Author Archives: Julia Zarankin

What it takes to see a Northern Shrike

Beloved birders,

I think today’s torrential downpour was nature’s “payback” for last weekend’s birdy bonanza. Actually, today is the rare day when I should have just stayed home and believed the forecast, which called for nonstop rain all morning. But you see, last time I bailed on birds because of a poor weather forecast which never materialized, my group went and got 80+ Bohemian Waxwings. I have no reason to complain, since I spent part of the day playing with my extraordinary nephew, but still — 80 bohemian waxwings! That’s birding — can’t have it all!

So this morning I decided to venture out in spite of the rain because — who knows — it might just be another magical birding day, weather notwithstanding.

Well, it wasn’t. We started off in Milton, where we waited for a Harris’ Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula). He popped out a few times, but I missed him every time, and then once we were all sufficiently soaked and frozen, we opted to take a break for coffee and donuts. Back we came to find the Harris’ Sparrow who seemed to have other plans, and we had to content ourselves with fantastic looks at Common Grackles, House Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos. By the time a Black-capped Chickadee flew over, I nearly jumped for joy! That said, the Grackles were in tip-top shape, the metallic blueish-purple on their heads positively gleaming — it was the only patch of color I saw all morning. Always good to be reminded of the fantastic beauty of our commonest birds.

Once we were soaked for the second time this morning, we decided to head for Saltfleet to look for Snipe and a Shrike. By this point in the morning it was pouring intensely, visibility on the highway was at an all-time low, and I gripped the steering wheel until I could see my white knuckles, wondering why I hadn’t just turned back and gone home. But then Mozart’s Piano concerto 21, K. 467 came on the radio, and before I knew it I was singing along, happy to be out, driving in a wild downpour in search of a Northern Shrike. In fact, I even managed to compliment myself on how well I was driving in dismal conditions. For those of you who know me, you know how much I *loathe* driving fast in the rain. But here I was, zipping along cautiously while doing the worst possible Mozart-Karaoke, no longer wishing I had stayed home.

By the time we saw found the Northern Shrike posing for us on a fence post, I was on to Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano concerto and even though my coat was now drenched for the third time, I smiled and considered the day a success. I love the shrike’s black eye mask — like he’s wearing a slick pair of Ray-Ban shades. When we later saw the possible Wilson’s Snipe, which I couldn’t really distinguish from a pile of grassy dirt, I was humming along to a Schubert sonata, no longer noticing that I couldn’t feel my toes and feeling totally content that today might turn out to be a one-bird day.

Gorgeous Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor), otherwise known as the Butcher Bird. Photo from here.

Was it a great day? Definitely not. Do I regret going out? Definitely not. The perfect Shrike sighting proved to be worth all the frozen extremities and the fact that I smelled like a wet sheep by the time I came home (Icelandic sweater + rain = worst wardrobe choice imaginable). And you know what else? I’m no longer afraid of driving through torrential rain, so how’s that for an unexpected bonus. And besides — how often do I get to karaoke to my favorite piano concerti?

From a Ross’ Goose to a Cardamom Bun

Beloved Birders,

My good friend Kerry Clare believes that all roads and life decisions and quandaries basically lead to cake. She’s as terrific a writer (check out her wonderful novel Mitzi Bytes) as she is a font of wisdom. And so immediately after seeing my first Ross’ Goose (lifer! happy dance!), I decided to test Kerry’s adage and I embarked on another milestone — the baking of Cardamom Buns (vetebullar), which I first tasted in Stockholm in 2012. The experience felt not unlike falling in love; in other words, I nearly screamed to the Cardamom bun, “Where have you been all my life?”

For those of you who have never tasted a Cardamom bun — I simultaneously pity and envy you. Pity because you have no idea what you’re missing, and envy because there’s nothing I’d like more than to rewind time and taste a cardamom bun for the very first time. Kind of how I’d love to go back and see my first Snowy owl, and read that last page of Anne of the Island where Anne and Gilbert finally kiss.

Imagine a cinnamon bun with the added touch of celestial cardamom. The only problem is that once you’ve tasted heavenly manna, it’s pretty hard to muster up the confidence to try to concoct some yourself. What if I botched the recipe? What if I couldn’t knead the dough properly? What if my rolling pin and I just weren’t destined to find mutual happiness and a rhythm that could produce a smooth and even layer of dough?

But for whatever reason, Kerry’s life-philosophy about cake coupled with my monumental Ross’ Goose sighting gave me the gumption to try my luck with flour, yeast, and a rolling pin. (It’s also geographically inconvenient for me to procure a decent cardamom bun in Toronto. My North York neighbourhood privileges bubble tea over the Swedish pastry niche.)

So off I went, buoyed by the extraordinarily proud gait of the Ross’s goose, who paraded with his head high amidst gargantuan Canada Geese — almost like a little Napoleon. Would that we all had his confidence. I used the recipe from  FIKA: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Breakwhich was expertly reviewed by my friend Teri Vlassopoulos a few years back, and which I bought strictly for the nostalgia it brought back about my first 2012 cardamum-bum-encounter.

And so I spent close to three hours manhandling dough and a rolling pin and the result turned out better than I could have imagined. Not yet perfect, but so good that I will be making them again, and again and again, and not just as an accompaniment to the sighting of a life bird.

Photo taken by yours truly. Pardon the disastrously messy dirty stove. Note that one cardamom bun is already half eaten. The others were consumed (largely by yours ever so truly) within the next 30 or so hours.

And so maybe Kerry is correct in her life-affirming assumption that all roads — even and especially a Ross’ Goose — actually lead to cake, in one form or another.

On Wanting and Not Wanting

Beloved Birders!

I’ll be entirely honest here: I didn’t want to go to Long Point yesterday. The weather was dismal: flurries, freezing fog and an attendant, constant drizzle, coupled with winds and eternally grey skies. What was the point of driving the two hours to see a bunch of swans and sandhill cranes in poor visibility when I had already seen Tundra swans a few weeks ago and had seen more cranes in Arizona than I could ever have imagined. Would it really be worth it?

You’ll also be happy know, beloved birders, that I kept these thoughts to myself.

Our first stop on Lakeshore Rd yielded a dozen or so gorgeous, if prehistoric-looking, Sandhill Cranes standing in a small ditch very close to the road. As soon as I saw their facial red patch, I was transfixed. Sure, I’d seen close to 30,000 of them in Whitewater Draw a few months ago, but cranes never get old, especially the way they parachute down from the sky, exhibiting the kind of celestial grace I can only ever aspire to in ballet class, when I see my own jumps in the mirror end in unsavory thuds.

Shortly thereafter we heard the bugling calls of the Tundra swans, a bit of cacophony on its own, but when you know it signals the advent of Spring, the sound becomes a sign of something larger, more majestic, and you delight in it, over and over and over again (and they are incessant).

These are the birds I had expected to see — Long Point never disappoints this time of year — but I still wondered if it was worth the drive.

And then we stopped at Lee Brown’s to scan the small pond and I saw a sight I couldn’t ever have imagined. Hundreds of American Wigeon — with their platinum mohawk-streak — both in and out of the water, waddling on the grass, in the company of Wood Ducks. We scanned for Eurasian widgeon, but it was not to be. In the water, I saw more Ring-necked Ducks than I’d ever seen before — I can now safely ID them because of the white patch on their side which looks like a sideways whale (thanks for the tip, Mary!). And there were Redheads and Northern Shovelers and Northern Pintail, which I loved all the more because I could ID them. And later we stopped in another place and picked up all three Merganser species, Scaup (lesser & greater though I couldn’t tell those apart have no fear — I”m not yet ready to change my brand to Intermediate Birder Extraordinaire) along with a bonus Bald Eagle.

On our drive back home we decided to make a quick stop at RBG in Hamilton/Burlington, where a particularly cooperative Ross’s Goose was reported. To be honest, I didn’t really want to stop there either because I’ve never been a Goose-Gal if you know what I mean. I love warblers and even raptors and woodpeckers and wrens and most things, but geese leave me cold, so I didn’t see what the possible big deal about a Ross’s goose could be. (And who was Ross anyhow? Ah, turns out he was Bernard R. Ross, a 19th Century budding naturalist who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Northwest Territories; he was ultimately responsible for considering the Ross’s goose as a distinct species and later donated all his specimens to the Smithsonian. More on Bernard R. Ross anon.)

Again, I kept my opinions to myself. Once we arrived at RBG, and I laid eyes on the stupendous, and utterly bizarre, diminutive Ross’s goose, for which there exists no other adequate descriptor than CUTIE, I understood. This is a goose like no other. A miniature Snow goose, a strange otherworldly creature amidst the gaggle of Canada Geese, he stands out, proudly and defiantly. There he was, grazing on a little hillside, with the Canada Geese who were almost twice his size. What was he really thinking that this sight could look remotely normal?  

(The fabulous photograph comes from here.) There was something fantastical and extravagant about this smallish goose walking proudly amidst giants.

I couldn’t have imagined a better way to end the day.

Oh but there WAS a better way to end the day: we finished off at Colonel Sam Smith park, where we picked up the King Eider (juvenile, sadly), a Red-necked grebe, long-tail ducks, and brought our waterfowl count to a record-breaking (for this beginner birder) 25 species.

Thank heavens I never listen to myself in earnest when I don’t WANT to do something. As with writing, there is no WANTING. One just does it, ploughs ahead, shows up, and the rewards are colossal (some of the time).

The Perfect No-Shrike Day

Beloved birders!

Some days just work, even when you wake up and the weather network says -11 degrees Celsius, and you put on an extra sweater and head out anyway. On your way you notice that it’s 6:45 am and it’s light out, and for a minute you fear you’ve read the time wrong, but no. It seems that the light has snuck back, miraculously.

Before you know it you’re standing in Lasalle Marina, staring at a Wood duck, wondering how nature created such a thing. It dawns on you that you first saw a wood duck in this very place three (or was it four?) years ago. You’ve seen other wood ducks since, and they’re all marvellous, but the Lasalle Marina wood ducks hold a special place in your heart. There’s something about site fidelity — not just the birds’ but your own as well; you’re an incorrigible creature of habit. Waterfowl abounds here: canvasback, redheads, common goldeneye, red-breasted mergansers, and a lone American coot. You even see a pair of overexcited mallards engaging in some early spring canoodling. Your feet are freezing, but you know there’s a Carolina wren singing somewhere in the thickets and you won’t stop until you see it. It turns out the repeated triplets — some say it sounds like teakettle or Germany — are sung by a stunning pair of cinnamon-colored beauties with light polka dots on the wings with a gorgeous cream-colored eye-stripe. They spent their time ducking in and out of the thickets, hopping from branch to branch. Nearby, a brown creeper makes his way up a tree-trunk, and by this point you can no longer feel your feet.

You cash in your free coffee win at Tim Horton’s (you could have won a Honda civic, but you already have a car, so what would you do with two when your husband can’t even drive? A free coffee turns out to be better than a car), eat a few timbits and off you go to Hamilton/Burlington, where you catch a glimpse of an Eastern screech owl in a cemetery, and then head up the mountain where you’re rewarded with gorgeous views of an American kestrel, killdeer, a northern mockingbird and a completely unexpected northern flicker. There were other highlights of the day, including a Peregrine falcon hanging out in its usual place on the lift bridge, a white-winged scoter, a yellow-rumped warbler and a possible eastern meadowlark.

Mind you, the day wasn’t all perfect: we saw numerous leaf-birds and branch-birds and twig-birds. At one point someone mistook the meadowlark for a rough-legged hawk. The northern shrike we chased all morning had other plans today and was nowhere to be found. And yet even in its imperfection — warts and all — there’s nowhere else I would have rather been instead.

And throughout the day, the most comforting soundtrack accompanied us: the song of a red-winged blackbird. It’s my spark bird — this raspy yelp (I think it’s an anapest) that has now become synonymous with spring.

Staring at a Magnolia Warbler

Beloved Birders!

There’s a magnolia warbler staring at me from my wall. It’s March and the Mincing Mockingbird calendar pic couldn’t be more uplifting:

Magnolia Warbler by the Mincing Mockingbird. Image from here.

This means spring is actually coming, which, in truth, was confirmed to me two weeks ago when I saw my first Killdeer up on the mountain near Hamilton. But seeing the Maggie face to face like this is of another order of magnitude. Two months from now, I’ll be volunteering at the banding station again, will likely extract one from the net and hold it in my hand. That’s when I’ll know it’s actually spring.

That I measure the seasons now by the birds I know, sometimes even by the birds I hold in my hand, is something new. That I measure time by the months until my first pine warbler sighting, first robin, first snowy owl delights me. This year, of course, time and weather are performing peculiar acrobatics: one day it feels like spring, I shed my winter clothing and the next day there’s a dusting of snow on the ground. I feel I’m standing on uncertain ground most days, never exactly sure what to wear, either sweating or shivering. I’m not a creature who basks in uncertainty: I much prefer routine,

And yet the Magnolia warbler stares back at me every time I turn my head to the left, and I can’t help but smile knowing that the trees will soon be dotted with warblers (if you know where to look) and that soon I’ll awake to bird song.

Balmy February

Beloved birders!

It shouldn’t be 15 degrees celsius in mid-February. -15 would have been more like it, but our 2017 new normal is quite different. That said, Toronto finally saw some blue skies and bright sunshine, and I suppose that’s reason enough to celebrate even though there’s a tiny voice in the back of my mind reminding me that balmy temps in mid-winter are probably the sign of an oncoming apocalypse. OK, the tiny voice is pretty loud most days. What can I say — I’m of Eastern European descent and we are not optimistic people.

That said, birding is forcing me to rethink my relationship with optimism. It’s hard to think the glass is half empty when you wake up in the morning to see the horizon dotted with pink, only to recognize that spring is just around the corner and the days of rising in the dark are over. It’s even harder to imagine a glass half empty when you drive out to Burlington/Hamilton and see a rufous phased Eastern Screech owl peeking out of its familiar tree, looking all puffy and perfect. And it’s damn near impossible to contemplate a half-empty glass when you’re standing in the open fields somewhere above Hamilton or Dundas or Grimsby (that area is like the Bermuda triangle for me — I lose all sense of orientation) and you hear Horned Larks tinkling in the fields along with Snow Buntings and exquisite Rough-legged and Red-tail hawks soaring above.

And then you find yourself up near a quarry and everyone in your group sees a Peregrine Falcon but you miss it because your attention is directed elsewhere and you simply don’t look up in time. You’re a bit miffed because everyone goes on and on about said Peregrine for a while, but you let it go, eventually. And then just as you park your car at Humber Bay park before heading home, you walk along a muddy path and come face-to-face with a PEREGRINE FALCON who seemed to be perched on a snag, just waiting for you.

And you marvel at the serendipity of things and the unexpected warmth and light of February and who knows, maybe birding-optimism will trump Eastern European skepticism and general malaise? I’m still mortified by what spring weather in February means for the state of our planet, but I’m willing to bracket that fear and just bask in the beauty of birds and sunshine.

 

Ruffling Feathers

Beloved birders,

Here’s an indication of my mood:

Print by Kathryn Lancashire, 2017. Check out her artwork. She paints the best birds!

I had the good fortune of meeting the awesome artist/designer Kathryn Lancashire on Twitter, and bought her most recent print a few weeks ago when she announced that all proceeds would go to Planned Parenthood. I love everything about this print, from the pussy hat to the bird to the message. Indeed — now is the time to ruffle some feathers.

I am utterly afraid for this world, and our natural habitats in particular. News tends to make me physically ill, so I’m doing the only thing I know how to do: having difficult conversations, supporting organizations I care about who are doing meaningful work. I’m also spending as much time as I can doing the things I care about — namely, birding and immersing myself in art that I find thought-provoking, beautiful, hilarious, and, yes, difficult.

This morning we headed north of the city and saw FIVE snowy owls. Two of those I managed to spot on my own. Interspersed with the owls were numerous flocks of snow buntings, little white-winged wonders. A little further afield we saw rough-legged hawks, both dark and light morphs, and further still I noticed a flock of something or other which was most likely BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS, but none of us could say that with 100% certainty. I like getting full frontal views of my favorite birds, so I guess I will keep looking. And that’s how it always is with birding: you see the bird you want to see when you’re meant to see it. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

A few weeks ago, I thought I was meant to go to Amherst Island with the Toronto Ornithological Club to see a gazillion owls, but my body seemed to have other plans in store for me, which included a stomach bug and lots of nastiness, the details of which I will spare you. The owls didn’t happen because the body simply did what it had to do. How primitive life feels, sometimes. How utterly basic. But then once all is functioning once again, how miraculous it feels to be upright and energetic.

Last week I spent a day in Algonquin Park and mistook an American Goldfinch for a resplendent Evening grosbeak, and then mistook an Evening Grosbeak for an American Goldfinch about thirty minutes later. At least I’m consistently wrong about most birds I identify. But then again, five years ago I didn’t seem to know that either one existed, so there’s that. So healthy to be humbled, time and time again.

And yet, I did have an astonishing moment out birding this morning: we saw a woodpecker and my bird guru/guide immediately identified it as Downy, which is logical enough. But I took a closer look for some reason and noticed that the bill seemed to be thicker, in fact almost as long as the head is wide, and I ventured to disagree with the ID. “Uh… I think it’s a Hairy,” I said not-so-tentatively. And the guru looked again and indeed, it was a Hairy. Go figure. Who knew that identifying a (largely ubiquitous) Hairy Woodpecker would feel like something verging no the marvellous.

And so here we are in 2017. Ruffling feathers. In the best possible ways.