Monthly Archives: January 2014

This Birding Bug

It’s winter. -15 degrees celcius. You set your alarm to 6:40 am on a Saturday. You wake to near-blizzard conditions. You stare out the window in a semi-stupor and evaluate the road conditions (with the help of the weather channel, Google, various traffic alerts). You determine that visibility on the roads are not ideal, but not horrendous either. You put on your long underwear, pack your rain pants, and stammer out the door. You stop for a second and wonder whether it is wise to venture out in such weather, whether you’ll see anything today, whether it’s worth it.

Before you know it, you’re driving to meet your bird group. You load up on coffee and head north, to a small hamlet called Glen Williams, where rumors of a Spotted Towhee lure you. Those two words develop some sort of magnetic force. A vagrant from the West accidentally finds himself in Southern Ontario, in unfamiliar terrain. A wiser person might have turned back when road visibility disintegrated and snow began to blow fiercely. But the words Spotted Towhee draw you in. You can almost taste them, in Latin — Pipilo maculatus. And off you go. Because you know all too well the whims of geographic error. You too spent a few years in a landscape you couldn’t figure out how to call your own.

Photo from here.

Photo from here.

There is no way not to see this Spotted Towhee. The fact that it’s a life bird for the list you haphazardly keep draws you in, but the fact that it’s a bird who’s lost its way keeps you from turning back.

And you arrive in Glen Williams, an unexpectedly beautiful three-street town with a fantastic used bookstore (which the owner opens 2 hours early just so you can have a look and breathe in the first editions of Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drews and relive your childhood for a minute) and a coffee shop (where you regret the coffee you purchased at Starbucks; nevertheless, you opt for a green tea), and you find the house with bird feeders and you look. And there on the ground by the front door, next to a fat Mourning Dove, you see the unfamiliar bird. The gleaming black head with a brilliant red eye and white polka dots on its wings. He’s out of place no matter how hard he tries to commune with the Tree Sparrows. You watch him hop about, feasting on seeds, perhaps wondering how it is that life brought him to this place he never knew existed.

And you marvel. First, you marvel because you can recognize the ravenous Dark-eyed Juncos and the aggressive Chickadees and even the nonchalant Tree Sparrows and the lone Song Sparrow and the coquettish White-Breasted Nuthatch and the monumental Northern Cardinal. You marvel because four years ago those names would have meant nothing to you; conglomerations of sounds was all they were. And then you marvel because you recognize that you are where you need to be. It’s Saturday, you’re watching birds, and it’s as simple as that. And though you understand that one mustn’t anthropomorphize birds, there’s a connection you feel with the Spotted Towhee, this misplaced avian stranger whose accent and demeanor are just slightly other. You’ve been there. You know.

There’s nowhere else you’d rather be.

Transformations and a Great Gray Owl

Dearest Birders! If someone had told me, oh about five years ago, that I would be the person who would delight in standing outside with binoculars glued to my eyes, staring into a tree until I had the leaves or pine needles memorized only to realize that the long-awaited bird had other plans than to fly into my line of vision, I might have laughed out loud. And by “laughed” I mean I would have considered the idea preposterous. Impossible. Grotesque. So not me.

And yet, somehow it has become me. The most curious thing about birding — and believe me, I find almost everything about birding utterly curious — is what it has taught me about myself. I have become that person I didn’t know had the potential to exist. That person who sets her alarm early every Saturday morning, who wanders out of the house in the dark, who drives hundreds of kilometers in search or an elusive bird, who considers it a glorious day when a Long Eared Owl graces my field of vision for a fleeting glimpse. It’s a transformation that crept up on me, unplanned, unimaginable. Which, in and of itself, is a curious thing to happen for someone who is so obsessed with planning her life, with orchestrating its every turn. Or, at the very least, trying to. Is that what birding is teaching me? To loosen up a little? To allow for the fact that the unplanned is often better than anything I possibly could have envisioned?

In any event, that fleeting glimpse — the almost-seen, almost-enjoyed, almost-experienced — has become a staple of my birding days. I set out expecting to see one thing and somehow it doesn’t happen. I’m thinking of that (non) Long-Eared Owl day back in November, where we walked through muddy fields for what felt like hours and ultimately saw nothing. But then, a half-hour later, we stood on the shores of Lake Ontario, inhaling the extraordinary sight of three Scoter species IN ONE DAY. In one place! White-winged Scoter, glorious Surf Scoter and the severe Black Scoter all captured in one gulp — without even having to move my binoculars! The failed glimpse of the Owl unexpectedly delivered us straight into Scoter-paradise.

And then there are the equally wondrous days when things just work out, for no particular reason, as if they’re scripted. Today we headed out to Brooklin (note the spelling!), Ontario in search of a Great Gray Owl and…I saw him! (Actually, it may well have been a “her” given the bird’s tremendous size)

Photo from here.

Photo from here.

Here is the majestic Strix Nebulosa, a life bird for me. The one I saw had piercingly bright yellow eyes, and they gray circular stripes around the eyes looked like they’d been purposely coiffed, as if the bird has just stepped out of the poshest hair salon. I couldn’t even have imagined a hairdo so complex and textured — one that goes against all the laws of fashion that forbid layering patterns. And yet it works. The bird sat atop a branch, posing for us, showing off its regal, slightly cacophonous plumage, and for the first time I seriously regretted not having a camera (or, let’s face it, any photographic talent whatsoever). Strix nebulosa was perfect. In fact, the bird was even better than I’d imagined. And the whole time I watched it (through my sexy Zeiss binoculars, through the scope, I couldn’t get enough of this creature), I kept wishing there were a way to capture this first sighting just a little longer, to prolong the magic of locking eyes with this Great Gray, to encapsulate this moment in time and prevent it from ossifying into something altogether ordinary (oh, just another Great Gray, as I fear I might say some 10 years from now).

I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect day. But a tiny part of me feels bereft; how I wish I could once again be the person I was this morning, on the cusp of seeing my first Great Gray Owl. So it goes.


Hello 2014!

I’m ready for 2014, delightful birders. But, in the spirit of end-of-the-year posts, I’ll do a quick recap of 2013, the year I very belatedly, but thrillingly, rediscovered my wild side.

It’s been a fabulous year, bird-wise and otherwise. I began reviewing books for Birdingand continue to write for Ontario Nature. I spent a week at bird camp in Maine, on Hog Island, where the benevolent ghosts of Roger Tory Peterson and Allan Cruickshank loomed large; Hog Island is also where I tasted inimitable, unbelievable Cream Puffins for the first time. My husband and I took a trip to Newfoundland and saw so many Atlantic Puffins, Northern Gannets, and Common Murres that by the end of the week we just craved a regular old American Robin. Well, not quite, but close.

And then there was the Hoopoe I saw in Spain, at Donana National Park, in Europe’s largest wetland and a mere two kilometres outside of Spain’s self-proclaimed Best Horse Town, El Rocio. (The horse town’s claim to fame is the Virgin of El Rocio, who was, alas, out of town the day we visited; she had been transported to the church in Almonte.)

2013 was the year I began volunteering at the Tommy Thompson Park Birding Research Station (aka: the coolest and only bird banding station in downtown Toronto). Not only did I watch the sun rise over the CN Tower, but I held a Cedar Waxwing in my hand and admired its waxy feather tips up close. I haven’t yet graduated to the extractor level, since my manual dexterity and spatial intuition isn’t such that I can remove tiny birds from mist nets, but I’m a capable and enthusiastic scribe. I never thought that transcribing scientific data could be so riveting. I got to the point where four-letter bird codes (alpha codes, in Banding parlance), such as RWBL (Red winged Blackbird) and YEWA (Yellow Warbler) began to sound like poetry to me. Fat codes, bird weight, age and sex markers expressed in letters and numbers took on a life of their own. On my birthday, I held a Brown Creeper in my hand and marvelled at its wing pattern, as if an painter with a hair-thin brush had come along and meticulously dotted every square millimetre of plumage. Waking up at 4am had never been more worthwhile.

At the banding station in June, Cedar Waxwing (CEDW) in hand. Ridiculously happy.

At the banding station in June, Cedar Waxwing (CEDW) in hand. Ridiculously happy.

All in all a wonderful year. And my blog moved to a new home. And I received my first writing grant for a birdy project. Stay tuned folks!

Happy New Year! Health and happiness — birdy, wordy, and otherwise — to you all!