Monthly Archives: August 2018

Wind and Other Surprises

Beloved birders,

I’ve already mentioned that the bird banding station at Tommy Thompson park is my favorite place in Toronto. Everything about the experience delights me: watching the sun rise over the city, traipsing through urban wilderness, holding a bird in the hand. Even the 4:30 am wakeup time has become part of the incomprehensible pleasure. And everything is perfect until the direction of the wind changes and suddenly we’re regaled with fishy stench from the 30,000 or so Double-crested Cormorants that breed in a nesting colony in the park, just west of us.

When the cormorant perfume wafts by, it feels like you’re stranded in a fish shop on a humid day; there’s literally no reprieve from the odours. While I’m holding my breath, waiting for the fragrant fumes to pass, it’s hard to recollect what it is I love about this place that used to be a landfill and is now a peculiar human-made urban wilderness.

And just like that, the wind reminds me that I live at the whim of weather, that beauty is a thing of this world and doesn’t exist outside of it. It’s so important to be reminded that the cormorant smells exist alongside the gorgeous migratory warblers in the hand, that it’s not a question of choosing one or the other, but rather recognizing that they both have their place. Too often, I want nature to be some sort of perfect respite from my day-to-day life, I long for photoshopped, Instagram-style natural surroundings, but reality is that it’s dirty, it smells, it’s buggy, too hot, and never entirely as you expect it. And that’s the most beautiful part of it.

This morning, my husband and I went for a walk by the lake in the Beaches at 7:30 am to beat the heat. As we sat on the new pastel-colored Muskoka chairs sipping our coffee and eating cranberry muffins, I saw thousands of cormorants pass by, gliding just barely over the surface of the water. First one group, then another, then so many of them all I could see were thick black oscillating lines along the horizon. This bird that I usually can’t stand, suddenly transformed into something approaching beauty.

And They’re Back!

Beloved Birders,

It’s still hot, sticky and humid here in Toronto, but according to the warblers, it’s fall already and time to begin journeying southward! Even when fall is the furthest thing from my mind –meteorologically speaking — the birds already feel it in their bones. They know when it’s time to go. Their perception of time is dictated largely by food and light and breeding. In a sense it’s life stripped down the the barest of essentials, but there’s also an enviable single-mindedness of purpose.

This is my fifth fall season at the banding station and I still make embarrassing mistakes. This morning, for instance, I extracted two warblers from the nets and could not (for the life of me) ID them. I saw greenish grey on the back, an eyestripe, whitish underneath (and a manifest lack of tail on one of the birds), but all of this told me nothing. I went through my mental list of warblers and the markings didn’t correspond to any birds I knew. And since I had gotten a few challenging ID’s right just minutes before, people started to suspect that I might indeed the bearer of great news — a rarity! a tick! a banding station first! And then my friend Taylor took one look at the bird and said, “Tennessee.” Of course it was a Tennessee. I’m so notoriously awful at identifying this drab-ish warbler in the field that I forgot it existed entirely!

How could I have forgotten the Tennessee? Maybe because to me it’s the plain Jane of warblers; the only thing I really love about the bird is it’s needle-sharp pointy bill, but in this case I didn’t even notice it.

Identifying birds is funny sometimes. Often, it’s a question of focusing on things I recognize, rather than zeroing in on markings that confuse me. Had I stopped to look at the bill, I would have immediately seen the tennessee-ness of this warbler. But instead, I focused on the greenishness of the bird’s back and started feverishly running through all the warblers I wasn’t sure about — could it be a pine? an orange-crowned? a deeply confused chestnut-sided? My guesses, which I kept to myself, started getting more and more delirious.

I had just accomplished that same feat with the saddest looking (female) Cape May Warbler, which had none of the colorful markings of its male counterpart in breeding plumage. This one sported a brown exterior punctuated but a buttery chest with the faintest of stripes; the diagnostic facial markings were barely visible, but I immediately ID’d it correctly because I saw a diagnostic yellow patch on its rump — not as bright as the appropriately named Yellow-rumped Warbler, but bright enough — and that detail told me all I needed to know. If nothing else, birding is giving me the confidence to trust in what I do know. It’s often much more than I had anticipated.

 

When Gannets Render You Speechless

Beloved Birders,

Have you ever wondered what being surrounded by 150,000 Northern Gannets (give or take a few) would feel like? We recently returned from a trip to Quebec, to the Gaspé peninsula, which, on top of rewarding us with some memorable meals, exquisite smoked fish and possibly the best croissants I’ve ever tasted, is also home to Ile Bonaventure, a phenomenal provincial park which just happens to be the largest Northern Gannet breeding site in North America.

An afternoon on Ile Bonaventure would convert even the most skeptical nature novice into a birding fanatic. Watching these enormous birds with a wingspan almost the size of a pelican’s chatter, run amok, fight, care for their fledgling, scratch one another’s necks lovingly, lock bills in a tense dispute was easily the highlight of my summer. That I could stand on the edge of their breeding colony, or even on top of an observation tower literally in the midst their colony and that they would go about their business without even paying an iota of attention to me made me feel like I was privy to some sort of magical spectacle. And magical it was; we were surrounded by gannets as far as the eye could see. And when we looked out on the water there were thousands more gannets plummeting headfirst into the water (up to 100km/hour!), collecting fish for their partners and offspring.

Northern Gannets on Ile Bonaventure, Quebec. Look at the fuzzy babies!  They’ll be ready to fly away in a few weeks!

Morus bassanus. Northern Gannet, Fou de bassan as they say in Quebec. Looking absolutely regal.

Northern Gannets as far as the eye can see. Ile Bonaventure, Quebec

Five years ago, we went to Newfoundland and I saw about 20 or so gannets, fell in love with them, but missed out on getting the full gannet experience at Cape St. Mary’s because our itinerary was already packed, and I had to content myself with thousands of Atlantic Puffins instead. I’m well aware of the fact that these are fist world problems, but to miss something as spectacular as a gannet breeding colony when one is only 200 km away and when one knows that a trip to Newfoundland doesn’t happen that often, well then the unseen gannets turn into a near-catastrophe. Not only that but one talks about the missed gannets every time somebody mentions Newfoundland, to the extent that the unseen birds have almost eclipsed the dozens of spectacular species I did manage to see. Birding is a strangely emotional business.

When planning our trip to Gaspesie, the first thing my husband said was, “will a trip to Bonaventure Island make you stop talking about the gannets we didn’t see in Newfoundland?” I assured him it would. But I can’t say for sure.

I’d like to tell you that I had an earth-shattering epiphany when standing in the midst of the spectacular seabirds, that somehow the contours of my existence became clearer to me, that I could feel things in a new way, that suddenly my life made sense to me. But no. I spent a day with the gannets, and all I could think was, “I am where I need to be.” And I was struck by how banal that thought was, in and of itself.

But maybe that’s it? That when I’m in the company of birds, I feel at peace.

There weren’t just gannets: we saw thousands of Kittiwake, Black Guillemots, Common Murres, Razorbills, Great Black-backed Gulls, and five Minke whales on our crossing from Percé to Bonaventure Island. And we visited fantastic parks, saw a beaver and a moose (!), two skunks and six marmots; we stopped in more fromageries than I care to admit and ate more smoked fish than was reasonable and consumed a year-long supply of croissants.

The pictures I took of the gannet colony doesn’t do it justice. You can’t hear the cacophony of screeching, uproarious, grating calls and you can’t inhale the stench — a blend of fish, guano (fancy word for excrement) and ocean perfumes. But most of all, you can’t capture the way the breeding colony is brimming with the frenzy of new life. And in the face of all that, I was rendered speechless.