Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Importance of Looking Down

Beloved Birders!

I’ve been thinking a lot about my neck recently. So much of birding is focused on the act of looking up, and learning how to navigate that act with as little pain as possible. I never imagined that birding would transform me into a great massage-therapy patient, but it has. With warbler season coming to an end, the need to crane and contort my neck is also thankfully being put on hold for the next six months.

Seeing warblers comes at a price, but I’ve never thought to question whether the attending neck trauma is worth it. You see, there’s something lofty about looking up. High up. The pursuit seems inherently noble and elevating. I’m learning to see what others don’t have access to, learning to decipher (or just plain read) the intricacies of the world around me.

And yet, I’m beginning to recognize that the importance of looking down might be underrated. This isn’t just because about a month ago I inadvertently found myself chest-deep in a well while looking examining a Wilson’s warbler high up in a tree. I got so caught up in his plumage, his general vivacity and playfulness that I forgot to look down as I took a step behind me. Well, actually, in the spirit of full disclosure, I wasn’t just caught up in the Wilson’s warbler’s beauty. For a brief moment, I think I was in love with the fact that I had found this Wilson’s warbler by my self, and once I saw him I couldn’t stop at just one warbler. Greed overcame me and I wanted another sighting as quickly as possible. And when one wants and needs another warbler on the day’s list who has the mental agility to not walk with one’s binoculars and head pointed straight into the heavens? Alas, not I.

And down I fell into the well. All things considered, I fell as well as one could hope because I came away with no injuries save some minor bruises.

Anyhow, this weekend, I experimented with looking down as well as up, and there were rewards to reap for doing so. While in Barrie, looking up into the sky for the lone Parasitic Jaeger allegedly circling around the bay and chasing ring-billed gulls, I put my binoculars down and asked my bird leader about the bird at my feet: a brown patchy strange-looking “immature gull” who looked like it might have been crossbred with a nighthawk.

You guessed it. There was the Parasitic Jaeger we had come to see. Fumbling about on the shore, no more than ten feet from us. And had I not thought to look down?  (Again, in the spirit of 100% honesty, I probably looked down because I got tired of looking up, but still.) There’s beauty–and payoff–in remembering to look down.

These Days

Beloved birders,

It’s Thanksgiving in Canada, and the weather is perfect, the leaves transitioning to orange-red hues, and I’ve spent the past two days immersed in birds, yet without seeing anything drop-dead spectacular.

And it’s precisely these days on which nothing extraordinary happens that I am starting to relish. We drove west to Selkirk Provincial Park, stood on a wooden bridge amidst a large marshy wetland and watched a downy woodpecker hammer away at a branch while dozens of golden- and ruby-crowned kinglets fluttered above; there might have been a swamp sparrow and a few marsh wrens singing; there were likely turkey vultures flying over head. We stood there, the memory of last September and its splendid fall-plumage almost fluorescent-green-capped chestnut-sided warblers still fresh in our minds, and I marvelled at how birds and place are so interconnected in my mind, at how birding has taught me to see the beautiful, the unexpectedly sublime, in this southern Ontario landscape that I had spent so many years hating and running away from. And I must admit that while we stood on the bridge, allegedly birding, I was already thinking about brunch at the Sunflower cafe in “downtown” Selkirk, a restaurant I’ve also come to love irrationally, not so much for its exquisite cuisine (which it lacks), but for the memory I have associated with my first visit: in October of 2012, we had lunch at the Sunflower after a quick stop at Ruthven park banding station, where I watched as they banded a red-bellied woodpecker unintentionally found myself holding a Tufted Titmouse in bander’s grip, a terrifying expression of glee and horror gracing my face.

And that might well be where it all began. Later that spring, in April of 2012, I applied to volunteer at the banding station at Tommy Thompson Park, where, for the first 2.5 years, I was so terrified to touch a bird that I limited my activities to observation and (often intense) scribing. And then, slowly (because when one is in mid-life, everything that happens seems to happen slowly), my fear and terror that I might hurt a bird or unintentionally cause it harm began to dissipate and I found myself extracting birds from mist nets, untangling the netting from their diminutive bodies, marvelling all the while at the sheer ferocity of will and determination of the tiny migrants and also amazed that here I was–this person who had led an exclusively indoor-life for the first 35 years of her existence–unexpectedly plunged into a life with birds.

And so here I am, thankful for these unspectacular, quiet days nestled among the more frenetic ones. That I could be thankful for and attentive to the unspectacular is perhaps a feat worthy of mention in and of itself. And after the birding, the weekend included piano practice (which included sincere & earnest attempts at a 3rd movement of a Beethoven sonata), writing, staring out the window, bird banding (where once again, the unspectacular loomed large, but I did extract a gorgeous brown creeper from the net and had a chance to appreciate, once again, his long & robust tail), Thanksgiving dinner with friends and family and — it was perfect.

To the beauty of unspectacular days! And many more of them. Happy fall & Thanksgiving!

Ode to a Felted Chickadee

Beloved Birders,

I received my latest birdy gift a few weeks ago (yes, it’s Fall, which means that here at Birds and Words headquarters we celebrate all sorts of things including the start of a new year and a birthday), and here it is, gracing my beloved Sibley bird calendar:

IMG_0364Yes, what you see before you is the cutest little felted black-capped chickadee resting atop a branch, hovering next to Sibley’s attractive (yet, alas, unidentifiable by birders of my skill-level) orange-crowned warbler.

I used to be wary of grifts of this nature. You see, I grew up with music teacher parents, and all of our christmas gifts involved treble clefs, eighth notes, busts of Beethoven… So, when the birdy gifts started piling in, I was a bit embarrassed. Would my home turn into a bizarre avian shrine? Was I turning into a crazy bird lady (who resides not far from the crazy cat lady — you know the one!– who sometimes goes for walks lady who’s recently joined a pug-club)?

And then I just began to embrace it. Why yes, my home is a sanctuary for bizarre bird gifts, posters, paintings, t-shirts, clocks, vases, tea-towels, calendars, you name it. Yes, we seem to love birds of almost any persuasion. And you know what? They make me irrationally happy.

So here it is, folks. I appear to be living a life with birds, and it’s wonderful.

Other birthday festivities, apart from long discussions and life-coaching sessions with the felted chickadee included a fantastic trip to Pittsburgh, where I saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker and a Dodo (at the phenomenal Carnegie Museum of Natural History) and explained to my patient non-birder spouse that no, I hadn’t seen these birds in the field, but perhaps in another spatio-temporal dimension such an event would be possible. After exploring Pittsburg, we drove down to Bear Run to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and all in all it was the best birthday I’ve ever had (warning: I do say this every year, but it’s always true).

And now, it’s back to birds, and words, and lectures, and students, and extracting birds from mist nets, and scribing, and somehow though I may have become that crazy bird lady who talks to her felted black-capped chickadee, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.