Monthly Archives: November 2016

Naked Birding

Beloved Birders!

Alas, nothing risqué going on here in middle-aged birder-land at Birds and Words. The title is a slight misnomer, since all it really means is that I went birding yesterday and forgot my binoculars in the car. I could have perhaps gone back to get said binoculars, but I was also desperate for coffee, and given that the forecast was 100% rain, I let the actual birding take a backseat to the coffee quest, which felt nothing short of essential.

Anyhow, I birded sans binoculars, essentially by GISS (general impression, size and shape), and none of this was too difficult since there were almost no birds around Ashbridges Bay yesterday. Bufflehead, long tail ducks, mallards, a gazzillion chickadees, northern cardinals, a downy woodpecker. I probably missed a few ducks and a few sparrows, but I wasn’t too concerned.The skies had darkened, it was about to rain, and I didn’t feel like I was missing all that much anyhow. I thought about what a boring morning it was, but also recognize that boring mornings are a healthy phenomenon too. The highs of chasing after birds are naturally followed by ho-hum birding experiences.

And then right when I got to my car, a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) swooped down and grabbed a rat in its talons and absconded with said beast. I watched the hawk fly to a nearby tree and ran to get my binoculars from the car. And there he sat on a low tree branch, a dozen meters away from me, feasting on his (her?) mid-morning snack. How very civilized to watch a hawk delighting in his elevenses.

Not the Red-tailed hawk I saw. This is perhaps the most famous Red-tailed hawk in North America, New York City's Pale Male. Photo from here.

Not the Red-tailed hawk I saw. This is perhaps the most famous Red-tailed hawk in North America, New York City’s Pale Male. Photo from here. The hawk I saw had a darker head and the stripes on his breast-band were more pronounced, but the rat was very much identical. I am no rodent-watcher so cannot (yet) comment on the singularity of rats. The tail on yesterday’s rat was a little perkier, however.

As I watched the hawk up close — saw its cinnamon tail with a black band near the tip, the dark rusty band no its belly — and watched him disembowel the rat and dig its hooked beak deep into the rodent’s body, there was suddenly nothing whatsoever ho-hum about the morning. It had turned into a riveting spectacle, and reminded me that there is absolutely nothing cutesy and pretty about nature. Fierce, primal, vital, a manifestation of raw energy. But maybe that’s a better way to describe nature after all.

Saved by an Ornithology Course

Beloved Birders,

Let me be blunt: if it hadn’t been for my Cornell Lab of Ornithology Comprehensive Bird Biology course, I might have lost my shit on Tuesday night as I watched the US map light up, red state after red state. I credit the chapter on Avian classification for helping me remain sane throughout the evening. I sat comfortably on my couch, reading about Archaeopteryx and other early birds from the Mesozoic Era in the Cretaceous period. Surrounding myself with theropod dinosaurs seemed infinitely better than facing the possibility of a Trump victory. I took an online quiz and confused the Confuciusornis with the Hesperornis, but got the Ichthyornis right. I learned about the two groups of living birds: the Paleognaths (flightless birds or ratites) and Neognaths (all other birds except ratites). I read through pages and page of different bird families, and even recognized a few: my favorite Scolopacidae, of which the American Woodcock — likely my spirit animal — is a member, and the Parulidae, to which all our New World warblers belong.

American woodcock. My chase continues.

Scolopax minor. American Woodcock. Member of the Scolopaciadae family, or otherwise known as my spirit animal.

Learning the families of birds will take time, but seeing birds in terms of the larger world they belong to– their larger communities — brings me great joy and a certain amount of comfort. That somehow, in this world, there is a place for everyone.

To say the election depressed me is an understatement. To say I was devastated to not see a qualified, worthy woman become President doesn’t even begin to tell you how I felt. But then I realized that studying ornithology is not escapism: it is learning to appreciate and understand the world of avian diversity, to understand the makeup of our fragile planet which is under threat now more than ever, and to communicate that understanding with others. Getting to know birds on a deeper level (though I will likely always anthropomorphize, and intend to always comment on avian hairdos and fashion pieces) and advocating on their behalf — through conservation awareness — is my chosen form of protest. The environment is under threat by the new administration now more than ever, and it is our job to educate people, raise awareness, and protect the planet in whichever ways we can.

I’ve long thought about taking an ornithology course but wasn’t sure it was worth my time or that I’d be able to hack the science part of it. Now, more than ever, I understand that the choice is being made for me: I’m equipping myself with necessary knowledge to have productive conversations and arguments. As for time? It’s easy to find time for what’s important and what matters. And it makes what I see in the field that much more magical because birds really are the closest link we have to theropod dinosaurs, and what on earth could be cooler than that?

Thank you, Cornell Lab, for this amazing course. Onwards to chapter 3!

What Kind of Birder Am I?

Beloved Birders!

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.

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