I’ve been having a bit of an identity crisis recently. It all seems to boil down to this one question, which I’m clearly overthinking, because that seems to be the way of the world over here: what kind of birder am I? There are so many ways to be a birder and the more I try to pin down my “type” the more lost I feel.
Part of me feels completely content as a backyard birder. Apart from the fact that I lack a backyard (because we live in a condo), I’ve kind of mastered the Toronto backyard bird scene. Nuthatches, downy & hairy woodpeckers, cardinals, chickadees, robins, blue jays juncos, house finch, various sparrows, and a few other usual suspects depending on the season. I love watching feeders and, I’ll be completely honest, I enjoy the feeling of having some tangible knowledge.
Another part of me feels at home in the urban birdy setting: I love exploring Toronto’s parks and finding all sorts of warbling surprises literally within 2 miles of my home. It’s fun to know a secret side of Toronto which most people miss. I now know where a lot of flickers dwell in North York, and could probably point you in the direction of an owl or two and a local hawk watch, and some stunning waterfowl, because come on, who doesn’t love a great mid-winter Histrionicus histrionicus (otherwise known as Harlequin duck)? Nothing beats knowing that substantial wildlife exists in the most urban of Canadian cities. There’s also nothing I love more than walking long distances.
Yet another part of me enjoys scribing at the banding station and learning to extract birds and seeing them up close. This season has been pretty heavy on the work front, so I’ve had to take a hiatus from the banding station, but that’s another place I feel at home.
And then there are the various parks within a two-three hour radius of Toronto, which I visit with delight every year, depending on the season. I travel to these places with my bird group — both for social reasons and also because if I were to go alone, I would miss a great deal, bird-wise. I’m at this really peculiar beginner phase where I understand what I’m seeing when someone points it out, but if I am to identify for myself I’ll probably see what I want to see instead of what’s actually in front of me. Basically, I misidentify almost everything I see. I’m ok with that because I know I’m misidentifying less with each passing year, but still.
And then there’s the chase. The twitch. The rare bird report that suddenly sets you on a course down the QEW at 6:30 am toward Bergen, NY in search of a rare Gray Kingbird (Tyrannus dominicensis). The bird that eclipses all rational judgement. The vagrant or the lifer or both that beckons you. The one you know you’ll regret deeply if you fail to hop in the car and go. The bird for which you alter social plans. The bird you suddenly can’t live without. The bird that screams adventure.
Gray Kingbird. Totally worth the three hour drive. Photo from here.
It’s been a while since I chased a bird and I had forgotten just how thrilling it is. This morning was the rare day when all the avian stars were aligned: we got the Gray Kingbird as soon as we drove into Bergen. It’s one thing to see the bird in a field guide and to appreciate it’s thick bill, it’s notched tail, and another thing to stare at its partial black mask and think OH MY GOD IT’S A KINGBIRD CROSSED WITH A NORTHERN SHRIKE! And still another thing to stand in the bird’s company and appreciate the fact that somehow, by majestic twist of meteorology and circumstance he ended up in upstate NY instead of the Caribbean. To stand and stare in awe.
How I’ve missed that.
On the way back into Canada the customs officer seemed stunned that we had travelled all that way for ONE bird. “Didn’t you see a second one?” he asked. I’m still not sure how to explain to someone that one is just plenty. One Gray Kingbird was all the magic I needed.
The day kept getting better and better (in no small part due to the amazing breakfast we ate at the local diner in Bergen where portions were plentiful and hash browns outstanding). We discovered the Iroquois Wildlife Refuge and saw American coots, northern shovelers, American wigeons, hooded mergansers, pied-billed grebe, a fly-by pilieated woodpecker (!!!!!), gadwall and a semi-obscured great blue heron. And then we arrived back in Toronto, and the weather was balmy, and we were greeted at Colonel Samuel Smith Park by a phenomenal Cattle Egret. I took a walk in the late-afternoon sunlight and ran into the egret within even closer range. He preened for me, put on a show, stood on one leg and then the other. Call me crazy, but I think he might have winked at me.
So what kind of birder am I? Maybe a little bit of everything. Maybe I need to stop taxing my brain with my birdy identity crisis and just enjoy whatever kind of birding I happen to be doing. Anyhow, to complicate matters I’ve just registered for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Home Study Course in Bird Biology…