Monthly Archives: September 2013

Before the Storm

I’ve been working hard on honing my meteorological theories. So far the wisdom I’ve amassed boils down to this: some days the meteorological gods smile upon you, and other days they shake their heads in mild disgust and mock you (often mercilessly). I have little scientific data to support my theory, but plenty of personal experience, most of which speaks to the latter part of my meteorological aphorism.

Yesterday proved to be a miracle of a day: the forecast screamed solid rain form morning to late afternoon, but we decided to thwart nature’s plans and headed west to two of my favorite and most underrated parks on the shores of Lake Erie in Southern Ontario. By the time we reached Selkirk Provincial Park at 8am, the sky had darkened slightly, as if it couldn’t decide whether or not to commit to the promised downpour. A thin stripe of peachy pink rose above the horizon, enveloped by the darkening, already fall-colored lake water and the greyish sky. We interpreted the sky as an offering: a few hours of calm before the storm. And in we went.

Closed for the season, Selkirk greeted us with deserted, slightly eerie calm. We heard¬†Eastern Wood Pewees (Contopus virens), whose rather high-pitched whistly call that reminded me of gym class. Dozens of Chickadees joined in the fun, but they didn’t seem to announce flocks of warblers the way they often do. We did catch a glimpse of a female Black-throated Blue and a Chesnut Sided warbler, some sort of vireo and an Olive-sided Flycatcher, who looked an awful lot like a pewee, but sports more of a flashy white bib on its chest. We walked along the boardwalk through a swampy area where we tried to find birds, but saw elephantine dragon flies instead and heard nothing but the screeching of cicadas. A few gulls overhead, a few Turkey Vultures, and numerous corpulent snails doing their thing.

We then headed for the late John Miles’ abandoned bird banding trailer, which still stands in a wooded area of the park. The windows are no longer, the tires have flattened, the screens are punctured, but a chrome tea kettle still stands on the banding counter, along with remnants of banding equipment, the remains of a few dusty manuals, parts of a sofa likely used as a makeshift bed, pens, and other debris. I wonder how many people camping in the park know that they are in close proximity of a ghost of a banding station.

Rock Point Provincial Park lacked the melancholy of Selkirk. The park is fully operational until (Canadian) Thanksgiving and has a vibrant banding station (which we didn’t visit due to clouding skies that imposed a most natural curfew on our visit). We walked along the limestone shore and admired the fabulous fossils embedded in the rocks, while honing our shorebird ID skills.

Rock Point Provincial Park. Fossils! Limestone! Beach! All of this makes for the most underrated park in Southern Ontario. Apart from the weather gods, the olfactory gods also smiled upon us: the stench of algae escaped us completely! Photo from here.

Rock Point Provincial Park. Fossils! Limestone! Beach! All of this makes for the most underrated park in Southern Ontario. Apart from the weather gods, the olfactory gods also smiled upon us: the stench of algae escaped us completely! Photo from here.

I’m happy to report that I had no difficulty distinguishing the Semipalmated Plover from the Killdeer this time and also swiftly found the miniscule Least Sandpipers. Severe difficulty arose when I couldn’t tell the Semipalmated Sandpipers from the Sanderlings. Thankfully at one point the they congregated together, and I saw a size differential and noticed that the gregarious Sanderlings were a fair bit chunkier. Legend has it we also saw a Baird’s Sandpiper tucked into the bunch, but I’m not even sure I was looking at the right bird.

Oh, shorebirds. I’m pretty sure I’ll grow to love you one day, but right now I’m a bit overwhelmed by your speed and your indistinguishable physiognomies. But I’m full of admiration for your intrepid yearly migratory voyages from the high arctic to South America.

As we climbed up the sand dunes towards our car, I felt a few drops of rain. And by the time we reached our dining destination, the sky no longer displayed ambivalence about unveiling a colossal downpour. But brunch at Flyer’s Cafe in Dunville made up for the horrid weather.


New Year

Dearest Birders,

Though we’re not religious here at Birds and Words, we do like to mark certain holidays and take the time to reflect, eat apples with honey, marvel at where life has taken us this past year, and welcome the new year with excitement.

It’s no secret: I love September. Not only is it my birthday month, but it’s also my favorite season. For some reason, summer agrees with me less and less every year. I call it meteorological incompatibility. And also a manifest lack of birds. But now it’s September and all is right in the world, even though most birds are in fall plumage, which means I can’t identify 99% of what I see, but I’m fairly used to that and it no longer fazes me.

Yesterday morning, I went for a walk in a sweater (!) and happened upon three downy woodpeckers pounding away next to a red-breasted nuthatch and a goldfinch. The fact that I could ID those three birds without even thinking twice made me so happy I ran all the way home, positively bursting at the thought of announcing this riveting news to my husband (to which he smiled and offered me a glass of water; I could barely breathe).

But I’m grateful for this past summer. I’m going to miss the the long days, warm summer evenings, extraordinary farm produce, the colossal peaches which made for the best cobbler I’ve ever tasted (yes, in the absence of pie-making talents, Birds and Words bakes peach cobblers with gusto), the opportunity to reread Proust and teach Swann’s Way to a group of incredibly inquisitive seniors, the day I spent engrossed in Meg Wolitzer’s Interestings from morning till night (until I was done! Would that I could read that book again for the first time!), the tremendous birdiness of Newfoundland, the hours spent learning Czerny studies (oh, we work on self-improvement in all categories, here at Birds and Words) in order to hopefully, one day, take on a Chopin etude, and the many many hours I spent sporting my fabulous (NEW!) Tilley Hat.

Meteorological frustration notwithstanding, this summer was a good one. And there is much to look forward for the new year. Wishing you all a happy, healthy, adventure-filled, sweet new year!


Newfoundland Birds

For those of you who had been awaiting my Newfoundland birdy news with bated breath, I’m happy to report that you can learn everything you need to know about Birds and Words’ adventures in Witless Bay Ecological Reserve over at the fabulous bird blog 10,000 Birds. I’m thrilled to have a guest post on their site! Enjoy!

And here’s a teaser: 260,000 pairs of ATLANTIC PUFFINS breed off the coast of Witless Bay. And I SAW THEM ALL!

Peeps! Peeps!

Oh Birders! There’s no better way to usher in September than to plunge into the simultaneously thrilling and frustrating morass of shorebird identification. Off we went to Townsend — a curious would-be town that never materialized, in Haldimand County, about an hour’s drive from Hamilton. In the 1970s, as a way to redirect some of the population from Toronto (and its suburbs), the provincial government of Ontario bought up thousands of acres of farmland near Hamilton, with the utopic (and earnest) hopes of building a “New Town” for the new millennium, which would house the thousands of employees of the rapidly developing industrial region in the area. They built wide roads, set up government buildings, a water tower, with the expectation that by 2001 Townsend would boast a population of 100,000. In the end, only 1,200 people moved to this New City of the Future, and all the plans for large factories for future technologies never materialized. Now the town stands abandoned (except for a small retirement community of 1500) feels like an eerie ghost-town.

Thankfully most stories have a happy ending: Townsend, the Dream City that never became a city, inadvertently became birding hub thanks to its fabulous sewage lagoon, which attracts migrating shorebirds in spectacular numbers. We didn’t see spectacular numbers of anything yesterday, since it wasn’t really a day that registers on the spectrum of the spectacular, but I did significantly improve my shorebird ID skills. (I hope. I think. We’ll see)

I immediately recognized a bird that looked Killdeer-ish, but with only one black neck stripe, and it turned out to be a Semipalmated Plover. It makes sense that the two share characteristics, since they’re both from the Charadrius genus. Funny — I’d always considered the Killdeer rather small, but next to the Semipalmated plover, it looked positively gargantuan (though not as monstrous as the mallard nearby). Size in birds is so difficult and so impossible to really understand when one sees a bird in isolation. And then I noticed dozens of similarly sized birds that all basically looked the same, but upon closer, more studied observation, all displayed subtle differences.

Semipalmated Plover!! Photo from here.

Semipalmated Plover!! Photo from here.

Looks a bit like this, right? Here's the Killdeer. Photo from here.

Looks a bit like this, right? Here’s the Killdeer. In real life the resemblance is even more striking. Trust me; they’re cousins. Photo from here.

Words like “slightly chunkier”, “darker stripes”, “brownish vs. greyish”, “greenish legs” wound their way around me, and I remembered why I have a love-hate thing going on with Shorebirds. Even under optimal lighting, I can barely distinguish greenish legs from yellowish legs from slightly darker legs. They all just look the same to me! And next to a Killdeer, nothing looks particularly chunky. Even my beloved Zeiss binoculars ended up being of little help here; with shorebirds, a scope is indispensable.

But then amidst the million peeps, we identified a Pectoral Sandpiper. (Forgive me, I’m using the word “we” rather liberally here. I did no identifying whatsoever.) Through the scope, I could see the bird’s brownish super-streaky feathers and did notice that it was significantly larger than the diminutive Semipalmated Plover and the even tinier Least Sandpiper walking about slightly hunched over, its bill hitting the water, furiously feeding on invertebrates or whatever the flavor of the day happened to be at Townsend Sewage Lagoon. (I do have to reiterate, birding a sewage lagoon — thrilling and productive as it is — does not rate high on the olfactory-experience scale. But so it goes)

Moving onwards through the catalog of Peeps, I encountered a Semipalmated Sandpiper, a Solitary Sandpiper who anxiously wiggled its entire body, the Spotted Sandpiper who performed the requisite tail-wagging dance for us, and a Stilt Sandpiper. There were also Yellowlegs, fanciful American Golden Plovers and Black Bellied Plovers and enough ducks in eclipse plumage to give me a slight headache.

On our way home, we stopped in Burlington and saw three Red-Necked Phalaropes bobbing nervously in the water, doing a spastic little dance as it swims on the edge of the shore. I’m pleased to say that Red-Necked Phalaropes are becoming an annual August sighting here at Birds and Words. Oh, and there were sod farms, a lonely wild turkey, and about a million starlings and cormorants.

In the end, a wonderful (and challenging) Tilley-hat clad morning full of peeps and other fine specimens. A perfect coda to a lovely summer.