Monthly Archives: December 2016

Hello Mincing Mockingbird (Bring on 2017!)

Beloved Birders,

For those of you following me on Twitter, you might know that I had a momentary, yet profound crisis in November when I realized that the Sibley wall calendar did NOT have a 2017 iteration. I’ve lived with the Sibley calendar since 2010, roughly when my birdy nerdy ways began, and couldn’t really imagine how I’d cope without one. In my mind, David Sibley can do no wrong (except for that minor misstep when he chose the CANADA GOOSE as the September bird, and my birthday month began on the wrong note), and his calendar has become a critical part of my home-office decor. I searched for a replacement for the Sibley and eventually settled upon an Audubon calendar, but let’s face it, it wasn’t SIBLEY.

Yesterday, I went to my mailbox to find the most amazing gift: a MINCING MOCKINGBIRD wall-calendar by Matt Adrian, whose bird art blows me away. Check out this majestic Snowy:

Matt Adrian's Snowy Owl. From the Mincing Mockingbird wall calendar.

Matt Adrian’s Snowy Owl. From the Mincing Mockingbird wall calendar.

Now imagine a calendar with 12 such glorious images. And that’s what I received from a friend in NJ when I was least expecting it. In a way, the gift summarizes 2016: unexpected gifts in the midst of, well, all sorts of, world politics which started resembling a dystopian world more and more.

But in the midst of everything, there were extraordinary highlights:

  • A trip to Israel, where I met my wonderful relatives and their 45+ feline creatures and realized that my marriage can be summed up by the phrase “the steppe buzzard and the little bee-eater.”
  • A pair of hand-knit socks, made from wool called BLUE TIT, no less, from an amazing new acquaintance on Twitter
  • an introductory ballet class, where I move in fantastically clunky ways, but every so often I sense a glimmer of grace
  • an ornithology class (I’m four chapters in and currently learning the difference between pennaceous and plumulaceous feathers) which saved me on election night since I had the luxury of choosing theropod dinosaurs over the alarming and depressing results trickling in on my computer screen
  • an owl-shaped soap-on-a-rope
  • an unexpected warbler party at the banding station; watching my friends band a Snowy owl in the wild
  • multiple bird-chases that yielded a Gray Kingbird, a Lark Sparrow, among other highlights
  • wearing my binoculars more than ever before
  • seeing my first Pileated woodpecker and discovering the unexpected loss of no longer having a nemesis bird
  • watching my nephew learn to walk, “talk,” and grow 12+ teeth
  • driving the backroads in Southeastern Arizona and developing a rather keen fondness for taxidermy

It wasn’t all rosy: there were losses, from which I’m still reeling, painful rejections, spectacular failures of all and every persuasion, but that is pure evidence of living, putting myself out there, again and again.

This world is a truly strange and wonderful place, forever surprising, often devastating, and endlessly fascinating. And though I’m a little sad to retire my Sibley calendar, I’m entirely ready for the Mincing Mockingbird. Bring on 2017!

 

35 Lifers and a New Designation

Beloved Birders!

You guessed it. Birds and Words has been traveling. We spent a week in Southeastern Arizona and I waited over a week to write about it because I’m still processing the thrill of spending a week glued to my binoculars every day, roaming the wilds of the Wild West, hiking in the Chiricahua National Monument and basking in 20 degree (celsius) weather and clear blue skies day in day out. I seem to have acquired a new life goal: to become a professional snow bird.

We spent the first three nights in Bisbee, AZ, about 10 miles north of the Mexican border, and a stone’s throw from some of the best birding in the state. Highlights included waking up one morning, telling the Mister that I wanted to see a road runner, and then seeing four of them that very day. Greater Roadrunners do indeed run across the road, apparently as fast as 32 km/hour. Few sightings can compare to a prehistoric-looking avian creature whizzing in front of your car. And that happened FOUR times over the course of a day. After a hike in the otherworldly universe of the Chiricahua National Monument, we descended the mountain and caught the sunset at the White Water Draw, along with approximately 30,000 Sandhill cranes (give or take a few). Just when I thought life couldn’t get any better, I turned around and saw flocks of red-winged blackbirds, which I initially dismissed as just thousands of red-wings, but something forced me to look harder and lo and behold, I came across dozens of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, which only happens to be my second favorite bird in the universe. While at White Water Draw, I embarrassingly misidentified a Great Blue Heron as a Black-Crowned Night Heron, but the universe will forgive me that misdemeanor.

After perusing the art galleries in Bisbee and drinking the best coffee I’ve ever had at the Bisbee Coffee Company and buying stamps in the most delightful post office and visiting the stellar library built in 1906 (or thereabouts — Bisbee used to be a huge copper mining capital; immigrants came from all over the world to work in the mines and the town population was over 20,000 in 1900; now the city clocks in at 5000 souls), I headed for the bookstore (of course) and bought the lovely, indispensable Birds of Southeastern Arizona. (That’s also when I realized that I had also just seen the Mexican Jay).

Bisbee treated us superbly: we ate, drank, listened to fine country music at a local bar, bought some beautiful earrings, and admired the gorgeous vistas.

From there, on we went to Tombstone, where we lasted about half an hour. The highlight of our time in Western-Kitsch-Central was a conversation with the woman who worked in the tourism office; she recommended we watch the classic Paint Your Wagon for a full experience of the west, and we took her at her word, which resulted in two wasted hours of life, but more on that perhaps later, or not.

After Tombstone, we made our way to Patagonia — via San Pedro riparian forest, where my knowledge of sparrows was so pathetic that all I could safely ID was a Loggerhead Shrike (no complaints, the bird is divine); all the sparrows, save the White-crowned, were lost on me. In Patagonia (pop. 950), we spent four nights at the Duquesne House, where breakfasts were divine, and the garden fabulously birdy: I saw my first Broad-billed Hummingbird along with a Black-chinned hummingbird, a Curve-billed Thrasher, a Pyrrhuloxia, Lesser and American Goldfinches galore, Northern Cardinals that went positively bonkers at sunset, and a gazillion sparrows.

Birding in Patagonia was as close as I’d ever come to experiencing birding bliss: we saw the most perfect Vermillion flycatcher perched on a post, giving us photo-worthy poses (if only I had my camera!) at the Nature Conservancy. I saw my first Say’s Phoebe and Black Phoebe, which looked like he’d just put on a freshly ironed tuxedo. Later, at Paton’s — the home of the late Paton family, who graciously opened their garden doors to birders of the world after someone had discovered a rare hummingbird on their property — I saw a Ladder-backed woodpecker and a Gila Woodpecker, along with an Anna’s hummingbird. The following day we ventured out to Patagonia State Park and did not manage to see the Green Kingfisher, which would have been extraordinary, but really, how many extraordinary experiences can I have on one trip? The Kingfisher might have actually brought me to sensory overload, so it’s perhaps a blessing in disguise that we missed him. But I did manage to see a Black-throated Grey warbler, which was thrilling, because he has the best of both the Blackpoll and the Black-and-White warbler.

We spent our last day in Patagonia birding with Matt Brown, an extraordinary bird guide and fantastic guy. He took us to Pena Blanca, where we saw a Bewick’s wren and a Canyon wren, a Verdin, which tried to elude us but for once we happened to outsmart the bird! We got the Acorn woodpecker and the Arizona woodpecker and the Red-naped sapsucker, which brought my AZ woodpecker count to 6 species, which I consider downright amazing. I squealed when we got the Painted Redstart and Townsend’s warbler (the volume of the squeals were proportional to the splendor of the bird; in other words, I screamed louder at the sight of a painted redstart). There were other fabulous birds, of course, including the Canyon towhee, the Chihuahuan Raven, the Bridled Titmouse, the rufous-winged sparrow, the grey flycatcher, and others I’m likely forgetting. Of course our day wouldn’t be complete without spectacular misses, including the Elegant Trogon and the Rufous-capped warbler, but these misses only make me want to come back to AZ for more. I’m completely grateful to Matt for the great day, the awesome birdy conversation, the fabulous hike along a canyon, and the extraordinary birdy knowledge. It was the perfect way to end our holiday.

And Matt Brown even crowned my husband with a new designation. It turns out he’s an S.O.B = spouse of a birder, which sums things up rather well.

As I filled up our tank on our way out of Patagonia, the attendant at P.I.G.S. (Politically Incorrect Gas Station) informed me that the gas station was for sale and asked me if I was interested in buying it. We nearly said yes.

When a Raven Looks like a Goose

Beloved Birders,

There are some days when, no matter how you look at things, a raven looks more like a goose. It’s an unfortunate moment in time when ravens start to look gooselike, because I think it’s a sign of larger things going awry. And that’s the kind of couple weeks it’s been here in Birds and Words land. (You’ll remember that a few years ago I nearly lost it when my beloved Sibley wall calendar had a Canada Goose grace my birthday month. A friend of geese I am not. I want to tell the geese of the world that it’s not you, it’s me. But they likely won’t listen to me.)

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Sheojuk Etidlooie’s magnificent “Raven in Red” (1996) is, alas, a misnomer. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this raven looks positively goose-like. 

The good thing about time is that it passes. And what appeared to look like a goose a few weeks ago, now still looks like a goose, but without the touch of resentment.

And then before you know it you’re out in the field searching for a Lark Sparrow and you see it almost immediately, which relieves you from having to stand in frigid temperatures for more than five minutes, and the day keeps getting better because you then drive to Thickson’s woods, dreaming of owls, see none, but continue onwards to Lynde Shores — where you happen upon a field of 10,000 CANADA GEESE of all things and instead of screaming you just laugh — and find the most resplendent Barred Owl imaginable. And you’re home by noon, just in time for the day’s second cup of coffee and the pile of holiday cards that need composing, and the work projects that need attending to.

And suddenly that goose-like raven, which had offended you so gravely, now looks rather cute. And you wonder how an artist’s imagination could perceive a slick black raven in such radiant red hues. And for the first time in a while, you smile, in earnest.