Monthly Archives: November 2013

A New Home

Dearest Birdy Readers! Welcome to the new incarnation of Birds and Words! I’m excited to be part of the clan! I’ve been reading the blogs on the network for a few months now, and there’s fantastic writing in these pages!

In true Birds and Words fashion, I will continue to regale you my (mis)adventures in bird identification, expert analysis on birdy coiffures, some historical tidbits, and indispensable lessons on avian nomenclature in Yiddish. Mainly, I’m here to share (unabashedly) my love of birds with you — a love that crept up on me incrementally over the past three years. Until my mid-30s, I had lived an exclusively indoor life peopled with language primers, grammar manuals, novels, pianos, cd’s. The outdoors were something that other people did. And then I saw my first Red-winged Blackbird, and my world changed.


Image from here.

Image from here.

I suppose Birds and Words documents the changes that are taking place in my own internal landscape as I learn to really see the (birdy) world around me. Rather belatedly, I’m connecting with my wild side. Feel free to say hello!

We’re Moving!

Beloved Birdy Readers! Exciting news here at Birds and Words. This blog is moving to an exciting new home. You can now read the blog in its new incarnation over at

I’m thrilled to be a part of the network. It’s a vibrant network of bloggers interested in nature, environmentalism, conservation, and the landscape around us. Lots of fabulous bird writing, too!

I will no longer be updating this site, so please look for me at my new home.


Histrionicus histrionicus

Beloved birders! In my rush of overthinking the meaning of biding and life, or the way the two overlap for me these days, or whatever it was I couldn’t stop pondering in my slightly frantic previous post, I think I might have neglected to dwell sufficiently on the inherent awesomeness of the Harlequin Duck! Not only is the duck an aesthetic thing of wonder, but its Latin binomial only makes the whole experience even more pleasurable. How often do you meet a bird called Histrionicus histrionicus?

A pack of beauties. Photo from here.

A pack of beauties. Photo from here. Yes, the pic comes from a hunting site. But please don’t shoot the Harlequins! Seriously — go for a Mallard if you’re so inclined. And please hunt safely! (end of hunting rant; I’m not opposed to hunting per se, but would much rather see ducks through my binoculars; that said, I hear Zeiss makes a mean hunting scope; end of nonsequitur, I promise)

In fact, the Harlequin duck happens to be the only species in the Histrionicus genus. For the record, the name comes from the Latin word for actor: histrio (3rd declension, masculine, for those who are curious). I suppose one could have called the Histrionicus histrionicus the Player Duck, but Harlequin is much more evocative — in honor of Arlecchino (Harlequin), a stock character — the nimble, clown-like, comic servant — from the Commedia dell’Arte.

In any event, they are spectacular, almost as if costumed and ready to perform. The spectacle I witnessed on Saturday was a solo show where the duck glided along the water, confidently, with a slight hint of superiority. In the company of Scaup, Gadwalls, Mallards, and even an American Widgeon, the Histrionicus histrionicus knows exactly whom the folks with binoculars are admiring. He’s seen himself in the mirror, I have no doubt. He knows that he resembles a hand-painted porcelain masterpiece, almost too lovely to be true. Second only to the transcendent Wood Duck (though the Harlequin sure wins the most evocative-sounding-Latin-binomial race), the Harlequin duck is otherwordly.

Definitely worth the two-year wait. And after the magnificent duck, I went to hear the (almost) equally radiant and fabulous Meg Wolitzer read at IFOA. She read from The Interestings (by far the best novel I’ve read this year) and talked about writing with great warmth, wit, charm, and the entire day was a delight. So if you haven’t read The Interestings, do it now! A novel about talent (and what happens to it over time), friendship, envy, and how humans crave feeling noticed and special. What struck me about the novel was the compassion and warmth (and humor!!) with which she wrote her characters. If Histrionicus histrionicus were an adjective — or better yet, a superlative, I’d use it to describe Wolitzer’s novel. A remarkable feat of a book.

In which I find what I’m looking for

I’ve discovered a birding paradox. Most of the time, I head out in search of a particular bird, fail to find it, but encounter a bird in its stead that is even better than the one I’d been chasing. It’s a moment of recognizing the beauty in what I wasn’t looking for, or — as is most often the case with this somewhat birder — the beauty in what I didn’t even KNOW existed. I find what I knew not I was looking for, and I fall momentarily in love with the bird. It’s how I fell in love with the Red-winged Blackbird, which turned out to be infinitely more exquisite than anything I ever could have possibly imagined. It literally exceeded and inadvertently broadened the horizon of my expectations.

I fell in love with birds partly because I didn’t know the were out there. I mean, I knew birds existed in the abstract, the way I also know that fossils exist and computer programmers write code and engineers build bridges. But it was an existence that had absolutely no overlap with my day-to-day and my imagined landscape. When I finally did point my binoculars (badly, with trepidation, nervously) at the Red-winged Blackbird (before I could even register it as an Agelaius phoeniceus), it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I felt like I was seeing birds, nature, The Universe for the first time. The enormity of my spark bird experience — and, poor readers, why I keep rewinding to my initial Red-winged Blackbird sighting — was just that: I suddenly saw the world anew. Or rather, I saw a new world — one that had been within my reach all these years (35!) but which I had never bothered to notice.

What a spectacular failure of the imagination. That there was a day three years ago when I didn’t know that birds exist, when I couldn’t have known, because I couldn’t imagine them.  Now that former world of mine feels diminished; when I see photos of myself three years ago, it’s not without a hint of sadness, because I know that the ME in those photos is a self without any notion of a world with birds. A self I can’t quite relate to anymore.

And then this weekend, something strange happened. I finally saw a (male!) Harlequin Duck. I’m so used to thinking of the Harlequin as that bird with whom I just can’t seem to connect; our schedules just aren’t in synch. Usually when I appear, the duck absconds; once I leave, it resurfaces. You’ve been there; you know what I’m talking about.

On Saturday, after a two-hour rain-filled walk around Humber Bay Park (East) with the CCFEW group, where we saw mainly Red Breasted Mergansers, a few delightfully coiffed Hooded, a battalion of Ruddy Ducks (not sure why they weren’t displaying their usually erect tails), a few lone Bufflehead, Long-tailed Ducks and other usual November waterfowl suspects, about six of us decided to venture onwards and find the Harlequin Duck. A cup of bird friendly coffee later, we finally caught up with him at Cliff Lumdsen Park, and for the first few minutes, I couldn’t believe it was actually happening! Here I was, in the presence of a duck I’ve been trying to track down for the past two years!

Photo from here.

Photo from here.

I stared and tried my best to take in his regal appearance. And I’m ashamed to say that my first thought was “oh, but it isn’t as glorious as the Wood Duck!”

How could that possibly be? The bird I’d been chasing for two years appears before my eyes, and instead of relishing the sight, basking in the the moment’s perfect synchronicity of events, all I could think was that the Harlequin hadn’t quite lived up to my expectations. Why is that? Had I accidentally transformed the Harlequin duck into something utterly ineffable?

The moment of distress only lasted a few seconds — I immediately forced myself back into Total Admiration mode, and soon enough I really did feel like the duck was as spectacular as I had hoped it would be. But it did get me thinking about the danger in setting up expectations.

Ah well. No answers. Just a spectacular Harlequin Duck and the realization that it’s great to find what you’re looking for, but it’s just as important to take the time see it for what it is, in addition to what you hoped it would be.

It’s not that I look for similarities between birding and living. It’s just that birding has simply become a part of living.