Monthly Archives: January 2017

On Finding the Duck

Beloved Birders!

The unbelievable has happened. I read Ontbirds, the birdy listserv, saw that a Histrionicus histrionicus (Harlequin duck) was lurking in nearby waters, convinced the Mister that his life goal on a frigid Sunday afternoon was to see said bird (okok, I bribed him with coffee at Birds and Beans cafe — thank GOD for geographical happenstance), and off we went, AND I FOUND IT!

Yes, beloved birders, I had to scream those last four words because I am not accustomed to such turns of fortune. I’m usually the one who sees what I want to see rather than what’s in front of me, or make egregious misidentifications (mistakenly calling a Green heron an enormous hummingbird, for instance). Very — tremendously rarely — am I the one who actually sees exactly what is written on the bird listserv!

Not only that, but I also helped others find the duck. One photographer came in super handy because he took a great picture, showed it to my husband who was having a hard time distinguishing the Harlequin from the flotilla of greater (?!) scaup. My directions didn’t seem to help much either: JUST LOOK FOR THE GORGEOUS ONE! THE ONE YOU’D WANT TO BE IF YOU WERE A DUCK!

Photo from here. Photo by Andy Johnson. Seeing two Harlequins side by side like this would be a dream come true. Nothing of the sort happened today. I saw ONE Harlequin lazily dozing amidst a couple hundred Greater (or lesser, who knows…) Scaup. But then he put his head up and I swooned. The duck with the greatest fashion sense ever.

Let’s just say the photo helped. Anyhow, once he saw the duck, my husband agreed with me. It really was a bird worth putting on three layers of clothes. We also saw gorgeous, sunlit Redheads, Common Goldeneye, Buffleheads, Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers, and a lone White-winged Scoter. And then, we thawed our freezing hands and feet at Birds and Beans cafe, over delicious coffee, spinach empanadas and breakfast cookies.

There do exist those rare days when everything happens according to plan. And let me tell you, they’re marvellous.

Winter Birding

Beloved birders!

There’s no better way to deal with winter than to embrace it full-on. And by embrace, I mean go on an 8 km walk looking for waterfowl and owls in Tommy Thompson park with the good people of the Ontario Field Naturalists. Had I checked the weather report, I might not have gone on the outing — -10 celsius, plus wind. I put my woollens to work (basically, two layers of everything) and set out before reading the weather forecast.

And…the weather was bracing. I met up with over 20 other intrepid, fabulously winterized birders and off we went. Highlights of the day included a gorgeous Northern Pintail duck, an American Widgeon, a King Eider (sadly not in gorgeous adult male breeding plumage, but what can you do), White-winged Scoters, and a Mockingbird that struck me as deeply confused because he was IN the water, pretending to be a duck. Birds are weird creatures. There seems to be no other way to say it.

The greatest peril of the day wasn’t freezing my extremities, as I had feared. Oh no, it was trying to bite into a rock-hard, frozen granola bar and nearly breaking my tooth in the process. But near-injuries aside, the day was a success. Three species of mergansers, a gorgeous Red-tail hawk, and the other usual winter suspects. The numbers weren’t spectacular, but it felt so good to be out in the semi-wilds of Toronto, binoculars in hand.

The beautiful, sunny winter day wasn’t without a tinge of sadness: I learned from my friend Anne-Marie that Don Barnett, fabulous birder, and the person who introduced me to the Christmas Bird Count, passed away. I didn’t know Don well, but I have fond memories of his encouragement, exemplary generosity and empathy back when I was a total novice who still couldn’t tell a Chickadee from a nuthatch.

(In other news, it appears that Anton Chekhov traveled back to Moscow from Sakhalin Island by way of Ceylon, where he acquired a mongoose with whom he lived for two years before donating the animal to the Moscow Zoo. This sheds light on a whole different side of Chekhov. The Chekhov-Mongoose terrain seems rich and positively bursting with potential meaning.)

First Birds of 2017

Beloved Birders!

I wouldn’t want you to lose sleep over the question of my first birds of 2017. The very first was a Barn Owl, courtesy Matt Adrian’s fabulous artwork in my new Mincing Mockingbird calendar:

Matt Adrian’s Barn Owls. Image from here. 

I actually heard my second bird before I saw it: a White-breasted Nuthatch. The bird greeted me on my first morning walk of the new year. In its familiar place, even creeping down its favorite branch, headfirst. Familiarity is one of the greatest surprises of birding: the more you get to know a bird, the more you know exactly where to expect it. It turns out that for all my love of spontaneity, I’m also a creature of habit and routine, and knowing that I share that quality with many of my favorite birds is something I’ve grown quite fond of.

2016 ended with a fantastic birding outing along Lake Ontario with my friend Martha. I learned about the beauty of sometimes setting an easy target bird (you’re pretty much guaranteed to find said bird), finding it, and then laughing at the idea of even having a “target” — isn’t the point just to get out and enjoy whatever appears before you? The morning wasn’t rich in numbers or diversity, but our lovely conversation, the radiant Northern Shovelers, glowing Hooded mergansers, and fiery House finches more than made up for it.

This afternoon, we celebrated my grandmother’s 86th birthday, and in the midst of it, we learned that our dear family friend, Stuart Hamilton, a giant in the Canadian classical music scene, has passed away. I’ll never forget the time Stuart invited my sister and me to his house to recite Racine’s Phedre to us. He had recently committed the play to memory (!) and we had the privilege of hearing two of its acts, recited by Stuart, en francais. I will miss that fabulous intellectual curiosity, extraordinary sense of humor and intrepid approach to life. His life is a true lesson in how to live: keep learning, keep practicing your art, keep improving, keep laughing, never stop. He lived an inspired life, and I’m a better person for having known him. We all are.