It’s a Western Year in the East

Dearest Birders! You wouldn’t believe it — another Western vagrant as ended up within driving distance of Toronto. This time it was a Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius), a not-so-distant cousin of the American Robin. A gorgeous, brilliantly hued albeit silent, female beauty of a bird. Not quite as striking as her male counterpart, but still thrilling nonetheless.

Varied Thrush. Photo from here.

Varied Thrush. Photo from here.

What brings this bird from the Cascade mountains to suburban Guelph, Ontario? How did she lose her way? She looked OK, all things considered, and we watched her nibble on berries in -21 degree Celsius weather yesterday morning. I’ll admit that she was a bit fidgety, so perhaps she was a tad anxious what with the distance between Ontario and Oregon.

So far, of the three lifers I’ve seen this year, two have been West Coast visitors. The Spotted Towhee and now, the Varied Thrush. Should this kind of behavior continue, I’ll start to believe that I’m living on the west coast and perhaps our frigid winter will once again become bearable? Perhaps the birds are playing mind games with me, lest I get too settled in my ways. In any event, the Varied Thrush was a thrill. As we were leaving, a flock of Cedar Waxwings graced the trees behind us, as a Dark-eyed Junco perfected his trilling vocal patterns. Northern Cardinals, Red-breasted Nuthatches, rabid chickadees, and a Downy Woodpecker serenaded us as we traversed the arboretum in Guelph.  Actually, I’ll be honest: we were busy ambling through the arboretum, freezing whatever was left of our toes while the birds feasted on abundant bird seed and paid very little attention to us. In fact, they paid absolutely no attention to us. We were out and about, on a quest, and, well, the birds are just busy living.

Birding is humbling in every sense of the term. Not only do the birds rule the terrain — even though we arrive armed with cars and GPS’s and Ipods and Twitter and Ebird and whathaveyou — but they remind us how utterly irrelevant we are. We set out in search of a particular bird, with the intention of marvelling at it, but more often than not, the bird has its own agenda. How often we forget that the bird’s agenda — survival, procreation — is so vastly different from ours, and that they care so little — let’s be honest, they’re oblivious — to our compulsion to list, to count, and to record our sightings.

There’s also a danger in getting excited about vagrants. These Western vagrants are blown off course, in unfamiliar terrain, far from their known food sources. It’s great to see them here, but also a bit terrifying. What if they don’t make it through the harsh winter? What if they’re not able to rejoin their kin? What if this — our prized sighting — is actually the end of the road for them?

And so the day was tinged with something bitter sweet. A brilliant sighting, a gorgeous new bird to add to my mental collection, and also a bird in a certain amount of danger. Why is it that we so reluctantly think of the latter?

Our day ended with lovely, familiar ducks — Hooded mergansers, American Coot, Black ducks, Mallards, Common Goldeneye — and even though there was nothing out of the ordinary about them (though the Hoodie is easily the best coiffed specimen in Ontario this time of year) I found myself so thrilled to see these ducks and know that they were in no danger of falling victim to our harsh winter, or our unknown terrain. These were at home.

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