Monthly Archives: April 2015


I often think about happiness, and how difficult it is to capture it in words without sounding coy or ridiculous or trite. For me, birding consists of moments of pure happiness, joy so deeply rooted, so integral to the person I’ve become that I couldn’t find the words for it if I tried. I will keep trying to grasp at the words, but in the meanwhile, here’s a photo that pretty much says it all. I’m holding a Bufflehead at the banding station at Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station, the piece of Toronto paradise where I volunteer (with a stupid grin on my face for most of the day, even, and especially, when I’m scribing, which has turned out to be the most senselessly thrilling part of spring and fall). We banded the bird, and shortly after posing for this photo I released him by hurling him into the air over a half-freezing patch of Lake Ontario. And off he flew, out of sight.

Here I am holding a Bufflehead.

Here I am, holding a Bufflehead. Photo by Charlotte England.

And look — my hat matches the Bufflehead’s plumage! What a presentiment I must have had while picking out my outfit and rifling through my closet at 5am! As I said, senselessly happy.

Again, for a day

It’s spring here in Toronto. The snow has been gone for weeks now, and what amazes me is how faraway winter now feels. As if I’ve forgotten how to be in winter now that spring has arrived. My boots feel enormous, my parka unwieldy, my scarves and hats unwittingly crowd me; it’s over, the weather patterns tell me. And I consent. My body has fully committed to spring.

And then my bird group decides to drive three hours north of the city, to spend the day in Algonquin park, in Boreal forest heartland, and suddenly we’re navigating snow squalls and it’s winter all over again, and I have to re-acclimatize to this season that I’ve almost entirely forgotten existed. This season that just was, a mere two weeks ago, and now feels like a distant memory. How we are all creatures of weather, it turns out.

We walked snow-covered paths, sometimes falling inwards, knee-deep, in search of a Boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus) and found not one but two! The boreal resembles the ubiquitous Black-capped chickadee, but has a browner head and greyer face and its song feels more drawn out. Put differently, the Black-capped chickadee sings a Boreal chickadee song in double time with more staccato to it.

Here's the Boreal Chickadee. Photo by Daniel Arndt from here.

Here’s the Boreal Chickadee. Photo by Daniel Arndt from here

We continued along the paths desperate for a displaying Spruce grouse. The grouse must have laughed as he no doubt saw us meandering through the woods, freezing slightly, walking single file, positioning one foot cautiously inside the footstep in front of us, and then the next, so as not to collapse into snow. He must have chuckled as we searched for him so earnestly, in silence, so convinced we were that we’d find him.

It was not to be. But to reward us for our diligence, we got a Grey Jay unexpectedly, since most of them are nesting this time of year. And a beaver (in lieu of a moose) also brightened up the day. I’ve never seen Common redpolls with as brilliant a sliver of red–almost as if they had donned red Cardinals baseball caps. Illuminated by the sun, they looked radiant. We also got a merlin, lots of Turkey vultures, Hairy and Downy woodpeckers, a somewhat athletic red-breasted nuthatch, and a glistening, iridescent common grackle.

The morning began with spring, turned rapidly to winter for the better part of a day — I was underdressed, wore the wrong boots, forgot my long underwear — before reverting back to vernal climes. Strange, disorienting climactic shifts, but it felt invigorating to re-experience winter for a day. In all honesty, now that I’ve moved on to anticipating warblers, I didn’t realized how much I missed winter!

Pondering the Nature of Things

Sometimes the pursuit of birds is easier than one would imagine. Last week, for instance, we started off the morning by finding the illustrious and oftentimes elusive Histrionicus histrionics –otherwise known as the Harlequin duck — within minutes of arriving at Gairloch Gardens in Oakville. We spent about ten minutes marvelling at his plumage that looks as if was hand painted by a gifted stylist, and watched him swim further and further away from us, out into the depths of Lake Ontario, as if saying “that’s enough of a beautiful spectacle for now! Too many great looks at a Harlequin could render one smug! Usually you have to work much harder to find this kind of beauty!” And off he went.

We too departed soon after, though a group of Common Goldeneyes regaled us with a fabulous courtship display which involved some exquisite backward neck-stretching moves. And off we went in search of our next target bird.

Within an hour we managed to find the Neotropic Cormorant amidst about 500 Double crested cormorants. The fetching Neotropic variety is slightly smaller than the others and has white on its bill rather than the more common yellow on the double-crested. Needless to say I wouldn’t have been able to find this one on my own, but I was in the company of birdy geniuses who immediately detected a species whose size merited a second look. Meanwhile, I was busy watching the cormorants flying over the water with bits of supplies in their bill, heading toward the trees for nest-building rituals.

A few minutes later we saw our first tree swallows of the year and decided that spring had really begun in earnest. And then we decided to head to Burlington’s LaSalle Marina to see if the resident owl would put in an appearance for us. It seemed he had other plans that morning–an errand, no doubt–but instead, we caught a couple of ring-billed gulls putting on a different kind of show for us. Reproduction in birds is a curious process, often over before one even realizes what is going on, but the gulls seemed to engage in quite a process. The male mounted the female and, in a somewhat regal posture, began his courtship display which included flapping his wings in a mad frenzy and emitting guttural creaking vocalizations.

Here they are. Copulating Ring-billed gulls. Just in case you were curious. Image from here.

Here they are. Copulating Ring-billed gulls. Just in case you were curious. Image from here. Many more available on the Internet. This seems to be a favourite photo-essay topic among nature photographers. Evocative indeed.

This went on for some time before the male dis-mounted, and without another sound the gulls parted ways nonchalantly, as if nothing had ever happened and as if the two of them were total strangers. So very odd, and yet so very…dare I say human?