Monthly Archives: May 2017

Scribing

Beloved Birders,

I could tell you about my amazing trip to Carden Alvar, where I saw two Wilson’s Snipe up close and personal (so close I didn’t even need binoculars), where I saw numerous Bobolink, correctly identified the song of a Grasshopper Sparrow (it would have been hard NOT to ID this song — he was buzzing nonstop and somewhat ferociously), saw a Golden-winged Warbler, a Loggerhead Shrike, an Upland Sandpiper, and even a hybrid Brewster’s Warbler. I could tell you about how I accidentally misidentified a Brown Thrasher as an Eastern Meadowlark, not once, not twice, but four times total until the form finally sank in and now I feel like I could recognize a Brown Thrasher in my sleep…until, of course, the next time I misidentify him…I could tell you all that and more.

But instead, I’ll tell you that this morning, I finally decided to go through my 1970 & 80s children’s books, all sent to me by my grandmother from the former Soviet Union, books I read myself and books that were read to me by my parents, poems and prose, most of them imaginatively illustrated, printed on brittle paper, with a price stamp on the back (most of the books cost between 5 and 10 kopeks). I’ve been keeping these books for my nephew, and I think he might be old for us to read him some of these…then again, he might just try to eat the books and they’re likely toxic, so this might backfire! I remembered some of these books — fairy tales, stories by Pushkin, poems by Chukovsky, but I had no idea how many books I had growing up about birds! Titmice and Nightingales and Woodpeckers and Eagles and Owls and Bullfinches — this was a world I felt quite at home in as a child. Who knew?

I keep saying that I discovered birds at the age of 35, accidentally, on a whim, while auditioning hobbies, but now it turns out the narrative is more nuanced. That maybe, unbeknownst to me, this birding obsession is, in itself, a homecoming of sorts. Maybe they were there all along, just waiting for me to look up and take notice.

How little it turns out we know about the very things we think we understand so deeply.

And so the scribing continues (both at the banding station and beyond, in my semi-writerly life, too), as a way of gaining yet another ounce of a semblance of understanding. But without that impulse, that striving toward understanding(no matter how flawed) — where would I be?

Spring in These Parts

Beloved Birders,

It’s May, peak of spring migration, the month I’ve been looking forward to all year. And like anything I long for, there is also attendant anxiety: will I see more warblers than last year? Will I manage to see that Canada warbler that has eluded me for two years no? Will I properly savor the month of May without wishing it to go faster or slower — will I just let it be while knowing that I’m getting out as much as I can, binoculars in hand, looking up whenever possible, learning more bird songs, recognizing more field marks?

Of course May is all of that and more. I’ve been volunteering at the banding station when work has allowed (on average 1-2 times/weeks), and it’s been wonderful. The act of scribing only gets more riveting, as I’m slowly improving my ability to age and sex birds; I can now tell you which kinglet tail looks younger (most of the time). The knowledge doesn’t come in robust bursts — as I wish it would — largely because I’m not putting in the requisite hours (because…well, work, life, etc), but it’s trickling in slowly, relentlessly, and the accumulation of bits of knowing — birdy factoids, mainly — is a pleasure in itself.

Apart from all the magic of birds that May brings, it also ushers in some stunning fashion experiments and discoveries. As Lake Ontario water levels continue to rise, we’ve been forced to move into classier attire at the banding station, since knee-high boots no longer suffice:

Yours truly at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station. Photo taken by Hellen Fu, approximately 10 minutes after I had extracted a black-and-white warbler from a mist net, accompanied by the whooshing sound of a gigantic carp swimming by.  

I know not whether there could be a sexy way to sport hip waders, but I certainly haven’t figured it out yet. In any event, walking through thigh-high water is a far better leg workout than most of what I do on the elliptical machine. It should be recommended in all fitness regimens.

Sadly the photo doesn’t show the full splendor of my baseball hat: perhaps if you look very closely you can see the outlines of an embroidered Javelina. I bought this hat last December at the Chiricahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona and wearing it reminds me of the day I saw approximately 30,000 sandhill cranes and a flock of yellow-headed blackbirds in Whitewater Draw. And even if I hadn’t just extracted my favorite warbler from a mist net (every extraction is an EVENT), I’d still be smiling because when wearing a Javelina hat — container of so many memories — how could anything but a smile be possible?

I wonder about my fidelity to my favorite birds. I’ve seen dozens of birds more splendid than the Red-winged blackbird, but I’m still indebted to the redwing for being the bird that made me look twice. As my spark bird, it holds the top place, if somewhat unwarranted, in my hierarchy of favorite birds. Then there’s the black-and-white warbler — the bird trapped in a zebra outfit — which I also love best (yes, I have a favorite for every species) because it was the first warbler I recognized BY MYSELF. Now I know it by its behavior — the warbler that thinks it’s a nuthatch and often creeps, head-first, down a tree. I still swoon when I see it, even thought the Blackburnian, Hooded warbler, Prothonotary, and Northern Parula are, objectively, more spectacular. And yet, in the end, I’ll always choose the black-and-white. The warbler that made me want to see more, the one that made me recognize the potential in these tiny, fluttering migrants that boldly embark on the most perilous of journeys twice a year.

Anyhow all that to say that this spring has been extraordinary. I finally saw a Tennessee warbler in the hand, and marvelled at its elegant white eyestripe, and seeing the bird so close-up has finally cured me of years-worth of statements like, “Tennessee warblers are boring.” What a gift it is to be able to see birds this close, even if it does require hip waders and 4:15 am alarms. How wonderfully strange life is.

 

Spring again!

Beloved birders!

It’s been a while. I’d love to offer you a tremendous excuse, but I don’t have one. Other than life, I suppose. So let me fill you in on the past 6 weeks or so: the Mister and I spent three fantastic days in Montreal. We went to see the Chagall show at the Musee des Beaux Arts (ostensibly) and though we did make it to the show, and it was fantastic, poor Chagall was entirely overshadowed by all the food we ate. Oh Montreal, glorious mecca of food, I miss you. We had bagels at St. Viateur and Fairmount, drank the best cappuccino of my life at San Simeon (rue Dante, near Jean Talon market), had the second-best cappuccino of my life at Cafe Olympico, ate exquisite sushi at Juni on Laurier, indulged in a requisite smoked meat experience at Lester’s, visited three fantastic bookstores, walked on the Mountain, and ate what felt like a lifetime supply of cannoli from Alati Caserta (also on rue Dante — I could easily, and happily, spend the rest of my life on rue Dante). We drove back to Toronto with a pound of lox from Victoria Fish Market (on rue Victoria & Van Horne), six cannoli, four gigantic lobster tails stuffed with riccotta (Italians are pastry geniuses), and 36 Fairmount bagels.

But it appears one can’t manage everything. The birds in Montreal were less than spectacular: our sightings amounted to four lone chickadees and a dozen dark-eyed juncos.

And now somehow we’re in the thick of migration, once again: I’ve been scribing at the banding station, wandering around local parks in the city searching for warblers (and finding them). A few weeks ago, I even saw my first Ruff.

In other news, our trip to Montreal sadly coincided with passover, which meant that Cheskie’s was closed and I couldn’t taste their chocolate babka. What’s a girl to do without babka? So I learned how to make it and spent an evening buried deep in dough, chocolate and orange rind. The results were extraordinary and in a way I’m thankful to the sad timing or our trip. Before the babka, I made cardamom buns, and before that I tried my hand at baking bread.

Chocolate babka, baked by yours truly. Pardon the dirty kitchen table.

It’s been a curious, birdy, wordy, and utterly satisfying spring.