Monthly Archives: January 2015

My First Twitch

Beloved birders! I had a feeling I would one day wake up and decide to chase after a bird, but I had no idea the day would be today. There’s been a Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) in Oakville, Ontario for the past 6 weeks or so and I’ve been to see it twice, and missed it both times after standing in freezing climes for over an hour. I was pretty calm about the whole thing and just assumed that I’d see the Painted Bunting one day in its natural habitat — either in Florida or Texas or somewhere in between. But then this morning I woke up, the sun was shining (for those of you not in Southwestern Ontario, “sun shining” are two words that have not graced us that often this winter/fall; it’s been remarkably grey out here), I picked up my binoculars and decided to drive out to Oakville on a whim. I had a feeling today might be the day.

I travelled by way of Kipling Spit, where I walked for an hour and attempted to find the Harlequin Duck (in vain), but watched a Red-breasted merganser for about twenty minutes, marvelling at the duck’s phenomenal hair, and utterly amazed that this duck, which only a few years ago had seemed so mysterious to me, was now entirely familiar. What continues to surprise me the ease with which our eyes and brains grow accustomed, and the constant effort it takes to remind ourselves that the familiar is worthy of a second look and that it remains spectacular. To marvel at the things we see daily — that might be the single most important lesson birding continues to teach me. The exotic so often lies right there, buried deep in the familiar.

After a bracing 90 minute walk (it’s minus 8 degrees Celsius), I hopped in the car and drove out to Oakville. I was in no hurry to get there, partly because I feared the two scenarios that had already happened: I had stood in the freezing cold, waiting for the bunting, hoping, staring, and seeing absolutely nothing apart from a dozen ravenous chickadees.

I got to the Painted Bunting’s stomping ground only to learn from a group of photographers that the bird had been seen ten minutes prior. By this point it was getting so cold that I nearly hopped back in my car and abandoned the quest, assuming it just wasn’t meant to be. But I waited around, awestruck by a faraway scarlet Northern Cardinal that seemed to light up the bare trees around him. And then I caught up with a White-breasted nuthatch and followed him with my binoculars for a few minutes. At that point there was commotion because of a coyote down below, in the mini-ravine, and a few photographers departed in search of said coyote. And before I knew it forty minutes had gone by, a few more people had assembled (one birder said this was his 14th attempt to find the bunting!), and suddenly, out of nowhere, the Painted Bunting appeared in the brambles, hopped about from branch to branch, and flew down to the ground, where he fed happily on seeds, looking entirely otherworldly:

Painted Bunting in Oakville. Photo by Philip Waggett.

Painted Bunting in Oakville. Photo by Philip Waggett.

The bird was more magnificent than I had even imagined. Blue head, sparkly orange breast, lime-green back — it’s the kind of bird I might have drawn as a child only to be told by my parents that the bird wasn’t entirely “realistic”. How utterly magical this avian world is! And how perfect, this insistent first impulse of mine to twitch.

Guest Blog Post — Debbie Buehler

Beloved Birders! Here is Birds and Words’ first Guest Post, written by ecologist and writer Debbie Buehler. I first met Debbie almost two years ago when we were both volunteering at the Tommy Thompson Bird Research Station. I was mainly an observer that spring, still too terrified to do anything other than hold a bird in the hand, and even that seemed to send me into semi-spastic rapture (as I’ve mentioned; the natural world is new to me). Debbie, on the other hand, was entirely in her element, extracting, banding, scribing. It was a joy to see. Debbie impressed me with her knowledge about most things avian, her humility, and her deep love of understanding the workings of natural world, which she is diligently and impressively sharing with her children. Here is Debbie’s first foray into one of my favourite December activities — the Christmas Bird Count. Enjoy!

My first Christmas Bird Count brings wonders on the waterfront and in the “wasteland”

Each year, from December 14th to January 5th, something strange occurs. Tens of thousands of volunteers venture into the cold with binoculars and bird books – to count birds. This phenomenon is called the Christmas Bird Count, and this year marks the 115th time it has taken place in the Americas. One hundred and fifteen years of data make an enormous contribution to conservation, and organizations like Audubon use these data to help guide conservation action.

December 14th, 2014 marked Toronto’s 90th Christmas bird count. It was my first.

It is embarrassing to admit that, after years of working in the field as a bird biologist, I finally found time to get involved in the Christmas Bird Count after moving to an administrative “desk job”. The invitation to participate came from my bird census mentor, and fellow volunteer, at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research station. How many chances does one get for a morning of freedom, roaming Toronto’s lakeshore with some of the most knowledgeable birders around?

Our team was tasked with Route 13, a narrow strip along the Toronto waterfront running from Parkside Drive in the west, to Coxwell Avenue in the east. We stopped at numerous sites including the West beaches, Ontario Place, the City Center Airport ferry port, Harbourfront, the Sherbourne Common and the Main Sewage Treatment Playground (yes, that is actually the name of a park in Toronto). Over the course of several hours, this route provided us with 35 different species and over 1600 individual birds. Not bad for a rainy morning in December.

My favorite species were the ducks. They hang out in the open, and at this time of year, they are in their most beautiful plumage. Unbeknownst to many of Toronto’s human residents – unbeknownst to me until only a few years ago – the Toronto lakeshore hosts a riot of ducks species in winter. These birds arrive in Toronto from breeding grounds in the Boreal and Arctic regions, just as the migratory songbirds are flying south. A classic example is the Long-tailed Duck (formally known as the Oldsquaw).


Male and female Long-tailed ducks. Photo by Debbie Buehler.

Male and female Long-tailed ducks. Photo: Debbie Buehler.

I first noticed these gorgeous black and white birds several years ago while taking the ferry to the Toronto islands. Looking out at the grey waves on that cold February morning, I suddenly noticed black and white ducks – lots of them! Indeed, the Toronto harbor is home to thousands of these birds, with counts for Route 13 alone above 1000 four times in the last 17 years (though we only had about 350 this year).

On this year’s count we also saw Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, Greater and Lesser Scaups, and a smattering of Hooded, Red-breasted and Common Mergansersinterspersed among the Long-tailed Ducks.

But, as much as I loved the ducks, the highlight of the day did not come along the water’s edge (not even with two Iceland Gulls). Rather, the highlight came beneath a crisscross of over passes at the confluence of three highways – the Gardner Expressway, the Don Valley Parkway and Lakeshore Boulevard. The veteran’s of the Route 13 bird count know that these places – tiny tracks of weedy and overgrown land – are a refuge for passerine birds. We weren’t disappointed. Amid the steady thrum of traffic we heard Chickadees, and then within minutes, there were also American Robins, Cardinals, a Winter Wren, a Cedar Waxwing, several sparrow species, and an astounding Black and White Warbler – a bird who should have made the journey to wintering areas from Florida to Colombia in September! In past years, other winter rarities like Nashville and Orange-Crowned Warblers had been recorded in this “wasteland”. But the sightings were bittersweet because two of the places that had provided refuge to birds in the past had been bulldozed.

“We had Hermit Thrush here in 2010,” remarked a volunteer.

Not this year.

We speculated about why the land might have been cleared. Towering overhead was a billboard, probably 14 meters wide, advertising “Animal Planet”. Perhaps this “unused” land had been cleared to make way for another billboard. I hope not. Perhaps the land was cleared in preparation for the naturalization of the mouth of the Don River project. I hope so, though I wish the land had been left as useful habitat a little bit longer.

Hopefully the newly built Corktown Common lying just to the north will provide shelter for birds in the future. Over 700 trees have been planted there and that park makes me proud of my city. But for now those trees are small, and they are of little use to the birds that once took refuge in the bulldozed “wasteland”.

For now, there are no animals on the peeled land beneath the “Animal Planet” billboard – except us humans.


This Place

Devoted Birders!

I’ve been thinking a lot about how birding has changed me in unexpected ways. I’ve fallen in love with Southern Ontario and its parks, rivers, wetlands, sewage lagoons, beaches (who knew Ontario had beaches?!), fossils, woodlands. Of course, I harbour no illusions about this landscape of mine: it’s not remarkable in any way, there’s nothing sublime in it whatsoever, but now that I know many birding hotspots, and as I get to know the local species, along with their predictable, but sometimes peculiar, comings and going, the province has started to really feel like home. I’ve lived in Ontario on and off since 1987 (with a seventeen-year interlude, mind you), and the province has always inspired a feeling wanderlust in me, a take-me-anywhere-but-here mentality. Strangely, now that I’m birding that feeling has abated. I used to find the familiar both boring and altogether too easy; now, with every season, I’m starting to see the nuance of familiarity. I relish the return of Snowy owls and breathe a sigh of relief when I see them back in familiar terrain. This may well be age (middle age?) but I marvel most consistently at the everydayness of this familiar landscape and the fact that I’m learning more and more about its geography.

All that to say that although I love traveling and fantasize about northern light and landscapes pretty much constantly and imagine packing my bags and heading back for Whitehorse or the Lofoten Islands, I am, inadvertently, becoming a child of this place, of this altogether plain, mountain-less, ocean-less, sublime-less, and yet utterly magical place. And it’s very likely the birds’ fault.

Yesterday, minus 20 (give or take) degrees Celsius, winds beating our faces, we set out. In spite of the weather, or perhaps because of the weather. Either way, it’s winter and I’ve come to love the freezing temperatures. A welcome jolt to the system, this cold. We visited with the local Peregrine falcon who nests on the lift bridge between Hamilton and Burlington, we communed with the hundreds of Long tail ducks, I finally grasped the difference between a Canvasback duck and a Redhead by seeing them side-by-side. There were also coots, trumpeter swans, bufflehead, greater and lesser scaup, common mergansers — all usual suspects for January. And just when the day started to feel a little too uneventful we stopped by the Bronte Harbor and saw our first Snowy owl of the year. I gave out a little yelp and said what I say every single weekend I’m out in the field (except that awful day last fall when we stared at 400 house sparrows for hours in a freezing car, desperately in search of the eurasian tree sparrow and came home with NOTHING), “oh my goodness, people! this is the best day ever!” And that’s how birding works.

It really does transform a day and a place into the best thing ever.


First Birds of 2015

Dearest Birders,

I’m so lucky to bird with people who, in addition to mastering bird skills, also have the foresight and wisdom to pay close attention to meteorology, and managed to get us back to our cars before the snowpocalypse hit Toronto. I was so excited to be out in the world, binoculars in hand, that I would have embarked on a snowy owl hunt in earnest only to realize too late in the game that I wasn’t seeing any owls largely on account of the fact that visibility had disappeared entirely. Thankfully, my bird group has infinitely greater meteorological know-how than I do. By the time I hopped on the 401 to drive home I could barely see the car in front of me.

But what a morning it was! We began with a warbler hunt (in January!!) and were rewarded with great looks at a Wilson’s, a Yellow-rumped (Myrtle), and a sharp looking Nashville (I nearly high-fived myself because I recognized the yellow-white-yellow pattern of the Nashville’s underbelly, which I remembered from the banding station; alas, I completely forget the circumstances under which I learned that plumage pattern–surely the plumage distinguishes it from another warbler, but which one I do not know– which is the reason I didn’t end up high-riving myself after all). Our group leader saw an Orange-crowned warbler, but I won’t pretend I did. The orange-crowned is a frustrating one for me because I can’t distinguish it from the Tennessee, which is particularly problematic because I never seem to remember what the Tennessee looks like exactly, and trying to figure it all out when dealing with fall plumage, wherein both warblers look greenish-grey and rather nondescript, is too much for my little brain. So I focused on things I could actually see and enjoy.

Wilson's warbler! In January! In Oakville, Ontario! Photo from here.

Wilson’s warbler! In January! In Oakville, Ontario! Photo from here.


All this warbler action struck me as both remarkable and deeply puzzling. WHAT ON EARTH ARE THOSE POOR SONGBIRDS STILL DOING HERE? I wish they were in Central America, hanging out, enjoying some R&R on those bird-friendly coffee plantations where they belong! Oakville, Ontario is no place for them.

I watched a Brown creeper edge its way up a tree trunk in a clever, rather stylish spiral motion. I saw both ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets bopping around with the warblers, and caught a glimpse of both nuthatch species too. And then there was a Downy, which I mistook for a Hairy (it seemed oversized, but it turned out I was just standing really close to it), and a fantastic Red-bellied woodpecker whose name strikes me as a total misnomer because the bird’s belly is entirely white (sometimes with hints of grey, but maybe I’ve only seen dirty red-bellied woodpeckers) while its head is red.

I also made the terrific faux-pas of getting excited by a Red-headed woodpecker which turned out to be wooden decoy. That might have been the low point of the day, and under different circumstances I might have become frustrated by my lack of birdy progress if I’m still mistaking wooden decoys for the real thing, but a second later I glanced up and saw an Evening grosbeak, a phenomenal winter bird whose radiant yellow plumage managed to illuminate the drab grey sky behind it, and trust me today was really greyer than grey. And there were northern cardinals and slate-colored juncos, and a white-throated sparrow or two, and a memorable trip to High Park’s magical bird sanctuary which sports close to 100 bird feeders thanks to its indefatigable founder and lover of all things avian, Bob “The Bird Man” Holloway, who passed away earlier this year and is sorely missed.

A wonderful beginning to 2015!