Monthly Archives: November 2014

Miraculous November!

Dearest Birders! After today, I promise you will never read another November-gets-me-down post. Ever. It turns out that November has been the greatest, birdiest best kept secret of 2014! Sure, it’s no match for May madness or even late-September sensory overload (warblers! raptors! ducks-in-eclipse-plumage-who-on-earth-are-you?), but it has it’s had serious, non-negligible thrills.

This morning we headed out to Sedgewick Forest in Oakville in spite of the grey, damp, bitterly cold, seeming disaster of a day. I don’t even think the sun bothered to make an appearance today. Why bother, it probably thought, if clouds are going to eclipse me anyhow? Lack of sun notwithstanding, we made our way through the snowy (microscopic) forest until we reached the water treatment plant where a Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) and several Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) warblers put on a little dance number for us. Yes, you read that correctly. A PARULA warbler in late November! The warblers must have been picking up stray insects in the water treatment plant, but I really hope they fly south soon because their survival is likely in serious danger.

Photo from here.

Northern Parula. Photo from here.

I’m of two minds about seeing warblers this late into the year. Of course I’m thrilled to hold on to the vestiges of songbird migration season, the illusion that we aren’t really plunging into the depths of almost song-less winter. And I’m was particularly ecstatic to see a Parula because that happened to be my nemesis warbler of 2014! I hadn’t seen one all spring and every time I went to the banding station in the fall I invariably heard, “oh we had a parula just yesterday!” And that’s how it is with birds — timing and superlative patience seems to be everything (well, coupled with skill, song-recognition, behavior knowledge…). But I also find it depressing to think that the warblers I delight in for more or less selfish reasons will likely be unable to survive the winter, and that my joy in seeing them is somehow complicit in their devastating plight. But back to the unexpectedly miraculous properties of November.

The day didn’t stop with the Parula. We went on to see three American Pipits on the shores of Lake Ontario at some nondescript park in Burlington. Had I been alone, without my bird-guru-team, I likely would have assumed the pipits were sparrows, but now I know better! (And I should probably sign up for a bird behavior course or at least read a book on the topic or something.)

And after the pipits, we saw some great Downy woodpeckers, a couple female Canvasbacks, a gazillion vociferous Trumpeter swans, gleaming bufflehead, a raft of Ruddy ducks, a paddling of Scaup (who knows if they were lesser or greater — I was too freezing to even care), and there was other excitement too, but by that point it was time for brunch (oh yes, we’re birders with healthy appetites) and I was still running on a late-November-Parula-high.

What a miraculous month it’s been!

Expanding Vocabulary

About a month ago, at the banding station at Tommy Thompson Park (TTPBRS), Birds and Words, aka yours truly, participated in a most momentous event. I was scribing for one of the brilliant bird banders as she held a Winter Wren (which I accidentally mis-identified as a Brown Creeper…) in her hand before putting a band on its delicate right leg. We laughed at the Winter wren’s vibrant, perfectly erect, yet diminutive tail that stuck out at a sharp right angle from the bird’s torso — as if that tail had a life of its own. And as we joked about said tail, one of the other volunteers chimed in, “that looks like a Winter wren crossed with a Ruddy duck!”

Photograph by Michael Woodruff from here.

Photograph by Michael Woodruff from hereNote the tail. 

And I laughed. I laughed so hard I had to put down my pencil, stop scribing, and collect myself. I might have even gone outside to take a few deep breaths.

It wasn’t that the joke was so completely earth-shattering. It was that I UNDERSTOOD the joke! I knew exactly what was meant by it, I could picture the ruddy duck’s signature erect tail, and I grasped the nuance of the entire birdy anecdote! I’m used to staring blankly at birdy humor, and most of the puns, while sort of cute, leave me a bit perplexed, but here, devoted birdy readers, I felt that I had access to new grammatical possibilities — like a new language learner parsing sentences, groping one’s way toward meaning. And suddenly, after five years of reading, observing, listening, making mistakes, almost giving up — new, expansive, electrifying meaning.

Healing Properties of November

It’s official, dearest Birders. The only way to get through November is to embrace its shortened days, dearth of light, early winter onset fully, put on those rain pants over pants over long underwear, zip up that parka over sweater over cardigan over thermal shirt over t-shirt and get thee to the nearest park, binoculars in hand. The effects are properly regenerative.

This past Saturday we headed out to Hamilton in search of the likely confused or disoriented Wilson’s Phalarope (why he is still in Ontario in mid-November is either a grave error or a colossal mystery). I’ve seen a Red phalarope before, but the Wilson’s turned out to be a lifer in spite of the less than hospitable weather. The lake was frozen over save a patch of water, and that’s exactly where we found him, swimming frenetically in what resembled a jig-like posture as if he couldn’t tell whether to dance or swim and attempted a mix of the two, next to a Pectoral Sandpiper. He put on a ten-minute show for us before disappearing behind a conglomeration of cattails. It’s rare that a target bird appears as if on cue, and I found the experience almost disorienting. Sometimes it feels more rewarding to work for the sighting, even if one misses it in the end. But I embraced the opportunity to see a Wilson’s phalarope. I never tire of these polyandric birds with reverse sexual dimorphism. Sounds racy and progressive even by bird standards!

We saw Cedar waxwings, American robins, Chickadees, Red-bellied woodpeckers, Downies, Blue jays, Golden crowned Kinglets, American goldfinches, and then, when I thought my ID skills could get no more impressive, I saw something swoop down into an open field and called out SNOW BUNTING! For some reason I had been craving a snow bunting all morning in my fierce desire to embrace winter… Well, that sure put me in my place. Birding has a way of doing that to you — just when you get overly confident, the universe corrects itself and humbles you. In the end the bird turned out to be an American kestrel (!), but lest I feel completely defeated, I was congratulated on my sighting and ability to detect the bird’s pointy white wings.

The first real winter day would have been incomplete without an owl sighting, and we happened upon a magnificent Eastern Screech owl (grey morph) taking in the midwinter sun. Here he is, terrifically peaceful. Note the fetching winter sunbathing pose. (photo by Lyle J.)

GrayScreechLasalleMarina

It turned out to be a spectacular day. But really, how could it not? Winter sun, binoculars, birds — beware November! I know how to thwart your depressive ways.

And in case you missed my piece about competing in my first Birdathon, here it is, sans paywall, in Maisonneuve Magazine. If you’re looking for a fantastic birdy read, I would definitely urge you to pick up Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense. Here’s my exuberant review of the phenomenal book on the ABA website.

Onwards with November!

On Days Like That

Dearest Birders,

How did it get to be November? How is it that November dons its yearly greyer than grey and arrives hand in hand with a gloom-and-doom demeanour yet again? I think I was hoping that if I ignored the fact that November would appear on my horizon, it simply wouldn’t. To put it bluntly, I’m not a fan of November. So far — and I know it’s only the 5th– it’s just grey, punctuated by a line of pink on the horizon at about 4pm, November’s excuse for a semblance of a sunset, followed by relentless dark, with some rain sprinkled in there for good measure. It feels like November’s the new February, only bleaker for some reason. At least in February the days are getting longer, and the countdown to warbler season is well under way.

And so, on days like that–on true November days–I’ve been forcing myself out of bed early (thank you daylight savings!) and walking my streets. This morning I happened upon two downy woodpeckers, hammering away at a post, regaling me with a rhythmic, almost contrapuntal, duet. Next to them was a lone chickadee fluttering about in a tree, watching and listening to the downies surreptitiously. The more he looked over at the woodpeckers, the more he tried to imitate them. Within a few minutes, he too began furiously beating his bill against the branch, in a desperate attempt to outhammer the larger, more adept creatures. I stood there watching the three of them in concert, and marvelled at the persistence of the chickadee whose every bob of the head required more effort and determination than the polka-dotted woodpeckers, those natural, if slightly relentless, head-bangers.

Photo from here.

Photo from here.

(And I was reminded of the chickadee I tried to extract from a mist net a few weeks ago, at the banding station. In vain. The bird pecked at my fingers with such ferocity that I left him in the hands of a more experienced bander with, oh yes, much thicker skin than me.)

As I stood there, entranced by the show put on for me by the Downy woodpeckers and the chickadee, for a minute I even forgot it was November. Instead of bemoaning the weather and the withering daylight, I thought back to dozen Hooded Mergansers I saw on Lake Ontario a few days ago, their tremendous coiffure illuminating everything in their path.

And I realized, on days like that I have to make it about the birds. I need to walk outside, walk into the weather, and watch the world around me. Because when I’m looking closely, usually awestruck by a bird or a leaf (which I sometimes mistake for a bird, oh yes, alas) or the way light graces a particular patch of grass or branch or what have you, and before I know it I’m entranced and November doesn’t feel much like November at all. (It also helps that I got a box of tea in the post and a gorgeous hummingbird necklace made by the late incredible bird artist, Lori Presthus.)