Monthly Archives: September 2015

On Forgetting My Field Guide

Beloved Birders,

I seem to harbour more than a passing crush on David Sibley. My office is now turning into a DS shrine. I have his 2015 bird calendar, a poster of his backyard birds, and a copy the Sibley field guide all comfortably coexisting with barely two feet separating them.


And yet this weekend, by technological and meteorological error, I accidentally forgot Sibley (in the form of a field guide) at home. The situation wouldn’t have been dire if I hadn’t accidentally ended up at Ashbridges Bay in the midst of what felt like a veritable warbler fallout. I didn’t even have to go looking for warblers; I just stood under a tree and they flocked toward me in impressive numbers. I’d like to say that it was me they were attracted to, but that would be a gross, megalomaniacal exaggeration of my person. No, they were after the last remains of the bugs that early fall still has to offer. That coupled with the pouring rain we had the day before and voila! A fallout.

All of this would have been most wonderful, a dream situation, but here I was in the midst of “confusing fall warbler” mania with nary a field guide! How would I confirm my sightings? How would I tell a Tennessee from an orange crowned warbler? How would I remember what a drab cape may looks like? How would I make certain that I wasn’t committing arch ornithological faux-pas?

Well, I couldn’t. Here I was in the midst of the highest density of warblers I’ve seen this season and I couldn’t even be sure of what I was looking at!

And you know what? After a moment of slight panic and fear of mis-identifying everything (you’d think that with my mad skills I’d be used to this, but no, it turned out it was almost too much for my fragile ego to bear!), it turned out to be remarkably liberating. I pointed my binoculars toward the birds and marvelled. I was thrilled to recognize a black-throated green, an American redstart, a black-and-white, a blackburnian, and a magnolia with certainty. Those I knew. And as I spent time with each of them, focusing on the plumage, head, tail feathers, it really did feel like reconnecting with old friends. And the ones I didn’t recognize exactly? Well I marvelled at them also. I watched them flutter from branch to branch, engaged in their game of hide and seek by practicing my binocular-skills, I befriended even the ones I didn’t know. The greyish green warblers and that lone flycatcher-esque bird remained my favourites, precisely for the mystery they held.

How rarely I give myself permission not to know. And how often it can turn out to be a gift.

The thing is, I’m at a bit of a frustrating point with birding. I know so much more than I did five years ago (for instance, i never would have been able to say flycatcher-esque and known what it meant even a year ago), and yet I still know virtually nothing. Every other song I identify is incorrect. And remember last may when I accidentally mistook a green heron for a HUMMINGBIRD? Yes, that was me. Birder extraordinaire.

Too often when I’m out in the field, I get frustrated by my lack of knowledge. I’m at the stage when I want to accumulate more and more and the more I focus on the accumulation the more I sometimes miss the pleasure of simply looking.

This past Sunday my accidental forgetting of Sibley at home turned out to be a blessing. For the first time in months, I looked with nothing but pleasure and excitement at this miraculous world around me. I took the time to genuinely attend to everything I was seeing. And is there anything in the world better than that?

And Just Like That

And just like that, the heat broke and it is, somehow, miraculously fall in earnest. I went for my early morning walk and couldn’t shake the smile from my face. After nearly ten days of lugubrious humidity-induced slow-motion pacing, the world feels palatable again. And so it goes. These changes in weather affect me on a physiological level these days, or perhaps they always did and I just didn’t stop to notice.

Either way, I am becoming an apprentice of weather. I’m paying closer attention to the modes and moods of meteorological fluctuations. That parameters can shift within the span of hours, and what was suddenly is no longer. And what puzzles — or entices — me most is the body’s tendency toward near-total amnesia. In the throes of the heatwave, I knew not how to understand this concept called winter. It felt beyond my body’s capabilities to venture to that place. And today, this morning at twenty past seven, to be precise, wearing a sweater for the first time since returning from Iceland, my body knew, again, how to process the idea of winter. No longer a foreign concept, it turned into something my body instinctively craved.

Is that how migratory birds feel on the eve of their return south in late summer? Is it a physiological jolt of sorts, almost as if their bodies awaken to the idea of winter and a simultaneous drive to seek it out physically. That their perilous migratory journeys are motivated by a physical impulse had never dawned on me.

View from the bakery in Borgarnes, Iceland.

View from the bakery in Borgarnes, Iceland. You’ll be delighted to know that I did not break my routine of eating two vinarbrauds (croissant w/custard and almonds)/day.

And just like that. It bothers me that things can change so swiftly; sometimes I would like smoother transitions. That two weeks ago today, I sat in a bakery-cafe in Borgarnes, halfway between Reykjavik and Stykkisholmur, staring out at the bay filled with shorebirds and lamenting my lack of a scope and perhaps even more serious lack of shorebird ID skills beyond a killdeer and a semipalmated plover, and that now I sit in my comfortable office in Toronto, overlooking a Burrito place, a sex-shop, a retirement home and a cemetery (oh, the progression of life, I suppose), and that both worlds coexist unnerves me.

And yet isn’t that the beauty and tragedy of life? That things happen, birds take flight southward, weather patterns change, years — lives — begin, and end just like that.

Beginnings of Fall

It’s September, dearest birders, but Toronto has never been hotter. Apparently mother nature decided to leave the most wretched humidity for the eleventh hour. And so here we are, sweating, and panting well into the first week of September. But I won’t complain. Or I’ll try not to. And I’ll do my utmost not to begin every sentence with, “well in Iceland…” because the fact of the matter is that problems of humidity, sweating, and panting (weather-related, of course) don’t exist, because in Iceland the weather is perfect as far as I’m concerned. On the volatile side, without a doubt, but delightfully crisp, always. And so before I abandon my Icelandic thread, let me just say that I miss that strange island. I miss it so much I just bought a film festival ticket to see RAMS (Hrútar), the latest film by Grímur Hákonarson. I’ll let you know how it goes. How could I say no to a movie about sheep, familial reconciliation, and Icelandic sweaters?

But things are slowly starting to fall into place here in Toronto, extreme heat notwithstanding. I went out birding yesterday in the oppressive heat, and thought the day was a complete wash, and then out of the blue, a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), with its competing polka-dotted, barred, and crested plumage. These patterns would clash on anybody else, but the Northern flicker sports his attire with dignity and confidence. And after the flicker, a House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) appeared, and I managed to recognize the bird’s wren-like nature by its shape, and then knew it was a House and not Winter or Carolina wren by its song, which seemed like nothing short of a miracle to me. A Carolina Wren later bewitched us with its song, and a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) let out chatty, squirrel-like calls nearby. I caught a Warbling vireo’s burbling, warbling song, and then we were rewarded with great looks at a Nashville warbler, a Wilson’s warbler and a Magnolia warbler, all fluttering about in the low shrubs for a few minutes. And just like that, within moments, I forgot about the dire heat. For a moment everything seemed in order, exactly as it should be. September is a wonderful, but slightly melancholy month for me. These are the last sightings we’ll have of warblers before they make their perilous journey south. A good-bye of sorts.

And yet this year, I’m seeing more. I’m recognizing a few more songs, I’m noticing a few more plumage details. It’s slow, this birding-knowledge-acquisition, but it’s marvellous. A year ago I couldn’t have told you a bird was “wren-like” and I certainly wouldn’t have thought to pay attention to a greyish, drab warbling vireo’s bright eyestripe that now looks to me like rebellious eye-shadow and brings me right back to those trips to the mall in 7th grade and all those unfortunate, but oh-so-earnest experiments in make-up. Is it wrong to see myself in these birds? To recognize pieces of my life? Because perhaps what’s happening is that birds have unexpectedly, completely unintentionally turned into an inextricable part of me.

In other good news, a piece I wrote about migratory restlessness (Zugunruhe), both birdy and personal, has been long listed for the CBC Creative Nonfiction award.