Monthly Archives: January 2019

The Bird in front of You

Beloved Birders,

Every winter at about this time, I get desperate for a Northern Shrike. I haven’t yet figured out whether it’s hormonal or not, but every year in mid-January, the intense craving for a shrike sets in and there’s nothing I can do to stop myself. This morning was brutally cold. I suppose that if I were made of hardier stuff, I would have walked the length of Tommy Thompson Park anyhow, which might have put me in the path of not only one, but two Northern Shrikes, if reports are to be trusted. But when woke up this morning, I realized that a four-five hour walk was not in the cards, and headed out to my second-favorite park in Toronto, Colonel Sam Smith, at the juncture where Kipling Avenue meets Lake Ontario.

About five years ago, before I even knew of the existence of a Northern Shrike, I saw one in that park. I had pointed out movement to my bird guide, and initially, he dismissed the grey bird as a mockingbird, but upon taking a closer binocular view, he pronounced it a shrike, and proceeded to tell me all about this predatory songbird, known in some circles as the butcher bird. I had been impressed, but those were the early birdy days, long before I started reading up on the birds I saw in the field. A year after that first sighting, I once again happened upon the bird in the same locale, and this time he displayed textbook behavior: we watched as the Northern Shrike impaled a vole on a thorn and proceeded to dig right in and devour the rodent. No empathy whatsoever for the vole; the shrike showed us who’s boss and reminded us, once again, that there is nothing cute whatsoever about the avian kingdom. Life is ruthless.

Though there have been no shrike reported in the park recently, I still look for one every time I’m there and this morning was no exception. I took some time to admire the luscious female Snowy Owl reclining on the dock, surveyed the duck situation (meagre offerings early this morning) and then saw a grey bird flap its wings and fly from one tree to the other. I knew it was a Northern Mockingbird before I even saw it — the flash of white in its feathers and the long tail — but for a second I allowed myself to dream. What if this was the bird about which I’d been summoning the higher forces for an intercession?

It turned out to be a mockingbird. So did the next grey specimen. By this point I realized there would be no shrike for me this morning, and I started sulking in the freezing cold. I walked all the way out to Whimbrel point, still annoyed that I hadn’t seen much of anything, when I heard a few chip notes and saw movement in the small pine trees. Not a shrike, of course not, but two Golden-crowned Kinglets bopping around, hopping from branch to branch, feeding upside down, completely oblivious to the temperature and the fact that it’s a bit late for them to be hanging out in the Toronto area. I marvelled at their hardiness, their resolve, and took in the beauty of a tiny, 5.5g mid-winter kinglet. And I stood there, freezing while I listened to their notoriously high-pitched chip notes, which older birders often lament no longer being able to hear. Slowly I let go of the non-sighting of the Northern Shrike and let myself enjoy the bird in front of me. A sunny day, high-pitched chips that I can recognize, a bird I’d once mistaken for delicate on account of its weight and cute appearance turned out to be one of the fiercest creatures around.

In Lieu of Nostalgia: Scoter Trifecta

Beloved Birders!

Those of you who have been reading this blog assiduously since the early days (mom!) might remember that in November of 2011, I travelled back to Providence, RI, to revisit the scene of my undergraduate days. You might remember that I woke up at 7am and ran straight to my old dorm and wept in front of one of the janitors, bemoaning the fact that time had passed. You might also remember that I nearly broke down in the Blue Room — my old favorite cafe on campus — because their chocolate chip cookie recipe hadn’t changed since I graduated in 1997 and just the smell of it brought back my youth in technicolor. The trip was made all the more strange because my beloved husband categorically refused to partake in my nostalgia-rituals, and I had to confront the passage of time and my own propensity toward mythologizing my past all alone. And so I sat there on the steps of Sayles Hall, reliving as much as I could about the four years I spent at Brown, and feeling very much like Masha in The Three Sisters, who says, “I’m in mourning for my life.”

I undertook a similar trip this past November, only this time I was wise and left Mr. Birds and Words at home. He had little interest in revisiting Princeton with me, and I didn’t really want to inflict another nostalgia-overdose on anybody. So off I went, this time for US Thanksgiving, to see my dear friends in Hopewell, NJ. I spent an afternoon on campus, not at all shocked that Princeton had gotten over my departure in 2004, but I must admit that I was stunned at how well everybody had coped without me! College campuses are a funny thing: they are basically an idyll that lives according to its own time-space continuum. Nothing there ever changes. And yet here I was, 14 years older, still the same, but not. I took a minute to sit in the East Pyne courtyard, and realized that the last time I had sat there was the morning of my dissertation defence in September 2004.

I saw a great show at the art museum — about nature and the nation — and wondered why I hadn’t spent more time in that museum as a graduate student. I stood planted in front of an enormous Diebenkorn painting and thought that such a view might have been the answer to so many of my graduate school woes.

I could make a career out of inhabiting nostalgia. I could teach workshops on the art thereof. My imaginative capacities for reliving long-gone moments are extraordinary. Would that one could market such a skill.

And then, before things got entirely out of hand, we left campus and drove back to Hopewell, where everything was sufficiently new that didn’t have anything to relive and had to just enjoy the present moment. But what really cured my nostalgia was going birding the next day with Rick Wright. I’ve known Rick’s wife for years — we met in grad school — but this was my first time meeting Rick himself. We drove out to Sandy Hook, NJ, and immediately upon arriving, I saw a trifecta of scoters in large numbers: White-winged, my favorite Surf, and Black Scoter. And though I’d seen all three already, it takes a considerable amount of work to get all three in the same binocular view in Southern Ontario, so this was a thrill. And then I turned around and saw an even stranger sight: across the water was Coney Island with its rollercoasters and ferris wheels, and not far from that was Sheepshead Bay and Avenue Z in Brooklyn, where my grandfather had once lived, and where I had spent a few nights in 1985, when he gave me a silver glass-holder that I still have. This was as close as I’d ever get to Coney Island, at least for the foreseeable future. The day also included a lifer for me: a Northern Goshawk perched on a brach. I originally misidentified it as a Red-tailed Hawk, but the intensely barred breast gave it away.

On my way back to Toronto, I wondered why I hadn’t crumbled the way I had seven years ago, when revisiting Rhode Island, and realized — it must have been the birds. With binoculars in my hand, I was suddenly seeing a different New Jersey, an entirely new and fascinating place I hadn’t even imagined existed. And after a few hours staring at the birds, I found myself happy to be exactly where I am. In this place.

Postscript

Beloved Birders,

This post is for those of you who have been losing sleep over the Pine Grosbeak and whether I’ve managed to see it. YES! It happened yesterday morning: I hopped in the car at 7:30 and took advantage of the non-existent post-holiday traffic and headed straight for Rouge Valley, got to the house with the crab apple tree and….there were THREE Pine Grosbeaks munching away, furiously. The show-stopping male was perched upside down — it seems crab apples taste better when you’re upside down — while his mate luxuriated on a branch, doing her thing. Up above there was another grosbeak, likely a young male, because he had the reddish head, but a mostly grey body. I watched them for nearly 20 minutes, and then they let out a few high pitched call notes and poof! The trio flew up and literally vanished from my field of vision.

I did document the moment by texting my friend Martha and calling my husband, but as I saw driving home, I wondered whether I had dreamed the whole thing up. 24 earlier, I had been despondent about this bird; just now I’d seen three of them; and now, in this precise moment, the whole thing was a memory. If Proust were around, I’d commission him to write about my Pine Grosbeak incident — no doubt, he’d be able to weave it into a seamless, novel-length masterpiece. Could you imagine if instead of the iconic Madeleine, he’d have given us 20 pages on the Pine Grosbeak & the passage of time? Maybe I’ll have to tackle that one myself.

Now I feel like the year has begun in earnest. Especially now that I’ve discovered Russian Caravan tea, which basically tastes like a campfire in a mug, and now I wonder how I managed to live 44 years without it?

On Not Getting What I Want

Beloved Birders,

Part of what makes January 1st exciting (other than my grandmother’s birthday, of course) is trying to guess what the first bird of the year will be. This year, I wanted the first bird to be a special one, and as luck would have it, there has been a Pine Grosbeak (!!) hanging around the Rouge Park area. So, I jumped in my car early this morning and headed straight there, feeling a little smug about the entire enterprise, imagining the blog post I would write, the tweet I’d send out to the Universe, and the barrage of texts I’d send to my birder friends. “Hey y’all, NBD just saw a PINE GROSBEAK, THIS YEAR IS GOING TO BE AWESOME!” or something to that effect. How auspicious would that be for a beginning? A year full of unbelievable promise. Not just starting off with a rarity, but also starting off with the magic of being in the right place at exactly the right time.

You know where this is headed, of course. I waited around for said Pine Grosbeak for 40 minutes before heading to my grandmother’s birthday party and…instead of the resplendent bird I imagined I’d have to start off my year list, I got a chickadee. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a Black-capped Chickadee. The bird is fantastically resilient, hardy, crafty, and intelligent but it’s a bird I could have seen from my window without having to drive 30 km. It’s the commonest of common winter birds.

Would I really send out a tweet about a chickadee? No, there would be no tweet. There would be no gloating texts, there would be no blog post as I had envisioned it.

How inauspicious a beginning is it to chase a bird only to find out that it had other plans? To begin the year with the bird that got away.

And yet, that is what birding is all about. It’s about coping with not getting what you want, and becoming friendly and comfortable with that feeling might be the most auspicious beginning ever to 2019! Because sometimes that’s just how life works out: you do everything possible for the stars to align, you work hard, you try hard, and…they don’t. And the sooner I befriend that feeling, the better this year will be. I’m quite confident I’ll get to see a Pine Grosbeak at some point this year, but I can’t exactly predict when, much as I’d like.

So I started to embrace the notion of a chickadee as my first bird of 2019. I admire its resilience and hardiness — two qualities I’m working on developing. And just when I finally accepted that this will be the year of the ordinary Chickadee, I went for a late-afternoon walk and saw a Great Blue Heron doing a one-foot balancing act on the ice, and I stared at him through my binoculars until my feet started to freeze. Here’s a bird I see every time I come to my neighborhood park, and yet its posture still manages to surprise me. I’ll never tire of the power of the ordinary to thrill and delight me.

I missed the Pine Grosbeak, but I saw my favorite resident birds in a new light. And that may be the best way to start the year after all. Happy 2019!