Monthly Archives: November 2017

On Seeing Nothing

Beloved Birders,

You know the day. It’s that day when you decide to venture out on your own even though it’s drizzling and you walk around the park and the most exciting thing you see is a White-breasted Nuthatch. And you half-heartedly berate yourself for not driving out to Rondeau Provincial Park with your bird group in search of the Townsend’s Warbler, but also know that such a journey would have been logistically impossible, so you try as hard as you can to enjoy the Nuthatch. You’re mostly successful and manage to take genuine pleasure in the sight of the nuthatch, largely because you recognized its call before you saw the sharp-billed bird creeping down the tree-trunk. You take a minute to appreciate the fact that a few years ago you would have confused this bird with a chickadee and a red-breasted nuthatch and would have mistaken the bird’s nasal call notes for a squirrel’s.

But you’re not exactly satisfied with the nuthatch. You want more, and so you wade into the bushes and happen upon a few White-throated Sparrows, several Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, and a charm of goldfinches. Before long you’ve also seen a Hairy and a two Downy Woodpeckers, which you correctly differentiated based on the length of their bills. Overhead, a Red-tailed Hawk zooms by, and later a few Turkey Vultures display their prominent angled wings, which you know to call a dihedral. And you chuckle to yourself at the word dihedral, which you couldn’t have imagined using ten years ago.

And later, when your husband asks you what you’ve seen today, you respond, somewhat dejected, “nothing.” But before you’ve finished uttering the word nothing, you follow it with a quick rundown of everything you’ve seen. And suddenly the “nothing” transformed into a dozen common, but absolutely stunning species that you saw, heard, and easily recognized on your own. There was a time, not so long ago, when you would have walked through that park and literally seen nothing save a pigeon and a pack of dogs. But now, even on the day when you think you’ve seen nothing you’ve actually recognized, identified, communed with, and marvelled at every bird that crossed your path.

Sometimes the days when we see “nothing” are the ones that remind of just how far we’ve come.

What 18 hours can bring

Beloved Birders,

There are days when the stars align in the strangest, most perfect and unexpected combination. On Saturday night, I headed over to the banding station at Tommy Thompson Park for the season’s last hurrah — an all-night owl night, where we band Northern Saw-whet Owls, but given my half-workday on Sunday, I could only manage the early shift, much to my chagrin. We got the cutest little saw-whet owl early in the evening — before I had the chance to nearly overdose on sour keys and salt-and-vinegar chips — and I squealed with delight as we banded the bird, weighed it, sexed and aged it, and then paused for glamor shots with the celebrity bird. I hadn’t seen a saw-whet in a few years, so this was a serious thrill.

And then, a half-hour before I left the station, at 11:25pm, we did a net check, found another owl that nearly escaped (I played a pivotal role in holding the net tight while my friend Denise performed a masterful, lightning quick extraction), quickly called it an enormous female saw-whet and then took another look because the owl was so big and feisty and it turned out to be an EASTERN SCREECH OWL (grey morph)! I had to scream that last bit because Easter screeches have never flown into our nets before! This turned out to be a station first, and a very big deal indeed. A lengthy photo shoot followed after I scribed the data and we marvelled at the owl’s plumage and how expertly he camouflaged with the Master Bander’s camo jacket. No wonder those sweet creatures are so hard to see in the trees! They really blend in perfectly.

After getting a good night’s rest, we headed off to Humber Bay Park (after a requisite stop at the inimitable Birds and Beans cafe) where I happily greeted old friends: Redhead, Bufflehead, Long-tailed duck, Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, and my all-time fave, the resplendent Hooded Merganser, with a crest that rivals my rhinestone headband in allure. We went out with friends who told me they found ducks boring because they all look the same! Ah….I remember the day when I too felt this way. When the world seemed monochrome and all ducks were one. That feels like a lifetime ago… So as we walked, I stopped to point out all the beauties, encouraged (forced) them to see them through my binoculars (thanks Zeiss!) and by the end of the walk they came away with some new favorites.

And then just as we were leaving, I saw a juvenile Cooper’s hawk sitting in a tree, calmly awaiting her next victim. To be honest, I’m not sure what made me happier — seeing the bird or being able to correctly identify it. Either way, it was a perfect end to the birdiest 18 hours.


Raptorial Polyglot

Beloved Birders,

It’s no secret that I have a hard time with raptors. They’re not nearly as challenging or gulls or shorebirds, but my raptor learning curve has been steep, and so far my misidentifications far outnumber my correct IDs. It’s a challenge, it’s a process, and lately, I’m all in.

What changed? Well, it might be that I’m finally wrapping my head around Red-tailed hawks and their streaked belly band, and have learned to identify them perched on light poles. It might also be our trip to Arizona last year, when we drove from Bisbee to the Chiricahua National Monument and counted over a hundred raptors along the way. It might also be the fact that my husband is fascinated by raptors — oh yes, they are manly birds, which is part of the reason I wasn’t drawn to them in the first place, since they’re often testosterone magnets — and there’s always the sly manipulative part of me that constantly searches for ways to get him hooked on birding. It’s a lifelong project, and raptors are likely the easiest way to accomplish said feat.

Back in April 2016, we visited Israel, watched the raptor migration from the mountains above Eilat, and while I was mesmerized by the sheer volume of birds flying overhead (the counter had reached 6000 just in the hour we stood watching the skies), I had really hired a bird guide to lock eyes with some Little Bee-eaters, so the bird-of-prey portion of the morning left me impressed, but not ecstatic. My husband, however, could have watched those Steppe Buzzards all day.

But something changed mid-September when we found ourselves at Second Marsh in Oshawa, ostensibly to look for shorebirds, but the waters turned out to be so high that the place was completely deserted of its usual mid-September bird population, save for two Northern Harriers performing something akin to an aerial dance over the marsh, and a few eclipse plumage ducks which I’ll likely see the point in attempting to identify 10 years down the line. And for the first time — embarrassingly, probably because there was nothing better to look at — I took the time to study the harriers, to follow them with my binoculars until I felt a little queasy. I couldn’t take my eyes off their gleaming white rump patch as they soared and dipped, utterly majestic.

Last week, I got Pete Dunne’s new book from the library, Birds of Prey: Hawks, Eagles, Falcons and Vultures of North America, and am reading it slowly. It’s one I’ll likely buy because of the fine balance of alluring prose, great pictures, and sheer volume/quality of information. But it wasn’t until Dunne described the Crested Caracara as a “raptorial polyglot” that I was completely smitten. Somehow I had found my point of entry.

It’s funny — I have no trouble relating to the Northern Flicker; after all, no other bird has taught me more about being intrepid in my fashion choices. The Waxwings (Cedar and the elusive Bohemian alike) have instructed me in all things relating to my coiffure. But hawks?

I started to wonder how many languages the Crested Caracara has in its repertoire. Would we be able to converse in Yiddish? Could we discuss the Sholem Aleichem stories I’ve been reading? Suddenly, the possibilities seem endless and I’m dying to go out this weekend and see more raptors. More raptorial polyglots. Who knew?