Monthly Archives: August 2016

A Chicken, a Flicker, Roger Tory Peterson & Me

Beloved Birders,

I must left you all hanging yesterday when I told you that I bought a painting of a chicken, and forgot to share it with you. Hope you didn’t lose sleep over it. In any event, here is the Chicken, painted by the lovely Dawn Stofer of Denman Island. You’ll be happy to know that when I purchased said bantam chicken, I was very appropriately clad in my chicken T-shirt purchased at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. Serendipity? Or maybe the chicken stars were aligned that day. In any event, here is the masterpiece which makes me very very happy:

Bantam series 18, by Dawn Stofer

Bantam series 18, by Dawn Stofer. Embarrassingly terrible photography by yours truly. 

Chickens aside, I just learned that today is the birthday of Roger Tory Peterson, bird god extraordinaire. He would have been 108 today. I think of the great RTP every time I see a Northern Flicker because I know that was his favorite bird, and it happens to be mine too (or one of my 20 favorites). I’m enamored of the way the flicker wears his cacophonous polka-dotted & striped plumage with confidence; would that I had such assurance in my choice of dress. Seriously — a woodpecker trapped in a fashionista’s body.

But what I marvel at most is that Peterson — the man who had traveled the world and seen the most exotic species imaginable — still loved the common, ubiquitous flicker best. It’s the loveliest way of reminding me that the greatest, most exciting natural world is the one right outside our window and that there’s never an excuse not to pay attention. Thanks for the reminder, RTP, and happiest of birthdays. You enriched the world of birds (and, by extension, my world, too) immeasurably.

Small Miracles

Beloved Birders!

I’m back from a week in paradise, which included meeting my godson for the first time, spending four days with my childhood best friend and her lovely family in Vancouver, and traveling west to Denman Island to spend three sun-filled days with my grade 5 teacher and his wife. I saw Bald Eagles, Oregon juncos, spotted towhees, belted kingfishers, downies and hairies, an Anna’s hummingbird, and a magical red-breasted sapsucker. I heard dozens of pileated woodpeckers. It wasn’t so much seeing the birds that delighted me — though I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t squeal at the sight of the red-breasted sapsucker! — but knowing that looking for birds was now inextricably part of my life. We walked along the beach for hours, swam in the ocean, picked blackberries, ate pie and more pie (always the sign of a perfect vacation), and I even came home with a small painting of a chicken. (Alas, I missed the chance to return home with 12 [free!] semi-retired hens, which were advertised in the Denman Island monthly paper.)

I grew up in Vancouver, and it’s strange to return to a place where I can see fragments of my past on every corner. So this time we also visited a few places that were new to me: Iona Beach Regional Park in Richmond, where the Fraser River meets the ocean, and where we walked along the spit for hours in the company of gulls; Deep Cove, a charming village in North Vancouver, with great pottery, coffee shops, and a fantastic trail system, not to mention the cutest little beach. Of course I couldn’t do without the staples: breakfast at the Naam cafe, where I’ve eaten regularly since moving to Vancouver in 1980, dinner and pie at Aphrodite’s, swimming at Kitsilano beach, walking along Jericho beach, a visit to Hagar Books, and talking and talking and talking with old friends who have known me since the early 80s.

And on the way back to the airport, holding back tears, as always happens when I revisit a place so drenched in nostalgia, I realized that if small miracles exist, this trip was one of them: ocean, mountains, old friends, birds, books, pie. I love the pieces that make up my life.

And then I returned home to this gift from my sister:

It's a felt bird!

Oh My Goodness! It’s a felt bird!

Let me know if you have any ID tips for this lovely avian creation. I might have to put the question to the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), since I didn’t seem to find it on their checklist…

Slight Setback

Beloved Birders!

I got ahead of myself a few posts ago, when I marvelled at my newfound abilities to recognize a few birds by song. Call it hubris, call it being human, call it wishful thinking.

All that to say that, unsurprisingly, I have been humbled, brought back to earth, so to speak. This weekend, upon arriving at Sam Smith park, I heard a bird I thought I recognized and immediately smiled to myself and said, Eastern Phoebe. There could be no doubt — I knew the song of the phoebe, the way the bird utters its own name, accented on the second raspy syllable. Well…It turned out to be an American goldfinch.

The worst part isn’t so much the misidentification — that happens all the time — but what gets me is the certainty with which I said it. I can almost hear the smugness in my own voice.

For a minute, I felt myself shrinking in my seat, thinking how could this STILL be happening, how could I STILL be making the same mistakes. And then I straightened up and laughed to myself. A few years ago, I couldn’t distinguish a goldfinch from a warbler and I didn’t even know what a phoebe was, let alone be able to describe its call.

What does one do in the face of such birding setbacks? Here’s a partial list:

  1. Smile. Get over it. Eat a peach. Have a donut.
  2. Review the songs when you get home. Laugh at your error. Marvel that the two songs ever sounded remotely alike in your mind.
  3. Ponder the possibility of scientific discovery: perhaps you witnessed a unique situation of a goldfinch impersonating a phoebe? Maybe the goldfinch you heard was in the throes of an identity crisis?
  4. Recall that Downy woodpecker call you heard a few minutes after the erroneous ID and remember your correct ID. Smile. One day can contain multitudes.
  5. Remember this day in all of its vivid clarity; a few years from now you’ll be stunned that such a mistake could have taken place. You’ll be on to other, bigger, brighter, more astonishing mistakes.
  6. Have an ice cream sandwich. Make plans to go birding again next week.


Beloved Birders!

We have just returned from paradise: an extended long-weekend on Georgian Bay, just west of Pointe-au-Baril, nestled on an island that looks like something straight out of a Group of Seven painting, sloping pines and all:

This is the landscape I stared at every day, all day, and couldn't get enough of it. My photos are, as usual, horrible, so this one is from here.

This is the landscape I stared at every day, all day, and couldn’t get enough of it. My photos are, as usual, horrible, so this one is from here.

We swam about ten times/day, watched the sunsets as if they were live-action films, ate well, and didn’t complain about the heat a single time. The minute I felt on the verge of uttering the word “hot,” I simply jumped off the dock and landed in pristine water. There was no need to speak of the meteorological malaise I’ve been undergoing all summer long. True respite indeed.

And there were loons! and Black-and-white warblers galore, and an enormous Hairy woodpecker, heaps of chickadees and a fox snake that would have terrified me completely had I actually thought about it, but the whole encounter happened so fast that I was mesmerized by the velocity of the slithering creature.

But mostly I just stared at the water and the trees and sat in a Muskoka chair and let my mind wander. For instance, I wondered whether I am the only Yiddish-speaking birder in Toronto. And if so, I wondered whether there is any significance in that thought. And before I knew it my deep thoughts were only growing more meaningful and I abandoned thinking altogether.

And then we came back to sweltering Toronto, and it’s been nonstop ice-cream sandwiches ever since. And peaches. And swimming in the pool. And work and life and everything else.

I have a new book on my bookshelf called Research is a Passion with Me, by Margaret Morse Nice. I had no idea that there was an ornithological club in Toronto named after the Grande Dame of ornithology (largely because the TOC didn’t admit women at the time!). Must look into this further.

And on that note I think it might be time for yet another ice cream sandwich.

Larkwire and Other Non-Newsworthy Matters

Beloved Birders!

Back in May, my husband and I went to Long Point (aka: birdy heaven) and went on a great walk in Backus Woods with the ever-knowledgeable and all-round-fantastic Jody Allair, who recommended that I buy (and use) the Larkwire app up improve my birdsong-recognition skills (ie: to GAIN some song-recognition skills, but Jody is too kind to ever put it in those terms, but we’re among friends here, right? so why not be brutally honest).

Anyhow, fast-forward a few months. I’ve been spending about 10 minutes on Larkwire birdsong quizzes every day and though it drives my fabulous husband absolutely bonkers (I suppose I could do birdsong quizzes when he’s not at home, but that would obliterate about 98% of the fun). AND…yesterday morning I went out on my walk and recognized a NORTHERN FLICKER! a DOWNY WOODPECKER! and all the usual suspects. But that I could recognize these birds exclusively by song felt nothing short of miraculous. So…lots of work to be done still — there are, obviously other birds in Ontario apart from the 20 songs I seem to have “mastered” — but I feel like my neighborhood has grown richer (in my mind) from the experience of recognizing what it is I’m hearing.

Northern flicker. My favorite bird (today). It turns out I'm in good company because the flicker was Roger Tory Peterson's favorite bird as well. The ones we saw were rather feisty.

Northern flicker. Image from here. Hearing it almost beat seeing it. (OK, not quite; who am I kidding.)

QUICK NEWS FLASH: I just looked out my window and saw a person whose gait I distinctly recognized. I grabbed my binoculars and, sure enough, it was my almost-97-year-old grandmother walking up Yonge street, hatless, in the 42 degree Celsius heat, out for her mid-day constitutional stroll. Wow. Nuff said.

Addendum to the preceding paragraph: I don’t always use binoculars to look at people on the street from the eighth floor of my building. But sometimes I can’t resist.

I’ve also been consuming vast quantities of Ontario peaches. They are melt-in-your-mouth delicious. No, actually they’re spill-all-over-you-and-make-a-mess-of-your-new-white-pants delicious. Full disclosure: I eat my peaches while standing at the kitchen sink.

And for those of you wondering: I still haven’t managed to learn the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight. It’s slow going. But I’m back at the Czerny and more than half-way through op.299. Humbling, slow-going, but also kind of fun in its constancy. I’m realizing that these studies will always be HARD, no matter how much I play them and work at them, but every day they’re a little less hard, a little more familiar, a little more — dare I say — pleasant. It’s kind of like learning bird songs. And writing, too.

And TA-DA! Out of the blue one day, you might just recognize the song of a Northern Flicker.

On Not Having a Nemesis Bird

Beloved Birders!

This weekend, a friend asked me about my current Nemesis Bird. Without thinking, I immediately blurted out, PILEATED WOODPECKER, but paused before I could finish the word “woodpecker.” And then I had to explain the slightly embarrassing reality that after drooling over Pileated woodpeckers for the past four years, I forgot that I had actually already seen one.

“So what now?” they asked me. And I paused again, because I hadn’t really thought of a back-up nemesis bird. I’ve now seen every single bird on my Sibley’s Backyard Birds poster — well every one except for the Brown-headed nuthatch, but I can’t seem to summon up the energy to transform the self-effacing, diminutive, neck-less nuthatch into a bona fide nemesis. It’s somehow too cute, too docile. A nemesis bird, in my mind, needs gravitas of one sort or another.

Photo from here.

Brown-headed nuthatch (Stitta pusilla). Not exactly nemesis material. Too cute, right? And, frankly, every nemesis needs a neck. Photo from here.

And so it appears I’m on the hunt for a nemesis bird, which feels particularly strange because I don’t feel the need for one right now. I’m at the stage in birding where I’m still ecstatic to see anything new that comes my way — most things still surprise and delight me. I’m still a sucker for flamboyant colors and birds that resemble slight accidents of nature, like the forever-pouting American Woodcock with eyes placed much to close to one another, my all-time avian-hero.


For some reason being happy with one’s lot — birdwise or otherwise — doesn’t make for exciting story material. There isn’t much conflict or tension or drama in being happy with whatever you see.

Maybe I’ll just answer the nemesis-bird question with Eskimo curlew or Ivory-billed woodpecker from now on. With extinct birds, I suppose I’ll never have to find a replacement nemesis again and won’t find myself in such a confounding predicament.