Author Archives: Julia Zarankin

In Praise of the Usual Suspects

Beloved Birders,

One of the most exciting parts of going out birding, for me, is just that: going out birding. I love the break in my routine that birding brings. I love getting in my car, driving somewhere and not knowing exactly what I’m going to see, but knowing that it will be unlike anything I see at home, and that, in and of itself, will bring me inordinate pleasure. I’d never go as far as to call myself outdoorsy (my attempts at sleeping in a tent in Maine during the summer of 2016 ended badly; sometimes I delude myself that I have outdoorsy proclivities by purchasing yet another woollen item from Ibex), but I do so love being outside, staring out at the lake, getting my hands modestly dirty. In all honesty, an urban bird banding station might be as close as I come to claiming the outdoors as my own. It’s the walking that I adore above all else, the act of taking one step after another, without ever really knowing what I’m going to see next. Finding the unexpected in the utterly regular.

Yesterday, we did just that. Most of the birds we saw were regulars, my beloved Brown Creeper dutifully making his way up a tree, a couple Red-breasted Nuthatches playing either a rather intense game of tag or hide-and-seek, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker showing off his fabulous red neck. And then, out of the blue, on an overgrown boardwalk in Selkirk Provincial Park, we saw a Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris), which wasn’t a lifer, but I managed to get the better looks at the bird than I ever imagined. Wrens are notoriously twitchy, quick-footed, shy and furtive, and rarely give you great looks. And this little guy must have been in a pensive mood or maybe he was just lost because he stood on the boardwalk for a good minute or so, walking back and forth, letting me get a close-up look at every stripe and polka dot on his back.

Image from here. Now imagine this little cutie standing right at my feet.

As the name suggests, Marsh Wrens usually hang out in marshes and they’re usually obscured by the cattails and grasses in the area. They’ve only ever been semi-visible to me, usually hiding low in the grasses or balancing on a cattail that happens to be hidden behind another cattail. At one point I knew the bird’s song, but after a while I figured I’d never see it, so I focused on the Carolina and Winter Wren’s songs instead. Now that I have the bird’s unmistakable black-and-white striped back pattern imprinted in my mind I’m going to resurrect the song in my repertory.

Seeing that marsh wren up close made my day, which was already pretty excellent. Sometimes I worry that when a day starts out with an exciting bird that things will only go downhill from there. But it turned out I needn’t have worried. The Hudsonian Godwit I saw early in the morning turned out to be a fantastic omen, and the perfect reminder that for me, the biggest pleasure of birding lies in getting to know the usual suspects and in seeing them over and over and over again. I certainly love chasing the rarities, but getting to know the local birds has made me feel of this place in a way I never imagined possible. The biggest surprise of all of this is that somehow birding has curbed my nomadic tendencies and has made Southern Ontario feel like home.

World Octopus Day!

Beloved Birders,

It turns out that it’s World Octopus day, and how cool is that? It’s also Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, and here at Birds and Words we recently celebrated a birthday, so there are all sorts of things to be grateful for, but let’s backtrack a week:

We spent last weekend in Ithaca, NY, because I figured there was no better place in the world for a bird nerd to spend her birthday than Sapsucker Woods & the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I still can’t believe my husband agreed to this trip — I did promise him fantastic waterfalls and gorges and farmers markets, so really, what’s not to love about the Finger Lakes?

And then last weekend, after a somewhat tedious drive through torrential downpours, after a bizarre apple harvest market, after a delicious dinner at the famed Moosewood Restaurant, after a night in an AirBnB that turned out to have an overly vivacious budgie next door, we woke up and drive straight to a bird walk at Sapsucker Woods — the woods I’ve been reading about for about 6 years now, the woods I see every time I google something on AllAboutBirds.org (which is just about every day), and suddenly there we were and I was so happy I just about kissed the ground!

I could tell you that it felt great, even in the wind and drizzle. But really, it reminded me the time I saw the Colosseum in Rome for the first time and it was both larger and smaller than what I had imagined, and stood in awe, trying to memorize every detail of the place. I kept repeating “I can’t believe I’m actually here!” to my husband, which must have been really annoying, but his tolerance for my misplaced enthusiasm is inordinately high.

Our bird list for the morning wasn’t great, but I did see a Tufted Titmouse and I did correctly ID an Eastern Phoebe and a Swainson’s Thrush, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and a Common Yellowthroat, so I was feeling pretty good. And after the bird walk, we bought t-shirts and a requisite stuffed Audubon singing bird for my nephew at the gift shop, walked around the lab, and sadly missed the tour because nobody had signed up to lead the tour that day! This last fact upset me for about 10 seconds, and then I realized it was none other than the perfect omen: we would just have to return to Ithaca next year for a tour of the lab, my husband said, before I even suggested such a wild, extravagant notion.

After Sapsucker Woods, we headed straight to the exquisite farmers market, where I bought an owl t-shirt designed by Silk Oak, and we shared a plate of Tibetan dumplings, and from there we set out for a day of Gorge-hopping. As all the t-shirts say, “Ithaca is Gorges.” And it is. We hiked Robert Treman State Park, Cascadilla Falls, Ithaca Gorge, and after that trifecta we found ourself gorged-out and opted for prolonged grocery trip to my beloved Wegmans, which has everything my heart desires and much much more. The next day we couldn’t resist another trip to the farmers market (how much raw honey does a person need, you may be wondering, and the answer is A LOT), and from there we drove up to Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, which didn’t disappoint. The ducks were returning, the weather was perfect, and I saw a lone Snow Goose in the mix, which was oddly wonderful, though mostly just odd. I introduced my husband to the sheer cuteness of a Semipalmated Plover and tried to get him to appreciate the Green-winged Teal, but by that point his attention was elsewhere and it was clearly time to go, but not before running into a congregation of 30+ Great Egrets, which renewed my husband’s faith in avian awesomeness. In fact he was quite mesmerized by the Egrets and in the end I was the one rushing us out of there; my slightly manipulative plan was to have him leave Montezuma with the memory of wanting more…and with great hopes for another future birding vacation! I’m 70% sure it worked. (I just read a great article on how to travel with a non-birding spouse and am happy to report that I accomplished most of what the author suggests. In any event, we’re still happily married!)

On our way back to Ithaca from Montezuma, we stopped in Taughannock Falls State Park, and indeed, the falls were spectacular — the highest waterfall between Niagara Falls and the Rockies. We ended the evening with dessert from Moosewood and a walk around the Cornell Botanical Gardens and Arboretum.

Beloved birders, can I just say how hard it was to return home after a weekend in paradise? Nothing looked as beautiful, nothing tasted as good, nothing compared to Ithaca. A rough return.

And then yesterday, I decided to pop my fold-up bike in my car and drove off to Tommy Thompson park and cycled down to the Lighthouse and sat on a rock on the shores of Lake Ontario. The water sparkled, I saw Scaup, although I couldn’t tell you whether they were Lesser or Greater, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, and when I looked out on to the lake, it felt as vast as an ocean, and although this might not be Ithaca, it’s home and I realized I’m more than happy with that as well.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. And happiest World Octopus Day to all of you.

And Sometimes…Things Work Out

Beloved Birders,

An update on the folding bike that was meant to change my life: it has. Yesterday included a bike ride out to the lighthouse at Tommy Thompson Park (aka: Leslie Spit), which made Toronto seem beautiful and otherworldly in ways I hadn’t experienced in a while. Lake Ontario felt as vast as an ocean, and I was virtually alone at the tip of the spit, which is something that rarely happens in a city the size of Toronto. The minute I leave my apartment, I never feel alone, so this was an unexpected treat.

Today, I biked along the spit twice — once to the banding station (ok, full disclosure: I plopped my sweet little fold-up bike into a friend’s car and hitched a ride to the station), and once to see a ….FORK-TAILED FLYCATCHER (Tyrannus savana).

Photo from here. The beauty I saw was sitting atop a dead tree. It flew every few minutes and showed off its magnificent tail

Oh yes, beloved birders. You’ll recall that I dipped on the Scissor-tailed flycatcher when it hung out at Marie Curtis Park in Mississauga; I tired, hot, busy, hungry, etc, and was somehow convinced that the bird would stick around for a couple of days. But, my beloved (and as of yet unseen) Tyrannus forficatus turned out to be a one-day wonder.

The day started out bright and early, and already extremely hot, and only got hotter as the afternoon progressed (meteorologically speaking, we’re in total mayhem here: I’m sorry, but 40 degrees celsius –including humidity — is not normal in September). I managed to extract a Black-capped chickadee from the mistnet even as it hammered on my knuckles, woodpecker-style, and nipped my fingers constantly. A few years ago, I had tried to extract a chickadee, but gave up once the hammering started. Alas, my friend Charlotte’s pep talk, “you’re stronger than the chickadee!” did nothing to convince me, and I let her finish up the extraction.

I’m trying to figure out what changed and I don’t yet know exactly. This morning, I did a net check, cloth bags in my pocket, and didn’t let myself think about it too much. I would try a bird, and then another, and then a third, and then the fourth one turned out to be that chickadee, and we did exchange a few harsh words, the bird and I, but ultimately I just fiddled with the netting until I had the feet firmly gripped, then slowly removed each wing from the mesh netting — almost as if I were taking the bird’s overcoat off — and then the head came off quite easily. Strangely, the whole thing was rather painless. (I did have to radio for help with the next bird — a feisty and challenging Winter Wren, lest you think I’ve become extractor extraordinaire.) In any event, it felt good to be rid of some of my fears; at some point I think I stopped imagining extracting as this thing I could never figure out and just started doing it, small failures notwithstanding. And that has made all the difference. As with writing, when I give myself permission to fail, sometimes the very opposite happens.

We closed the station early, because by 10:30am, it was sweltering and well above 30 degrees. Just as we were leaving, someone got an e-bird alert that the Fork-tailed Flycatcher had just landed at Tommy Thompson Park! The bird has absolutely no business being in southern Ontario since its regular range is in South America — to say he’s colossally flown off course would be an understatement. And for those of you who’ve been following this blog (and perhaps my life) for a while, you know that there’s nothing I can relate to more than being an accidental visitor in an unknown place.

So I hopped on my bicycle and headed for cell 2, where I met up with a bunch of birders, scanned the area, and nearly passed out from the heat. My water had run out, the sun was scorching, and I realized that I wouldn’t last long, so I bid people farewell, and rode back to my car, a little sad, but knowing that if I stuck around for long I’d likely get heat stroke.

As I rode to my car, I composed a blog post called All the Tyrannus Birds I did not See. Rather dramatic, eh? That’s how I was feeling at the time, and indeed, about 10 minutes after I left, the bird was found in a dead tree, a couple hundred meters from where I had been. Once I came home, I proceeded to feel wildly sorry for myself, cooked dinner, did some work, and kept checking bird reports semi-obsessively. When my friend Justin posted a photo on Twitter of the bird, which I saw at 5:45 pm, I hopped into my car, drove back to Tommy Thompson park, unfolded my bike and sped over (this time with a big bottle of water), and…there it was, waiting for me.

The Fork-tailed Flycatcher was better than I had imagined. It flew every couple of minutes and showed off its resplendent, fantastically long tail. And I watched and watched and watched until the sun started to set and slowly turn pink, at which point I got back on my bike and rode the rest of the way to my car with a ridiculous grin on my face. And sometimes, for no reason whatsoever, things do work out and it’s wonderful.

A New Chapter

Beloved Birders,

Along with back-to-school frenzy, and other September madness, it’s also Birthday Month here at Birds and Words Headquarters, and I have no shame in admitting that we love to celebrate milestones large and small with gusto. I’m partially resorting to the royal “we” here, but I’ve done a decent job training Mr. Birds and Words, and now he too exhibits signs of celebratory cheer in September, even in the midst of his horrible ragweed allergies.

In any event, I’ve purchased a Folding Bicycle! Yes, it’s a new chapter. I’ve long wanted a bike, and seeing Lynne Freeman (OFO President, no less) riding her folding bicycle on a regular basis made me start drooling over portable bikes. You see, I live in semi-suburbia, and biking anywhere is near impossible because of a highly useful monstrosity called the 401 highway. The highway itself isn’t to blame, but the urban infrastructure surrounding the highway isn’t exactly bicycle friendly. But let’s be brutally honest: even if it were super friendly, I’m not exactly a pro at hills and would probably die on the climb between York Mills and Melrose, so bicycle commuting wasn’t exactly ever in the cards.

But the thought of having a little bike that I could pop in the trunk of my car and ride around near the lake has always enticed me. I’m excited about this new chapter in my life, and excited to become a biking birder! I’ll keep you posted re: progress.

In the spirit of new chapters, I continue to extract birds at the banding station. Had to radio for help twice this morning, but I managed a handful this morning, including a Wilson’s warbler, a Chestnut-sided, and the drabbest looking Blackburnian you’ve ever laid eyes on. But I had no problem IDing it, and that made it one of the loveliest blackburnians I’ve ever seen. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

Of course, there are daily, hourly setbacks: I mistook the light streaking on a Myrtle warbler for a Blackpoll, and later mistook a Cape May for a Western Palm and a Myrtle. Not a great day for Cape Mays, but granted this one was a young female, and so un-Cape May-looking that it’s no wonder I couldn’t place her. I’m heartened by these mistakes though — more and more I know what to look for, and understand why I’m making certain errors.

I think birding might be the single best antidote to smugness. The minute you think you KNOW something for certain, you’ll realize that you really don’t know much of anything at all. And I think of Leo Tolstoy and his refrain about how we can’t know history for certain, and the second we think we do, something happens to thwart our expectations. Come to think of it, I would have loved to take Tolstoy out birding (even though he probably would have much preferred going on a hunt, and knowing him, he would have hunted in the most environmentally-conscious way possible; too bad he didn’t think too highly of higher education for women, but that’s another story).

Anyhow, if you see someone on a folding bike while trying to maneuver her binoculars, it’s probably me. If you see that same person lying next to or atop of her bike, tangled in her binoculars, nose deep in a field guide, it’s likely me as well. Whichever state you find me in, if you see me please say hello! We can talk birds and words and I promise I’ll be happy to see you.

And we’re off…

Beloved birders,

Suddenly that’s how it feels. And we’re off…where to exactly, I couldn’t tell you, but it’s fall, and with it comes a surge of momentum.

I didn’t blog much in the summer because, sadly, I didn’t bird much either and for me the two go hand in hand. There was a Tricolored Heron sighting at Tommy Thompson Park in late July, the weekend before we left for BC, and seeing that bird may well have been the highlight of the first half of my summer. I’m still not sure how it meandered into Ontario, thousands of kilometers from its usual stomping grounds in Louisiana, but a welcome addition to our surroundings it was. The bird lingered for about a week, which meant that every single birder in the GTA and further afield had time to make their way over to the park. The day I saw the heron, he was in fine company, flanked by short billed dowitchers, among other fabulous shore birds, and gargantuan-looking mute swans Great Egret flew overhead. I stuck around for nearly an hour — there were so many generous people with fine, fine scopes — and couldn’t get enough of his regal burgundy coloring.

And then we went to BC, I fell in love with Stellar’s Jays, returned to Toronto, I had an intense work-project, and somehow it’s now September. The evenings cooled, the mornings are brisk, I’m in my element.

I’m also back at the bird banding station at TTPBRS, and I’ve already extracted more birds from mist nets during these last two weeks than I have in my entire life combined. It appears that my adult ballet classes are giving me a crash course in bravery and unabashed desire to try new things even when I can’t quite do them to my liking. Yet. It may well be that I’ll never have the dextrous agility to untangle birds gracefully, but I’m forcing myself to do it, and lo and behold, I’m improving. I still have to radio for help with every fifth bird or so, but I’m gaining confidence handling the birds. I do still feel that it’s such an honor and a privilege to hold a bird in my hand, to see the molting feathers on a warbler, to feel the bird’s heartbeat. It’s not only the bird’s fragility that I sense intimately, but also its resilience. Holding a diminutive warbler or kinglet in the hand reminds me of the extraordinarily perilous journeys the birds undertake. Whether they feel the stress or not, I do not know, but their demeanor is unflappable, courageous, oftentimes majestic. They’ve taught me more about resilience and bravery than they could possibly know.

Yesterday I held two Semipalmated Sandpipers — one in each hand — and took them outside to release them by the water. I doubt either one of them will ever remember spending two minutes in my hands, cupped in bander’s grip, trying to wrestle free, but I can still feel them, their silky plumage and elongated bills, eyes blinking feverishly, before I flung them up into the air to let them go. I watched them fly away, weaving haphazard patterns in the air, so eager to be free of me. And just like that, like magic, they were off.

When Clothes Make the Birder

Beloved Birders!

I’ve discovered the particular thrill in matching my wardrobe choices with bird sightings. There’s nothing better than seeing a Dickcissel while wearing a DICK t-shirt, designed by Paul Riss. I saw Sandhill cranes in Arizona while wearing my SACR t-shirt. I’ve spotted many a Snowy owl while clad in my SNOW toque. The first Red-winged Blackbird sighting of spring is made all the more splendid if I’m wearing my RWBL tshirt.

In fact, I attribute my failure to see the Scissortail flycatcher that graced Toronto’s west end earlier this summer to the fact that my STFL t-shirt was in the laundry. But such is life.

I returned from vacation on the West Coast with numerous birdy items, including a fetching owl sweatshirt, two bird prints, and too many bird cards to count. The only thing I regret, in retrospect, is that I didn’t manage to purchase a wearable item with shorebirds on it, because we’re now in shorebird season and I’m convinced that distinguishing between a Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs would be easier if I had the bird imprinted on an item of clothing.

There’s a misconception that birders wear primarily Tilley hats and multi-pocketed vests. Although the two items often form the staples of a birder’s outfit, people have started branching out. Designers such as Paul Riss are fearlessly revolutionizing birders’ wardrobes, which seems to go hand in hand with the general trend that birding is suddenly becoming hip. (A recent article in Macleans speaks to the popularity spike of birding as a hobby among millenials.)

What is happening? Have I suddenly, unbeknownst to me, transformed from arch-nerd into inadvertent trendsetter?

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher I did not see

Beloved Birders!

I dipped on the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Actually, even worse than that: I saw the announcement of a Scissor-tailed fly in Marie Curtis Park on Sunday, but I was too exhausted to go and just assumed that the bird would stick around another day. Assumptions are dangerous. Once I was well-rested, and ready to hop in the car and brave traffic and a torrential downpour, the flycatcher had other plans and was likely on his way back to Oklahoma.

But these things happen. I had just come back from an epic family vacation trip to Prince Edward Island. We did it all: Charlottettown Farmers Market (BEST!), Greenwich Beach (PARABOLIC SAND DUNES!), Panmure Island (PEI’s first wooden lighthouse! best beach ever!), Brackley Beach (awesome), lobster (and more lobster), fresh eggs (god I miss those eggs), Orwell Corner Historic Village (who doesn’t love a one-room school house and a blacksmith who makes you a decorative hook?). The trip wasn’t a birdy one, and there was a gorgeous little toddler in tow (my nephew), so mornings were harried, afternoons were nap-filled, and evenings were early. But it was still heavenly and I miss the quiet and the sunsets and the endless ocean. I also miss the umpteen Yellow warblers in our backyard and the placid Bald Eagle who perched on a rock by our beach every morning and the Osprey nest on our way to said beach and the fields and haystacks.

Was I upset about the flycatcher? A little, but to be honest, it’s not the first time I’ve missed out on that particular bird. I know he’ll be back, or perhaps I’ll see him somewhere else…Am I getting blasé? I hope not. But I’ve been reading Yiddish lately, and there’s this concept of “bashert” — what is meant to be. It’s usually used for a partner, a predestined soulmate, that kind of thing, but here I’m willing to use it for the flycatcher. It just wasn’t “bashert”, and one can’t really fight destiny, right?

Can you tell it’s summer, beloved birders? My mind is pulled in a million directions at once. From Yiddish to sand dunes to flycatchers to a gorgeous Georgia O’Keefe exhibit I just saw at the AGO. Things were hectic pre-PEI, and it was such a treat to relax and think of little other than what beach I would visit that day and what we would cook for dinner.

And for those following my writing beyond Birds and Words: I have a story out in The Walrus and a short essay coming out soon in Orion (I will keep you posted when it’s out).

 

In memory of Peter Vickery

Beloved Birders,

Four years ago this September, I had the pleasure of traveling to Hog Island, on the coast of Maine, to attend the storied bird camp, whose original instructors included Roger Tory Peterson and Alan Cruickshank. I attended a fall migration session, which included two days on Monhegan Island. I was a new birder at the time, entirely out of my element, couldn’t really distinguish a Yellow warbler from a Common Yellowthroat and had barely figured out how to point my binoculars.

But once we got to Monhegan, I birded with Peter Vickery, Maine birder extraordinaire. He quickly ascertained that I needed help identifying most species, including the very basic ones, but he refused to accept my whiny complaint that fall warblers were “so hard.” Instead, Peter spent a good hour pointing out all the warblers that looked virtually identical in spring and fall — Black-and-white, Parula, Black-throated green, Black-throated blue, Canada, Ovenbird, etc — making sure I got great looks at every one of them. In his opinion, Roger Tory Peterson had done birding a great disservice by famously referring to those “confusing fall warblers.” “Pay attention to the birds you already know and learn them well — you’ll quickly see that you already know more than you think. Build your base from what you know. Master all the common birds” — those were Peter Vickery’s wise suggestions, and I took them to heart.

I started paying attention to the nuthatches on my morning walks, stopped confusing them with chickadees; I learned to appreciate the House finch for what it was rather than constantly assume it was a Purple finch or a rare species; I learned to identify a Brown creeper by behavior alone.

Peter was encouraging, but also no-nonsense when it came to birding. We walked for four hours straight, stopping only for water. To him, birding was the best thing in the world, but it was also work, because if you’re not out there paying close attention, there is no possible way you can identify birds well and eventually grow to perceive nuance.

Last summer I returned to Maine to volunteer with Project Puffin, and I meant to send Peter an email, but then got busy. Yesterday, I thought of Peter again, and wanted to convey how his fierce attention to detail is starting to rub off on me, because you see, I managed to correctly ID both a Tennessee warbler and a female Black-throated blue at the banding station. Upon googling Peter Vickery, I learned that he had passed away two months ago, from cancer, at the age of 67. What a gift it was to spend those two days in his company.

This morning I birded in my local park and did it Peter Vickery-style: I marvelled at the common birds around me, and was stunned to see that I recognized the resident Belted Kingfisher and Hairy woodpecker, paused to take in the unmistakable song of the Red-eyed vireo and the two-part rhythm of the Yellow warbler, and watched the fiery orange of the Baltimore Orioles illuminate the trees like Christmas lights.

Thank you, Peter Vickery. You shaped my way of seeing.

Scribing

Beloved Birders,

I could tell you about my amazing trip to Carden Alvar, where I saw two Wilson’s Snipe up close and personal (so close I didn’t even need binoculars), where I saw numerous Bobolink, correctly identified the song of a Grasshopper Sparrow (it would have been hard NOT to ID this song — he was buzzing nonstop and somewhat ferociously), saw a Golden-winged Warbler, a Loggerhead Shrike, an Upland Sandpiper, and even a hybrid Brewster’s Warbler. I could tell you about how I accidentally misidentified a Brown Thrasher as an Eastern Meadowlark, not once, not twice, but four times total until the form finally sank in and now I feel like I could recognize a Brown Thrasher in my sleep…until, of course, the next time I misidentify him…I could tell you all that and more.

But instead, I’ll tell you that this morning, I finally decided to go through my 1970 & 80s children’s books, all sent to me by my grandmother from the former Soviet Union, books I read myself and books that were read to me by my parents, poems and prose, most of them imaginatively illustrated, printed on brittle paper, with a price stamp on the back (most of the books cost between 5 and 10 kopeks). I’ve been keeping these books for my nephew, and I think he might be old for us to read him some of these…then again, he might just try to eat the books and they’re likely toxic, so this might backfire! I remembered some of these books — fairy tales, stories by Pushkin, poems by Chukovsky, but I had no idea how many books I had growing up about birds! Titmice and Nightingales and Woodpeckers and Eagles and Owls and Bullfinches — this was a world I felt quite at home in as a child. Who knew?

I keep saying that I discovered birds at the age of 35, accidentally, on a whim, while auditioning hobbies, but now it turns out the narrative is more nuanced. That maybe, unbeknownst to me, this birding obsession is, in itself, a homecoming of sorts. Maybe they were there all along, just waiting for me to look up and take notice.

How little it turns out we know about the very things we think we understand so deeply.

And so the scribing continues (both at the banding station and beyond, in my semi-writerly life, too), as a way of gaining yet another ounce of a semblance of understanding. But without that impulse, that striving toward understanding(no matter how flawed) — where would I be?

Spring in These Parts

Beloved Birders,

It’s May, peak of spring migration, the month I’ve been looking forward to all year. And like anything I long for, there is also attendant anxiety: will I see more warblers than last year? Will I manage to see that Canada warbler that has eluded me for two years no? Will I properly savor the month of May without wishing it to go faster or slower — will I just let it be while knowing that I’m getting out as much as I can, binoculars in hand, looking up whenever possible, learning more bird songs, recognizing more field marks?

Of course May is all of that and more. I’ve been volunteering at the banding station when work has allowed (on average 1-2 times/weeks), and it’s been wonderful. The act of scribing only gets more riveting, as I’m slowly improving my ability to age and sex birds; I can now tell you which kinglet tail looks younger (most of the time). The knowledge doesn’t come in robust bursts — as I wish it would — largely because I’m not putting in the requisite hours (because…well, work, life, etc), but it’s trickling in slowly, relentlessly, and the accumulation of bits of knowing — birdy factoids, mainly — is a pleasure in itself.

Apart from all the magic of birds that May brings, it also ushers in some stunning fashion experiments and discoveries. As Lake Ontario water levels continue to rise, we’ve been forced to move into classier attire at the banding station, since knee-high boots no longer suffice:

Yours truly at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station. Photo taken by Hellen Fu, approximately 10 minutes after I had extracted a black-and-white warbler from a mist net, accompanied by the whooshing sound of a gigantic carp swimming by.  

I know not whether there could be a sexy way to sport hip waders, but I certainly haven’t figured it out yet. In any event, walking through thigh-high water is a far better leg workout than most of what I do on the elliptical machine. It should be recommended in all fitness regimens.

Sadly the photo doesn’t show the full splendor of my baseball hat: perhaps if you look very closely you can see the outlines of an embroidered Javelina. I bought this hat last December at the Chiricahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona and wearing it reminds me of the day I saw approximately 30,000 sandhill cranes and a flock of yellow-headed blackbirds in Whitewater Draw. And even if I hadn’t just extracted my favorite warbler from a mist net (every extraction is an EVENT), I’d still be smiling because when wearing a Javelina hat — container of so many memories — how could anything but a smile be possible?

I wonder about my fidelity to my favorite birds. I’ve seen dozens of birds more splendid than the Red-winged blackbird, but I’m still indebted to the redwing for being the bird that made me look twice. As my spark bird, it holds the top place, if somewhat unwarranted, in my hierarchy of favorite birds. Then there’s the black-and-white warbler — the bird trapped in a zebra outfit — which I also love best (yes, I have a favorite for every species) because it was the first warbler I recognized BY MYSELF. Now I know it by its behavior — the warbler that thinks it’s a nuthatch and often creeps, head-first, down a tree. I still swoon when I see it, even thought the Blackburnian, Hooded warbler, Prothonotary, and Northern Parula are, objectively, more spectacular. And yet, in the end, I’ll always choose the black-and-white. The warbler that made me want to see more, the one that made me recognize the potential in these tiny, fluttering migrants that boldly embark on the most perilous of journeys twice a year.

Anyhow all that to say that this spring has been extraordinary. I finally saw a Tennessee warbler in the hand, and marvelled at its elegant white eyestripe, and seeing the bird so close-up has finally cured me of years-worth of statements like, “Tennessee warblers are boring.” What a gift it is to be able to see birds this close, even if it does require hip waders and 4:15 am alarms. How wonderfully strange life is.