Monthly Archives: February 2015

Introducing Charlotte Wasylik, aka Prairie Birder

Beloved Birders!

The people who bird fascinate me. I’ve written about this here, and I continue to explore the people-angle of birding on this blog. I’m interested in the compulsion to bird, what drives birders out into the field, what inspires them, what they’re reading, and how birding intersects with the rest of their lives. To that end, I’ve decided to start an interview feature here on Birds and Words. If you’re a birder (at any stage of your birding career) and would like to be interviewed, let me know!

To inaugurate the series, I interviewed Canadian young birder extraordinaire Charlotte Wasylik. You may know her as the author of the fabulous blog Prairie Birder or you may have even heard her recently on the broadcast of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds radio show. I’ve been following Charlotte’s blog for the past three years and am consistently impressed by her knowledge (trust me, it’s vast!), her community involvement and commitment to conservation issues. I also love that Charlotte is sharing her enthusiasm for all things avian and I admire her all-round creativity. She was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions and has great advice for beginning birders!

Charlotte Wasylik, aka, Prairie Birder, from Vermillion, Alberta.

Charlotte Wasylik, aka, Prairie Birder, from Vermillion, Alberta.

How did you start birding? 
I‘ve always liked birds and nature, and I knew some of the common species around our part of Alberta, including Western Meadowlarks, Black-capped Chickadees, and Green-winged Teals. But until about six years ago, I didn’t pay that much attention to them.
I became hooked when lots of American Goldfinches visited our yard in the spring 2009, after my mother decided to put some nyjer feeders around the garden. More and more goldfinches visited our yard and they were such fun to watch.
What was your spark bird? 
Definitely those American Goldfinches — they are such cheery little birds with a beautiful song, but feisty when sharing a feeder with others.
Did you have a birding a-ha moment when you knew you were hooked? What/when was it? 
I can’t remember exactly when I became hooked on birding, but I think seeing the goldfinches at our feeders had that a-ha feeling to it.
What do you love most about birding? 
Birds are everywhere, so if you travel to a different city, or different country, you’ll see birds! Birds are beautiful, fascinating, and often challenging.
There have been times when birds were so co-operative and then other times when I’d catch just glimpses of a bird. I love the “search” for difficult-to-find species as well as the regular reliable species like Black-capped Chickadees and Tree Swallows. And then there’s the challenge of trying to capture them in a photograph or a field sketch. It’s something I keep working on.
What have some of your birding highlights been? 
Some highlights have been helping to tag Turkey Vultures, banding a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and getting the chance to see Common Cranes, Black-throated Blue Warblers, Cinnamon Teals, and Piping Plovers. And because I’m a lister, getting to 100 species on my life list (which is now at 333 species). 
In August 2012 I was selected to be part of the Young Ornithologists’ Workshop at the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario, so I got to spend a week banding birds, making a study skin, and meeting other young birders from across Canada. Until that time I hadn’t met any birders my age. In August 2013, I went back to Long Point for a four-week Young Ornithologists’ Internship, helping with migration monitoring, and working on a personal research project, a Monarch Butterfly census. It was a wonderful opportunity to spend so much time in such a beautiful part of the country, to devote so much time to a passion, and to learn more about how Bird Studies Canada, which oversees the programs, works.
This past November, I was invited to Washington, DC to be a part of a special 500th show broadcast of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds — a radio show I started listening to in 2010. I had a wonderful time with the Talkin’ Birds crew, and meeting everyone in person for the first time. (You can listen to the show here)
And I just got back from four weeks in Europe with my family. Although it wash’t primarily a birding trip, I did get to do lots of birding in France and Germany and saw more than 70 lifers.
I’m impressed at how you’ve been able to cultivate a birding community – what have you learned about birders? 
All the birders I’ve met online and in person have been so welcoming and generous with their time and knowledge, they’re always happy to see a young or teenage birder show an interest in birds and nature.
When I started the Alberta Birds Facebook group in 2012, I never imagined that in fewer than three years the group would have over 2,500 members from across Alberta, Canada, and even other parts of the world. Members post their birding questions, photos, provincial bird news, and anything bird-related — I’m so glad so many people enjoy the group.
How does birding intersect with the rest of your life? 
Birding is just a part of my life. I’m happiest going out for a bird walk around our farm, with my scope, binoculars, and camera. Birding has also been helpful to me during the difficult times my family has had to face in the past few years (both of my maternal grandparents died in 2010, my paternal grandfather had a serious stroke last year, and my father had cancer). I’ve learned that going birding often also helps to relieve stress, because whether I go around our farm or the provincial park nearby, it means very long walks.
And because we home school, I’m able to incorporate extra biology and bird reading into my studies, which is great. I’m working through the Cornell Home Study course of bird biology.
What’s next for Charlotte, bird-wise and otherwise?
I’m in Grade 12 and not sure what I’d like to do yet. Even if my career later in life doesn’t involve birds or birding, I’ll still enjoy birding as a personal passion.
Who are some of the birders/ornithologists/conservationists who have inspired you? 
Sharon Stiteler is one birder I look up to. She’s funny and makes birding cool, which is something I hope I’ll be able to do.
I’ve also been inspired by Kenn Kaufman and his book, Kingbird Highway, about his decision in 1973 to drop out of high school at 16 and hitchhike across the United States for a “Big Year.” It’s a wonderful book and a fascinating read, and I hope to have such a grand adventure before too long!
What advice would you give a birder who is starting out? 
Put up some bird feeders in your yard — I think this is one of the best and easiest ways to start learning about the different kinds of birds in your area, and observing their behaviour.
Get to know experienced birders in your area since they are some of the best resources for new birders, and they’re always encouraging. It’s also fun to go birding with others, and you might learn about new hot spots and new species in the area.
Keep a notebook to write down your observations or make quick sketches. You don’t have to write a lot at first, just list the species you see and keep notes about the details of your outings. You can then look back and remember what species you saw and when.
Whether you’re waiting for the first birds to visit your feeders or seeing that nemesis bird on your list, be patient. It might take a while to see a certain species, but when you do it will be worth the wait.
Thank you, Charlotte!

An Ookpik in an Ookpik

Dearest Birders!

You may have missed the big news around here, but Birds and Words got a new winter coat. Believe it or not, this is actually tremendously birdy information, just bear with me. While out on one of my (many) outings to find the Painted Bunting, I ran into a woman wearing a gorgeous, yet sporty red knee-length coat that I instantly began to covet. It turned out the brand was a Montreal-based company called OOKPIK. And once I learned that Ookpik is the Inuktitut word for Snowy Owl, I knew there was no turning back. Oh yes, you read that correctly: I based my winter coat decision solely on avian criteria. As luck would have it, the coat also turned out to be both warm and semi-stylish, which helps, but it’s quite possible I might have bought anything from a company called Ookpik.

And on Saturday it finally happened: I saw an Ookpik in an Ookpik! Truth be told, I saw three Snowy Owls. In fact, it ended up only being a five-species day (Snowies were preceded by a million Red-Tailed Hawks, our most common Buteo, which I finally learned to ID by the black belly band, a few crows (not anywhere near a murder) and a delightful Northern Shrike, affectionately known as the “butcher bird”, given its predilection for impaling its prey on thorns), but even so I couldn’t have been happier.

The wonder bird! Photo from here.

The majestic, miraculous, magnificent wonder-bird! Photo from here

I’m not sure what it is about Snowies. It might be their regal stature, their fierce yellow eyes, and this time I even noticed a hint of black bangs on the juvenile specimen. Magical feels like an understatement. Or maybe it’s the allure of the Arctic — yet another indicator that I’m a child of Northern climes. Whatever it is, I’m entirely smitten. My fearless leader found our first snowy sitting atop a barn, displaying its dramatic head rotations. I could have sworn the snowy winked at me, but I was in a bit of a trance, so my narrative may not be 100% reliable. I found the second snowy in a most improbable location: he was resting atop a pine tree, treating the upper branches as if it were an ottoman. The top of the pine tree cradled the bulky owl, and I stared (and yelped etc) in disbelief; I could have watched that bird for hours. The third and final Snowy was hanging out on an irrigation structure in the middle of the fields, likely on the lookout for rodents of all and every persuasion.

It was a glorious day. My snow tires got a workout and I can finally say that seeing an Ookpik in an Ookpik is quite possibly the best thing ever.