Monthly Archives: September 2017

And Sometimes…Things Work Out

Beloved Birders,

An update on the folding bike that was meant to change my life: it has. Yesterday included a bike ride out to the lighthouse at Tommy Thompson Park (aka: Leslie Spit), which made Toronto seem beautiful and otherworldly in ways I hadn’t experienced in a while. Lake Ontario felt as vast as an ocean, and I was virtually alone at the tip of the spit, which is something that rarely happens in a city the size of Toronto. The minute I leave my apartment, I never feel alone, so this was an unexpected treat.

Today, I biked along the spit twice — once to the banding station (ok, full disclosure: I plopped my sweet little fold-up bike into a friend’s car and hitched a ride to the station), and once to see a ….FORK-TAILED FLYCATCHER (Tyrannus savana).

Photo from here. The beauty I saw was sitting atop a dead tree. It flew every few minutes and showed off its magnificent tail

Oh yes, beloved birders. You’ll recall that I dipped on the Scissor-tailed flycatcher when it hung out at Marie Curtis Park in Mississauga; I tired, hot, busy, hungry, etc, and was somehow convinced that the bird would stick around for a couple of days. But, my beloved (and as of yet unseen) Tyrannus forficatus turned out to be a one-day wonder.

The day started out bright and early, and already extremely hot, and only got hotter as the afternoon progressed (meteorologically speaking, we’re in total mayhem here: I’m sorry, but 40 degrees celsius –including humidity — is not normal in September). I managed to extract a Black-capped chickadee from the mistnet even as it hammered on my knuckles, woodpecker-style, and nipped my fingers constantly. A few years ago, I had tried to extract a chickadee, but gave up once the hammering started. Alas, my friend Charlotte’s pep talk, “you’re stronger than the chickadee!” did nothing to convince me, and I let her finish up the extraction.

I’m trying to figure out what changed and I don’t yet know exactly. This morning, I did a net check, cloth bags in my pocket, and didn’t let myself think about it too much. I would try a bird, and then another, and then a third, and then the fourth one turned out to be that chickadee, and we did exchange a few harsh words, the bird and I, but ultimately I just fiddled with the netting until I had the feet firmly gripped, then slowly removed each wing from the mesh netting — almost as if I were taking the bird’s overcoat off — and then the head came off quite easily. Strangely, the whole thing was rather painless. (I did have to radio for help with the next bird — a feisty and challenging Winter Wren, lest you think I’ve become extractor extraordinaire.) In any event, it felt good to be rid of some of my fears; at some point I think I stopped imagining extracting as this thing I could never figure out and just started doing it, small failures notwithstanding. And that has made all the difference. As with writing, when I give myself permission to fail, sometimes the very opposite happens.

We closed the station early, because by 10:30am, it was sweltering and well above 30 degrees. Just as we were leaving, someone got an e-bird alert that the Fork-tailed Flycatcher had just landed at Tommy Thompson Park! The bird has absolutely no business being in southern Ontario since its regular range is in South America — to say he’s colossally flown off course would be an understatement. And for those of you who’ve been following this blog (and perhaps my life) for a while, you know that there’s nothing I can relate to more than being an accidental visitor in an unknown place.

So I hopped on my bicycle and headed for cell 2, where I met up with a bunch of birders, scanned the area, and nearly passed out from the heat. My water had run out, the sun was scorching, and I realized that I wouldn’t last long, so I bid people farewell, and rode back to my car, a little sad, but knowing that if I stuck around for long I’d likely get heat stroke.

As I rode to my car, I composed a blog post called All the Tyrannus Birds I did not See. Rather dramatic, eh? That’s how I was feeling at the time, and indeed, about 10 minutes after I left, the bird was found in a dead tree, a couple hundred meters from where I had been. Once I came home, I proceeded to feel wildly sorry for myself, cooked dinner, did some work, and kept checking bird reports semi-obsessively. When my friend Justin posted a photo on Twitter of the bird, which I saw at 5:45 pm, I hopped into my car, drove back to Tommy Thompson park, unfolded my bike and sped over (this time with a big bottle of water), and…there it was, waiting for me.

The Fork-tailed Flycatcher was better than I had imagined. It flew every couple of minutes and showed off its resplendent, fantastically long tail. And I watched and watched and watched until the sun started to set and slowly turn pink, at which point I got back on my bike and rode the rest of the way to my car with a ridiculous grin on my face. And sometimes, for no reason whatsoever, things do work out and it’s wonderful.

A New Chapter

Beloved Birders,

Along with back-to-school frenzy, and other September madness, it’s also Birthday Month here at Birds and Words Headquarters, and I have no shame in admitting that we love to celebrate milestones large and small with gusto. I’m partially resorting to the royal “we” here, but I’ve done a decent job training Mr. Birds and Words, and now he too exhibits signs of celebratory cheer in September, even in the midst of his horrible ragweed allergies.

In any event, I’ve purchased a Folding Bicycle! Yes, it’s a new chapter. I’ve long wanted a bike, and seeing Lynne Freeman (OFO President, no less) riding her folding bicycle on a regular basis made me start drooling over portable bikes. You see, I live in semi-suburbia, and biking anywhere is near impossible because of a highly useful monstrosity called the 401 highway. The highway itself isn’t to blame, but the urban infrastructure surrounding the highway isn’t exactly bicycle friendly. But let’s be brutally honest: even if it were super friendly, I’m not exactly a pro at hills and would probably die on the climb between York Mills and Melrose, so bicycle commuting wasn’t exactly ever in the cards.

But the thought of having a little bike that I could pop in the trunk of my car and ride around near the lake has always enticed me. I’m excited about this new chapter in my life, and excited to become a biking birder! I’ll keep you posted re: progress.

In the spirit of new chapters, I continue to extract birds at the banding station. Had to radio for help twice this morning, but I managed a handful this morning, including a Wilson’s warbler, a Chestnut-sided, and the drabbest looking Blackburnian you’ve ever laid eyes on. But I had no problem IDing it, and that made it one of the loveliest blackburnians I’ve ever seen. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

Of course, there are daily, hourly setbacks: I mistook the light streaking on a Myrtle warbler for a Blackpoll, and later mistook a Cape May for a Western Palm and a Myrtle. Not a great day for Cape Mays, but granted this one was a young female, and so un-Cape May-looking that it’s no wonder I couldn’t place her. I’m heartened by these mistakes though — more and more I know what to look for, and understand why I’m making certain errors.

I think birding might be the single best antidote to smugness. The minute you think you KNOW something for certain, you’ll realize that you really don’t know much of anything at all. And I think of Leo Tolstoy and his refrain about how we can’t know history for certain, and the second we think we do, something happens to thwart our expectations. Come to think of it, I would have loved to take Tolstoy out birding (even though he probably would have much preferred going on a hunt, and knowing him, he would have hunted in the most environmentally-conscious way possible; too bad he didn’t think too highly of higher education for women, but that’s another story).

Anyhow, if you see someone on a folding bike while trying to maneuver her binoculars, it’s probably me. If you see that same person lying next to or atop of her bike, tangled in her binoculars, nose deep in a field guide, it’s likely me as well. Whichever state you find me in, if you see me please say hello! We can talk birds and words and I promise I’ll be happy to see you.

And we’re off…

Beloved birders,

Suddenly that’s how it feels. And we’re off…where to exactly, I couldn’t tell you, but it’s fall, and with it comes a surge of momentum.

I didn’t blog much in the summer because, sadly, I didn’t bird much either and for me the two go hand in hand. There was a Tricolored Heron sighting at Tommy Thompson Park in late July, the weekend before we left for BC, and seeing that bird may well have been the highlight of the first half of my summer. I’m still not sure how it meandered into Ontario, thousands of kilometers from its usual stomping grounds in Louisiana, but a welcome addition to our surroundings it was. The bird lingered for about a week, which meant that every single birder in the GTA and further afield had time to make their way over to the park. The day I saw the heron, he was in fine company, flanked by short billed dowitchers, among other fabulous shore birds, and gargantuan-looking mute swans Great Egret flew overhead. I stuck around for nearly an hour — there were so many generous people with fine, fine scopes — and couldn’t get enough of his regal burgundy coloring.

And then we went to BC, I fell in love with Stellar’s Jays, returned to Toronto, I had an intense work-project, and somehow it’s now September. The evenings cooled, the mornings are brisk, I’m in my element.

I’m also back at the bird banding station at TTPBRS, and I’ve already extracted more birds from mist nets during these last two weeks than I have in my entire life combined. It appears that my adult ballet classes are giving me a crash course in bravery and unabashed desire to try new things even when I can’t quite do them to my liking. Yet. It may well be that I’ll never have the dextrous agility to untangle birds gracefully, but I’m forcing myself to do it, and lo and behold, I’m improving. I still have to radio for help with every fifth bird or so, but I’m gaining confidence handling the birds. I do still feel that it’s such an honor and a privilege to hold a bird in my hand, to see the molting feathers on a warbler, to feel the bird’s heartbeat. It’s not only the bird’s fragility that I sense intimately, but also its resilience. Holding a diminutive warbler or kinglet in the hand reminds me of the extraordinarily perilous journeys the birds undertake. Whether they feel the stress or not, I do not know, but their demeanor is unflappable, courageous, oftentimes majestic. They’ve taught me more about resilience and bravery than they could possibly know.

Yesterday I held two Semipalmated Sandpipers — one in each hand — and took them outside to release them by the water. I doubt either one of them will ever remember spending two minutes in my hands, cupped in bander’s grip, trying to wrestle free, but I can still feel them, their silky plumage and elongated bills, eyes blinking feverishly, before I flung them up into the air to let them go. I watched them fly away, weaving haphazard patterns in the air, so eager to be free of me. And just like that, like magic, they were off.