Monthly Archives: November 2015

Incremental Progress

Beloved birders,

Progress is happening in the duck department. This Saturday, I went out and successfully managed to distinguish between a female Bufflehead


and a Common Goldeneye!

Common_Goldeneye_(Bucephala_clangula)Now this might not seem like a big deal to you. In fact, you might be wondering (and perhaps rightly so) why it has taken me this long to distinguish between ducks which are so obviously completely different, and now that I’ve posted the photos side by side, I too wonder at my remarkably slow learning curve. I think it might have been the white spot, which I always associated with the Goldeneye, which completely threw me when I kept seeing it on the Bufflehead, where, quite frankly, it doesn’t belong at all. Because the male Bufflehead looks nothing like the female (except, I suppose, size and head shape).



There’s the male, in all his glory, and now perhaps you’re empathizing with me a tiny bit because the female is just so completely other.

And hence the confusion. And the beauty of finally getting it right, after a couple of years. I suppose it’s the satisfaction that some sort of progress is taking shape, that I’m learning, in spite of all my continued misidentifications, and perhaps even on account of all my mistakes. Humbling, for sure, this birding business, but also invigorating.


Beloved Birders,

There’s something ridiculous about my new wall art, this new unwieldy poster of 740 North American Birds that we have just hung.


Designed by the hip folks at PopChart Lab in Brooklyn, the poster makes me smile every time I walk by (which is multiple times a day because it hangs on a wall around the corner from our bathroom, which was a coup in and of itself, because my husband had originally hoped to relegate it to my study, aka: the Bird Horror room, as he sometimes refers to it, lovingly, of course). And yet there’s also something bizarre about the poster. It’s not a teaching tool the way by any stretch of the imagination, and the birds are recognizable to me only because I know them (or most of them, or know where to look to get more complete images of them). This is not a poster for the novice birder, but it’s poster for the bird lover at any stage of the process.


Compare it to Sibley’s backyard birds (which also, for those of you following my interior decorating reports, hangs in our home, to the left of my desk). Sibley’s birds are excellent teaching tools, for their detail, nuance, and the important addition of females as well as males.

Needless to say, my husband’s first question was, “ANOTHER BIRD POSTER?” Do we really need another didactic poster of birds to add to our already zoologically-heavy interior?

I’m not sure whether I’ve shared that my husband has more than a passing thing for elephants, and “our” collection numbers in the hundreds, and I put our in quotation marks, because isn’t that what happens in a marriage? My becomes ours, and inevitably the idiosyncratic kitsch collected by one’s spouse becomes an extension of one’s own. And suddenly one finds oneself inhabiting a zoo and has no idea quite how one got there, but the most shocking thing of all is that one finds it comfortable, and after a while, it’s just home. The place I’d usually rather be. (Except when I’m birding, which is always where I’d rather be. Oh, thoughts on home are complicated around here.)

I had no answer to my husband’s (somewhat reasonable) question about the need for another bird poster, other than I just liked it and wanted it and knew it would make me happy, and it does all of those things. But What I hadn’t realized is that the PopChart poster, by virtue of its composition by bird family is making me see birds in an altogether different way. It changes things to remember that an American Coot, though it hangs out with ducks, is actually a rail and belongs with their kin. Seeing finches and crossbills and their allies lumped together forces me to zone in on their feisty bills, and having the Gallinaceous birds congregating together is just plain bizarre and reminds me that birds are so very OTHER than humans, so very wonderfully strange, and that the strangeness might be the very reason I got sucked into this extraordinary avian world in the first place. (I know that field guides are arranged by family, too, but what a difference it makes to see them all in one place–what a world it feels like.)

And I think of my own family, with its bizarre, often inexplicable characters, most of whom I don’t exactly understand, but whose company nevertheless completely delights me.


November Trifecta

Dearest Birders,

Usually November tends to score pretty high on the blah-ness scale for me: dwindling light, onset of cold, but without the colour-frenzy of October, too early to embrace December festivities and much too early to justify a holiday card-writing extravaganza, onslaught of work, and often, to make matters worse, a dearth of fantastic birds.

Not sure what’s happening this year, but so far (and we’re well into the final week), it’s been anything but blah. Weather gods are acting utterly peculiar and we’ve had some of our most gorgeous indian summer days in mid-November! Light is, indeed, dwindling, but this year it’s not affecting me much as usual. Maybe it’s because I’m waking up earlier and catching the sunrise on my daily morning walks, and somehow that bolsters me for the day. Maybe it’s that I’ve had the honour of teaching two wonderful classes to remarkable audiences at the Royal Conservatory and Glendon College (Living and Learning in Retirement) that have offered intellectual stimulation and good cheer; more than anything, they remind me that aging isn’t just about mourning one’s youth (which, alas, we seem to do a fair bit of, here at Birds and Words headquarters), but it’s also about taking (and making) the time  to explore this strange world of ours with boundless curiosity. And that is something I’m more than happy to look forward to.

And the birds! Saturday began somewhat inauspiciously: not only were we headed to Niagara for a morning of gull watching (for those of you who have never been on a gull outing, it’s like playing Where’s Waldo for hours on end while shivering and succumbing to gale-winds and never actually finding waldo in the end because it turns out he had other plans that day), but I was convinced that I had just lost my wallet. The gulls did, indeed, turn out to be underwhelming, but the winds were nonexistent, and we ended up finding three Tufted titmice instead of the lone Kittiwake. I hadn’t seen a Tufted titmouse since I held one in my hand in October 2012 at Ruthven banding station. In a sense, the tufted titmouse is the bird that started it all. I had been afraid to hold him, but the enthusiastic volunteers at the banding station talked me off the cliff, put him in my hand and quickly snapped a photo. In the picture, I’m hovering somewhere between unbelievable joy and total terror.

It seems I’ve trained my memory to be as good a revisionist historian as it can. When I replay the moment in my mind, I craft an expansive narrative around my three seconds with a Tufted titmouse in my hand: I pinpoint those seconds as the turning point, the moment I decided I would volunteer in a banding station, the moment I wanted birds to be a regular part of my life, the moment where I knew that my calendar now gravitated around two poles–Spring and Fall migration.

After reconnecting with the titmice, we found red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, a brown creeper, white-breasted nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos. We left the Niagara region after a couple hours and headed back to Oakville where real magic awaited us. At the beach in Bronte Harbor, we saw a Red Phalarope bobbing about in the water, no more than two feet from shore! Seeing that lifer would have been enough for me — I didn’t even need binoculars, he was that close! — but we were alerted to cave swallows flying around, about 50 meters behind us! And there they were, three of them, choreographing elaborate nose-dives, just grazing the water, and flying up again. A few times they narrowly missed out heads! The cave swallows are on their way south to Texas or Mexico, but for the past three years, it seems that Oakville has become a reliable stop on their southward migratory route! And if that wasn’t enough — TWO LIFERS — we also saw a Snowy owl on the rocks in Bronte Marina.

Who would have thought that the red phalarope, cave swallow and a snowy owl trifecta could be seen in the same place? And when we returned to our parked cars, it turned out that my wallet wasn’t lost after all; it had slid under my seat. Who knew all of this excitement was possible in November?

And for those of you following my birdy interior decorating, we have a new acquisition in our living room. There’s no turning back now. I am officially one of those birders!

New Birds of America poster acquisition from PopchartLab.

Close-up of our new Birds of America poster acquisition from PopchartLab. Even Mr. Birds and Words is a (reluctant) fan. 

It turns out all sorts of magical things are possible in November!