Monthly Archives: March 2014

On Birdy Apparel

Dearest Birders!

To be honest, I never thought I’d write a post about birdy clothing. I’ve come to love the Tilley Hat, and have even developed a soft spot for the multi-pocketed vest, though I doubt I’ll ever sport such an item myself. The indispensable rain pants and long underwear have changed my life in the most positive ways. It turns out that in order to birdwatch comfortably, one does need to consider one’s attire. Spring or winter birding without warm, ultra-waterproof boots and you’re likely to be the most miserable person around.

And then, I encountered a birder/designer named Paul Riss on Twitter, and my understanding of birdy apparel took on a whole new meaning. For those of you unfamiliar with Paul, he’s Canada’s legendary Punk Rock Big Year birder. In 2011 he completed a Big Year in Ontario and got a tattoo on his body of ever Latin binomial of all 234 species he saw! Now that’s dedication. And he’s also a fabulous designer, determined to put a new spin on the clothing range available to birders. When I saw his fantastic Red-winged Blackbird Tshirt, I couldn’t resist:

Photo from website.

Photo from PRBY apparel website.

How could I resist a RWBL t-shirt? How did he know it was my spark bird? Sometimes karma really does exist.

I initially bought the Tshirt during Paul’s successful Indiegogo campaign, and I wear it all the time. And the great news is that they’re now readily available through the PRBY apparel website, also subtitled “cool stuff for cool birders.” Oh yes, there is nothing more pleasing than seeing the words “cool” and “birders” side by side — indeed, when I’m out in the field or at the banding station, it feels like there couldn’t possibly be anything cooler than being a birder! I can’t wait to see what designs Paul Riss comes up with next.


Birds and Life

When I started birding I had no idea how much birds would teach me about life. And here I am, four years in, learning about how to live. I have become a student of birds and, at the same time, a student of birding.

It’s humbling, this being a student business. I’m forced to take things slowly, enjoy incremental progress, make countless mistakes, ask what seem like the most basic of questions. And practice. Every week, I go out and hone my skills, practice the art of recognizing field marks, the occasional song, and, most importantly, exercise my ability to stand still and observe. There is absolutely nothing passive in careful observation: it’s the fiercest workout in being fully present in the moment. (Yes, the stuff that self-help books write about; how much more progress I would have made as a student of self-help narratives had I just donned my binoculars and gone out into the field to look!)

Yesterday, I saw my first Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). The sighting happened to be both highly planned and entirely spontaneous.

Here's the fantastic wonder of a bird. Photo by Cam Millward.

Here’s the fantastic wonder of a bird. Photo by Cam Millward.

We had read the reports carefully, and knew that the Red-headed beauty was hanging out in a woodlot near Vineland, ON, in the Niagara region, but when we arrived at said woodlot, there were hundreds of trees, and innumerable woodpecker holes, and it seemed that he could be lurking just about anywhere. And we waited, ears perked for drumming, and eyes peeled on the woodlot, looking out for any kind of movement.

And nothing. An hour and a half of absolutely nothing. Well, I’m exaggerating a little. There was an exquisite Merlin (Falco columbarius) perched in a tree, surveying the territory. He (likely a juvenile or a female) sat tight the entire time we were there, shifting his gaze, waiting to pounce on his prey. There were American Robins singing up a storm, a Turkey Vulture flying overhead, and a lone Mockingbird sitting atop a branch. But our target bird, the exquisite, fabled, mythical Red-headed Woodpecker was nowhere to be found. This was my second time looking for the Red-headed (the first being two years ago, when we spent 2.5 hours in a field, only to find out that the bird appeared a few hours after our leaving) and I began to despair that it would turn into my nemesis-bird. Worse, I began to worry that the bird didn’t really exist after all.

After a break for lunch, we decided to return to the woodlot, and give the bird one last chance. I feared the worst, but also felt that we had nothing to lose. And back we went. The Merlin greeted us happily, the Robins were still singing, a Killdeer flew by, and then, my binoculars peeled to my eyes, surveying the woodlot tree by tree, traversing the length of each trunk, my neck aching, I caught a glimpse of something red. Below it a black and white body! I’m not sure what happened next, but I believe I screamed, partly out of shock that I was actually staring directly at a Red-Headed Woodpecker and partly because I was the one who managed to locate the bird!

The bird couldn’t have been more thrilling. A brilliant, red head, almost enflamed in the sunlight, am otherworldly creature. I watched it for about 20 minutes, through my binoculars, through the scope, with my naked eye. Suddenly I couldn’t relate at all to that person I had been an hour before — the person who had almost given up, who no longer believed the bird existed, who thought the day had been wasted. How close I had come to abandoning all hope. How ashamed of that I now felt.

What began as such a lacklustre, boring, disappointing day turned into one of the most thrilling days of my life as a birder. An object lesson in perseverance, patience and hope against all odds. What could be more important?

And another. Can one ever have too many Red-headed Woodpecker photos? Pics by Cam

And another. Can one ever have too many Red-headed Woodpecker photos? Pics by Cam Millward.

How much more birds still have to teach me. And how excited (and humbled) I am to be their student.

King Eider and Other Adventures

Dearest Birders! I think I might be the only person in Toronto who isn’t complaining about the interminable winter we’ve been having. I’ve been out birding more than any other winter before (my long underwear were a great investment, only to be outdone by my superior rain pants!): I’ve had extraordinary owl sightings, a few stellar Western vagrants, snow buntings, and incredible waterfowl moments. The only missing usual suspects this winter have been the finches. Nary a Redpoll or a Grosbeak of any persuasion. That’s been a little sad, since I had finally managed to ID Redpolls by the end of last winter. But, one can’t have it all, I suppose.

Yesterday was a true waterfowl bonanza. A grand total of 21 species (OK, technically 20, but I’m counting American Coot as waterfowl because they sure ACT like ducks, even though they are really in the family of RAILS, believe it or not). Some highlights of the day include all three Merganser species (AKA: the perfect hairdo family!), Trumpeter, Mute and Tundra Swans, and a glorious young male King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) surrounded by two striking female (I think it’s quite likely he was flirting with them, but I have no empirical evidence to back that up). The King Eiders were so close I captured all three of them in the scope! Alas, I only saw young ones, so the male lacked the tremendous yellow protrusion on its bill that makes the breeding adult look slightly extra-terrestrial, but in the most fetching of possible ways. In case you’re wondering, here’s a male Kind Eider in breeding plumage:

Photo from here.

Photo from here.

And here’s what ours looked like yesterday (Image courtesy Gavin Edmunstone, whom we met at Bronte Harbour, and who knows how to take photos, and who seemed like a generally swell person)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYes, the young King Eider is on the drabber end of the spectrum, but it’s great to look at a juvenile bird and imagine the wondrous spectacle that he’s about to grow into! And it’s also an excellent exercise in patience on the part of the observer. I used to only care about the spectacular birds, but after volunteering at the banding station this past spring, and holding Warbling Vireos in my hand (possibly the drabbest looking greyish grey bird around when you see them up in the tops of trees) and recognizing the nuances of the bird’s coloring, and the way the grey face slowly gave way to buttery yellow hues around the bird’s eye, even the drab became exciting. And I began to appreciate the variation and melancholy splendor in something I had formerly written off as uninteresting. How wrong I was.

We also got great looks at White winged Scoter, I finally managed to understand (belatedly, I know, I know) the difference between a Scaup and a Common Goldeneye. The Redheads glistened majestically in the sun, the Bufflehead — severe in their black-and-white attire — took my breath away, and the Long-tail Ducks swum about languidly, as if they owned the place. A moment of otherworldly calm, as if every duck on the premises knew that the Snowy Owl was either resting, otherwise occupied, or no longer hanging around.

Not all was calm yesterday. We travelled out to Hamilton in search of a Wood Duck (which we did not manage to find), and on our way encountered seven Bald Eagles on the iced bay of Burlington. Most of them were juveniles, but we did see one glorious, mature male. The older adult cooperated and let us get great looks at him through our scope, while one of the juveniles busied himself by devouring a duck. We watched him chomp away at the remains of the poor duck (22nd species of waterfowl for the day), and then drove away. Nature is as cruel as it is magnificent, and I think it’s important to remember that.

And then, before I knew it, it was time for lunch.




It’s coming!

On Saturday, I heard the first sounds of Spring. It’s still well below freezing here in Toronto, sidewalks are icy, skies are grey for the most part, and yet on Saturday I heard the Red-winged Blackbird sing for the first time in 2014. Spring is on its way! And with it, tingly excitement, murmurs of bird banding (or, in my case, scribing), glimmers of warblers. A reminder, really, that somehow, miraculously, and without our even lifting a finger, winter does come to an end. How unbelievable a concept when you’re in the thick of it, dressed in long-underwear, and have embraced “hat-hair” for the past three months.

Apart from the song of the RWBL, Saturday felt surreal. I saw and heard the usual winter suspects: Blue Jay, Cardinal, Chickadees, Tree Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Downy Woodpecker. Nothing out of the ordinary, but fantastically close looks at the Downy, who pounded away at a branch about a foot away from my head and I admired the white polka-dotted pattern that graced his black feathers. His methodical concentration astounded me, and I found myself envying him slightly. Would that I too had the discipline to pound away at a goal like that, regardless of who’s watching me, regardless of the actual goal itself. Now there’s a way to embrace the process.

Image from here.

Image from here.

[Speaking of process: I’m beginning to think that process might be a euphemism — a catchy, early 21st century marketing phrase — for grunt work. The necessary work that goes into any kind of creation. I wonder why grunt work has gone out of fashion and why nobody feels keen on embracing that anymore. I guess I’m having a hard time with the touchy-feelyness of process. It’s work, daily, often tedious, methodical, repetitive, frustrating, often hamster-wheely exhausting grunt work that magically, miraculously amounts to something tangible. But only after one has pounded away at it in earnest, very much like the Downy woodpecker himself. Grunt work, to me, feels like the real thing, the true beating-my-head-against-the-wall that any kind of creative pursuit often requires. Why not embrace the term once again?]

And then, my birding day took a turn for the surreal. 50 Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) edged their way out of the woods and came wobbling towards us. They were famished, prehistoric-looking — a bizarre cross between a dinosaur and a giraffe — and so full of expectation. So we hopped back into the car, bought a 30-pound bag of bird seed and sprinkled it along the path at Cranberry Marsh, and watched the Turkeys feast, nervously devouring everything we put before them. I wonder if they too might remember this day?

Image from here.

Image from here.

A strange birding day. Not at all what I had expected, but altogether wonderful.