started. Well, I’ll be honest with you — at this point my ability to “help” with migration monitoring is a bit of an exaggeration. I haven’t yet extracted a bird from a mist net or actually banded a bird, but in addition to observing extractions and going on regular net checks (ever 1/2 hour), I’ve become an expert scriber, which, to be honest, is a role I feel quite comfortable performing. For the record, the scriber (ME!) is the one who writes down the important (essential!) data about each bird as it’s banded: weight, sex, age, wing length, bander’s initials, band number, bird name and four-letter banding code, and any other miscellaneous information. I like to think of it as the perfect role for a writer: I observe, question, record, and compile. Very similar to the work that goes on at my desk every day.

After the birds are banded, I often get to let them go. At this point, I’m quite comfortable holding a bird in bander’s grip (basically holding the bird by placing its head between your index and middle finger; miraculously enough, the bird doesn’t struggle at all in this position even though it sometimes looks like the poor creature is gripped a little fiercely). Photographer’s grip (holding the bird’s legs securely to make it look like the bird’s ready for a photo session) still remains a challenge for me, but I’m getting there! What always stuns me is that when I let the bird go, it actually FLIES! ON ITS OWN! For some reason, I still find this truly miraculous.

Here’s a photo from Friday morning — and this pretty much explains why I keep coming back, week after week, no matter how early:

Belted Kingfisher. Photo by Charlotte English.

Belted Kingfishers at Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station. Photo by Charlotte England.

Here are the two glorious Belted Kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) “we” banded on Friday morning! Note the classic punk rock hairdos they sport so effortlessly, and the metallic sheen glistening on their plumage. I marvel at the raw confidence these Kingfishers exude: there’s no question — these birds know just how hot they are. Seeing them up close, and recording their data was a highlight of my summer!

But on the subject of helping: the banding station attracts some of the most knowledgeable and generous birders I’ve ever met. They entertain my naive questions and my myriad faux-pas with a smile and welcome me back week after week. My birding and ID skills have already improved immeasurably, and I so lucky to have the opportunity to learn from these devoted birders & researchers! Who knew that scribing could be such a serious thrill?

On Gulls and Newfoundland

Well-traveled Birders! I never thought I’d say this, but I seem to have fallen in love with Gulls. The whole love affair arrived completely unannounced (as these things are wont to do). It happened last week, on the east coast of Newfoundland, about 40 km south of St. John’s, while we sat on the deck of our B&B contemplating life, the universe, and various other ponderous questions:

View of part of the Witless Bay Ecological reserve from our B&B deck in Bauline East (a vibrant community of approx. 15 households), Newfoundland.

Partial view of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve from our B&B deck in Bauline East (a vibrant community of approx. 15 households), Newfoundland.

What the picture fails to capture is the cacophonous symphony of gull calls — a conglomeration of barks, moans, creaks and raspy wails, each with its own rhythmic pattern. Not a single person anywhere in our field of vision. Just us and the vociferous, pleading, slightly demonic sounding gulls. I was happy to recognize the Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) immediately by their light grey backs and black wingtips. Not a particularly exhilarating bird, but I had never heard them yelping with such vigor and in such great numbers. And then, an enormous-looking gull with a shiny black back swooped down toward the water, barely skimming its surface, to retrieve some fish for lunch, and then confidently glided toward its next destination. I couldn’t take my eyes off the largest of gull species, the Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), with its broad wingspan and the way the seabird glided through the sky, effortlessly carried along by the wind current, operating as if he owned the place. Even though there were dozens of Atlantic Puffins dipping in and out of the water, flying haphazardly just above its surface, flapping their wings like little propellers, the black backed gull held me in its thrall.

Great Black-backed Gull. Image by Michael Finn from here.

Great Black-backed Gull. Image by Michael Finn from here.

Watching the black-backed gull fly, I felt like I was rediscovering the Laridae, seeing the entire family for the first time. I mean, I don’t think I’m going to transform into a Gull fanatic or anything (nor do I think I have the skills to do so — in large numbers, gulls remain some of the more challenging birds to tell apart! They do all tend to blend into a homogenous whole), but I find them more fascinating than I ever believed was possible. I was both horrified and amazed to learn that the majestic black-backed gull whose flight pattern sent an electrical current through my spine every time I saw him — the confidence, the ease, the elemental power to withstand the elements, the fearless drive — is also a ruthless and violent predator to chicks as well as adult puffins, murres, grebes, herring gulls, and other many others!

One of the things I love most about birding are the surprises it offers. Just when I think I know myself, know my preferences, have a favorite bird (Indigo Bunting! Scarlet Tanager! Black and White Warbler! Wood Duck! Tree Swallow! Snowy Owl!), another, completely unexpected one comes and squeezes itself into my most “beloved bird” slot. Never did I imagine that a Gull would find its way to the top of my list of most memorable birds. The beauty of birding is that the list changes constantly, rearranges itself, and that I grow to love what I learn to look at most closely. Sometimes a bird has all the right ingredients to make me fall in love with it instantly (Scarlet Tanager, I’m thinking of you) — almost like it was designed with me in mind as its ideal viewer. But other times I fall for a bird on the second, third, or even tenth glance — in a curious confluence of timing, weather conditions, geographical coordinates and willingness to allow for heightened observation. Maybe I fell for the black-backed gull because I was finally ready to see it? It’s often like that with love.

Anyhow, gulls aside, Newfoundland was spectacular. It only rained (hard) two days out of seven, and we managed to hike a nice slice of the East Coast Trail in spite of soggy conditions.

Our lunch on the East Coast Trail.

Our lunch on the East Coast Trail. The raspberries were so delicious we forgot about the rain almost entirely.

I wore my Tilley hat every single day (rain notwithstanding), ate fabulous cod and lobster, stared at the ocean for hours on end, and am now overcome with longing for coastal living. I had meant to read a Newfoundland author while on vacation, but instead read Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, which thoroughly entranced me with it rhythms, its similes, its reflections on family, memory, place, longing and genealogy. Stay tuned for more Newfoundland pelagic goodness.