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.

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