Monthly Archives: October 2013

Chekhov and the Bittern

Well, dearest birders, I could regale you with tales about my latest twitching instinct, which took me as far as Fort Erie last weekend, in search of the Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), which had been hanging around with cormorants and shuttling back and forth between the Ontario and Buffalo sides. This particular female booby made headlines everywhere, including the illustrious Fort Erie Times, since this was a first sighting for Ontario. The spectacle attracted birders from far and wide, because Boobies (is that really the correct plural?) usually spend their time in tropical waters, around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, but the fair province of Ontario is about as far from their radar as it gets!

I’ll spare you the details of the day (though they did include a delicious breakfast at the Cafe by the Bridge in Fort Erie, which was a lucky find since all we had seen prior to said restaurant were boarded up Chinese-Canadian cuisine establishments, a club called The Max, and another called He’s Not Here, neither of which felt safe to enter at 11:30 am), but suffice it to say that the Brown Booby appeared on the scene 40 minutes after we left. So it goes… In lieu of our bird of the day, we did see enough female White-winged Scoters (Melanitta fusca) for me to finally be able to ID them. And Cormorants galore. I managed to correctly (and quickly) ID a long-tailed duck, which means that last fall and winter’s efforts weren’t for naught.

And then, in other news not at all relating to the almost-seen Brown Booby, I came across this passage in Chekhov’s devastating story “In the Ravine,” and felt like I had gained a whole new understanding of the Chekhovian landscape:

The sun went to sleep, covering itself with purple and gold brocade, and long clouds, crimson and lilac, watched over its rest, stretching across the sky. Somewhere far away, God knows where, a bittern gave a mournful, muted cry, like a crow locked in a barn. the cry of this mysterious bird was heard every spring, but no one knew what it looked like or where it lived. up by the hospital, in the bushes just by the pond, beyond the village, and in the surrounding fields, nightingales were pouring out their song. The cuckoo was counting out someone’s years and kept losing count and starting over again. in the pond angry, straining frogs called to each other, and one could even make out the words: “you’re such a one! You’re such a one!” How noisy it was! it seemed that all these creatures were calling and singing on purpose so that no one would sleep on that spring evening, so that all, even the angry frogs, might value and enjoy every minute: for life is given only once! (Trans: Pevear and Volokhonsky)

And maybe it’s because I’ve seen an American Bittern (though not Chekhov’s Eurasian Bittern, but still) — and because I know this bird’s undercover ways, the way it prefers to remain deeply ensconced in reeds — and because I’ve heard its spring-time booming call, maybe for that reason, I found myself reading Chekhov differently. This time, I could hear the noise, the vibrant avian cacophony of this natural landscape, and hearing it swell with life rendered the contrast with the protagonist’s numbness after the story’s unspeakable crime all the more devastating.

The Eurasian Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), as Chekhov would have likely seen him, when he wasn't hiding stealthily. Image from here.

The Eurasian Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), as Chekhov would have likely seen him, when he wasn’t hiding stealthily. Image from here.

Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev — all great bird-lovers (and hunters, but such were the ways in those days). Now that I’m a little more familiar with avian taxonomy, I’m starting to read my favorite authors anew. I’m noticing more. Hearing more. Seeing more. Images resonate differently; natural frequencies hum.

Booby or no Booby, it’s impossible to rewind three years and go back to that time in my life without birds.


Cream Puffins

One of the most incredible things that happened to me at Hog Island bird camp is that I got to taste one of Sue (aka: Seabird Sue) Schubel’s ingenious Cream Puffins! (True confession: I ate devoured four cream puffins. You would have too, trust me!) You can read all about my adventures — birdy and culinary — over at the ABA blog, right here. I’m thrilled to be there. Enjoy!


Hello October!

Oh Birders, even wondrous things must come to an end. September was Birthday Month, here at Birds and Words, and we did our best to celebrate at full capacity. It also helped that David Sibley chose the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) as my Birthday Bird (sure beats the Canada Goose from a few years back — he must have (telepathically) registered my sincere horror):

David Sibley's WILD TURKEY that graced my calendar throughout September and inspired some wild birthday celebrating of my own.

David Sibley’s WILD TURKEY that graced my calendar throughout September and inspired some wild birthday celebrating of my own. Image from the 2013 Sibley Bird Calendar. Not a sight to be missed.

The actual Birth Day included some early morning scribing at the Tommy Thompson Bird Research Station, where I held a (MALE!) Black-throated Blue Warbler in my little hands for the first time ever! I would post photographic evidence, but my hair was doing awful things that particular morning, and I’ll spare you the devastating sight. Suffice it to say that the Black-throated Blue looked a whole lot more charming and sophisticated than I did! I also saw my first Brown Creeper up close and marveled at the disproportionate length of the miniscule bird’s bill! I don’t feel so badly about never being able to spot that bird in the field — it’s miniscule! and quick! and camouflages perfectly with tree-bark. Good thing I held it in my hand, or I might never even believe they existed! It’s always been an elusive “huh? where? what are you talking about?” kind of bird for me.

After a morning of diligent scribing, I had brunch with my parents, went for a walk along the boardwalk in the Beaches, and finished off the perfect day by watching ENOUGH SAID, Nicole Holofcener’s masterpiece of a movie in spite of the fact that there are no birds involved. The movie made me realize how rarely viewers are treated to brilliant screenplays! The movie is hilarious, and also strikes a raw nerve — especially about how prone we often are to self-sabotage, whether it be out of fear, helplessness, denial. I especially loved that all of the characters were flawed (deeply!) and yet loveable anyhow. So very much like life.

And there was a nice party, a new novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, a new Marimekko bag, Richard Crossley’s guide to Raptors (like sparrows, I’m belatedly realizing that a hawk isn’t just a hawk!), a new teapot, and a trip to bird watching camp on Hog Island, Maine, with Scott Weidensaul (among other fabulous & knowledgeable birders). I’ll be writing about the whole experience shortly. But for those of you wondering about bird camp — it exceeded my expectations! (And don’t get me started on the food — I ate so much I felt vaguely ill every evening, and it was so completely worth it!) I fell in love with Northern Flickers all over again (and learned to distinguish them from hawks! oops!), stood face-to-face with a juvenile Yellow-Crowned Night Heron, watched a Virginia Rail shimmy past me near a swamp, saw my first Surf Scoter, which looked so much like a puffin I thought they were related, caught a glimpse of a Parasitic Jaeger (such a rarity that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology lacks an info page devoted to the bird!). AND THE WARBLERS! Just over 20 species in total.

I had been terrified of fall warblers, because my memory from last year was that they all seemed uniformly greenish-brown and impossible to distinguish. Well, it turns out reality isn’t quite so grim! Most of my favorites — Black and white, Northern Parula, Magnolia, Yellow-rumped, Wilson’s — are still completely recognizable, even in fall plumage! (The Vireos, on the other hand, remain a different story. Greyish-greyish-greenish-white. Thanks a lot, Vireos!)

Hog Island, Maine

Hog Island, Maine


Full moon rising over Muscongus Bay, Maine

Full moon rising over Muscongus Bay, Maine

Birds are notoriously hard to photograph. But I did catch this gem of a rooster in action on Monhegan Island, Maine.

Birds are notoriously hard to photograph. But I did catch this gem of a rooster in action on Monhegan Island, Maine.

And that’s it, folks! We’ve aged a year, here at Birds and Words, but the Birthday month was a success. Birdy, wordy, full of great food, and generally lovely. It even included some fabulous craft beer (Monhegan Island Brewery), hearing Janet Cardiff’s 40-part Motet at the Cloisters, an Edmund de Waal show at the Gagosian, a Le Corbusier exhibit at MOMA, a walk on the High Line, and getting to meet my cousin’s new baby.

And now, Hello October!