Author Archives: Julia Zarankin

Interview with Drummers Who Love Birds (aka: Danny Miles)

Beloved Birders,

I met Danny Miles on my favorite day of the year, the Christmas Bird Count, which fell on December 17 2017. Our four-person team, led by Justin Peter, spent nine hours counting what turned out to be a colossal number of Mallards, House Sparrows, Rock pigeons, and other assorted waterfowl, including a resplendent Harlequin Duck. While I froze my fingers scribing our numbers, Danny took photographs of every species we saw. What are the chances that a rock star – the drummer of the famed band July Talk – and a classical music nerd would end up on a CBC team together? Well, therein lies the beauty of birding. You never know who you’ll meet or where exactly you’ll end up. After perusing Danny’s awesome bird photography blog and his Instagram feed, and becoming insanely jealous that he managed to see his first 2018 Snowy Owl before I did, I asked if he’d be up for an interview. We chatted over email, and he introduced me to the creepiest bird song I’ve ever heard (Google the Brazilian Great Potoo if you’re curious) and introduced me to the work of a few other fabulous bird photographers. All the bird photos in this post have been taken by Danny Miles and are used with permission.

You said that 2018 started for you with a Snowy Owl sighting. Has it been auspicious?

It is still a very exciting moment for me. I have really been focusing a lot on music so far this year. I haven’t had much time to get out birding. Once my drum parts are written and recorded I will have more time for more adventures.

Danny Miles’ first bird of 2018. Snowy Owl photographed in Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto.

How did you get into birding?

I realized I was into birding while on tour with July Talk. I was always interested in nature. I do a lot of walking and hiking while I’m on tour, it helps me clear my head and it keeps me sane. I was in Florida on a day off and I was on a long walk. There were two Sandhill Cranes on a front lawn and I stood and watched them for about half an hour. I was so fascinated by these two birds. After that I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I had caught the birding bug I suppose. Later, on that same tour while in Montreal I bought my first field guide and went out to see what birds I could find and ever since I have been hooked.

Do you have a favorite bird?

California Condor. I have never seen one before but they are at the top of my list. Favourites I have photographed are the Eastern Screech Owl and the Snowy Owl. A more common favourite is the Red-tailed Hawk. I see them all the time and I love them.

Red-tailed Hawk

How did you like your first Christmas Bird Count experience?

It was very educational for me. I was out with people who know much more about birds than I do so I absorbed as much knowledge as I could. I found it hard to get any good pictures because I didn’t want to scare the birds away. It was definitely the most intense bird outing I have ever had. We were out for about 9 hours and it was freezing, but I had a great time and my team was amazing.

We sure were. I just found out that our team actually tied for the Christmas Bird Count trophy this year! I’ll be honest with you — during the CBC, I was kind of jealous that you got to experience a Harlequin Duck sighting for the FIRST TIME! What did it feel like to see a Harlequin duck? 

It was pretty amazing, I had never seen one before. We couldn’t get too close because it was out in the lake but I could see it well with my camera. It was also impressive how many birders had heard it was there and were showing up from all over to see it. There is definitely strong communication in the bird community.

Do birds get more exciting for you as you get to know them or are you nostalgic for that first sighting? 

The first time you see a bird you have been hoping to see for a long time is very exciting and you likely won’t forget that moment (like when I saw my first Snowy Owl). But it is true that I do have a growing appreciation for birds once I learn more. This is especially true with sparrows, for example, where the more you learn the more you start to recognize the differences between them.

What do you think of the nerdy bird lingo like CBC and Warbler Neck?

I love it, both terms are pretty new to me and I’m just learning all the lingo. It takes time to learn it all and trust me there is just as nerdy lingo in music. I think it shows your experience and commitment to something in a way.

You’ve been taking photographs of birds for a few years now. What makes a good bird photo? Any favourite birds you like to photograph?

I think it is very important to get the eyes in focus and it’s not always easy when they move so much and fly away. The framing of the photo is also very important to me. I want my pictures to look good in a frame as a print where I find a lot of bird photography doesn’t take that into account. It’s just my approach to bird photography. I want it to be more artistic I guess. Cedar Waxwings seem to make beautiful subjects.

Any nemesis birds you hope to get but keep missing?

I haven’t got an Osprey photo I am proud of yet and they are one of my favourite birds. I dream of getting a diving Osprey photo.

Eastern-screech Owl, seen and photographed in Toronto.

Do you have any birding mentors?

Justin Peter, Jack Breakfast. I also just got this coffee table book called the Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw and it is so amazing. She does all the art as well as the writing. The pictures are some of my favourite drawings around. It is a bird anatomy book but it’s so artistic. She draws bird skeletons or birds without feathers, creepy and cool. I also follow a lot of incredible bird photographers on social media like Harry Collins. 

Do you use apps to help you find birds in the field? 

I use the Peterson Bird app while I’m in the field. Actually my dentist recommended it.  I also use field guides. I have a few for the different parts of the world like UK/Europe and North America.

You’re also a drummer. I’m often struck by the musicality of birds (especially the song of a Wood Thrush), but recently I heard a duet of Hairy Woodpeckers and I actually thought of you because their syncopated rhythm would likely have made any drummer proud. Are there any connections for you between birding and music?

There is. Listening is incredibly important for both music and birding. For music you need to listen to your other band members to make sure you are a tight unit and with birding listening for bird calls is obviously extremely important to locate birds. Also some birds are very rhythmic. Woodpeckers being the main one around the Toronto area.

When Danny Miles isn’t birding or photographing birds he’s rocking out with July Talk.

Were your bandmates surprised by your new birding identity? Have you converted any of them to birding?

Yeah, at first I presented it like a bit of a joke, like “I’m thinking of getting into birding so by the time I’m 60 I will be the best birder in the world.” I do think they were weirded out but they understood it helped keep me sane on the road. I wouldn’t say they are converted but they are definitely more aware of the nature around them.

What inspired you to start your blog, drummerswholovebirds.com?

I wanted to share some of my experiences out in the field while getting the pictures. Sometimes it is so incredible. I also like having the memory written down and maybe it gives people a look at the kind of personality the animal in the picture has.

Would you say that birding changed your life?

In a big way. I feel like I am better known for my bird photography now then my drumming, haha. It’s crazy, sometimes while walking across a street in Toronto or something someone yells “Hey, Drummers Who Love Birds.” They don’t even mention that I am the July Talk drummer. It’s pretty funny.

I’ve found that birding opens the most unexpected doors and has introduced me to some of the most surprising and delightful people. Have you had any surprises? What interesting connections have you made through birding?

Getty Lee of Rush is into birding and we have a mutual friend who introduced him to my photography, which was super cool. He commented on my photo. I also was introduced to another musician/birder/writer/artist Jack Breakfast. I have bought his art and his bird book. He is a really interesting guy. I have yet to meet Getty or Jack in person but I hope to someday soon. The Vice Documentary I did introduced me to the shykids guys who are amazing people and of course my birding mentor Justin Peter, who is the vice president of the Toronto Ornithology Club and also appears in the doc. I also met Wendy McGrath who is a writer because of my photography and we are now collaborating on a poetry book. I did some charity stuff with Toronto Wildlife Centre who are amazing people and WWF Canada posted my picture of the Snowy Owl on national bird day, which was so flattering. So yeah I have definitely been introduced to amazing people because of birding.

What’s next for you, birdwise and otherwise?

I am working on the poetry book with Wendy McGrath. I’m not sure when that will come out but we are probably about half way done looking for a publisher at the moment. I am always taking photos and selling prints on my website drummerswholovebirds.com. I may also do some art fairs this year and try selling prints that way. A gallery show would be pretty cool to do. July Talk is writing a new record and I have a couple other music projects I am currently working on.

Danny Miles, in his other element.

And, speaking of July Talk, if someone wants to get to know your music where should they start?

I think as a band we are most proud of the album Touch. CBC (not Christmas Bird Count, but Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) did a great live recording of us when Touch came out.

Superb Owl

Beloved Birders!

Today, Kenn Kaufman posted this image on Twitter:

I think it’s apt. Though I have no intention of watching Superbowl, I’m always up for a Superb Owl, but this year I did it a day early. Yesterday, I went out to Tommy Thompson Park and spent some quality time with my two favorite Toronto Snowy Owls. One waited for me on the pier of the marina, and the other was a few kilometres further down the peninsula. Seeing these owls every weekend this winter is as close as I’ve ever come to having pets. Seriously! When they whip their heads around, I keep thinking they want to tell me something, and I’m starting to take the winks personally.

In any event, seeing the Snowies is, by far, the highlight of my week and I’ll be sad when they head back north this spring. But by then the warblers will be back, and I’ll hear the sounds of Killdeer, and my beloved Red-winged Blackbirds will flaunt their guttural conk-a-ree song, and by that point I’m sad to say that I will have long forgotten about the Snowy Owl…

However, in non-superb owl news, I went out and saw a bunch of Robins, a few chickadees, a gorgeous red-tailed hawk, blue jays, a downy woodpecker and a couple song sparrows. Not exactly thrilling, but entirely comforting. After all, I can’t expect to have an owl sighting every day…or maybe that’s something I should aspire to? Why not make every day a Superb Owl day?

Now it’s really 2018!

Beloved BIrders!

2018 now has my official blessing to begin. Yesterday I opted for some solo birding, largely on account of scheduling issues and an unexpectedly late night on Friday watching the phenomenal Seana McKenna perform Lear. So off I went to Tommy Thompson Park in search of a Snowy Owl. The test was twofold: first, I wondered if I would survive a 2.5 hour walk on an icy path in -12 degree weather, and second, I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to find the owl on my own. You see, I’m not exactly talented at seeing white on white or playing Where’s Waldo with a bird that often eludes me because it looks like little more than a dirty lump on a greyish background.

But then I remembered those kayakers I saw exactly two weeks ago, the guys who seemed to be afraid of absolutely nothing, and I decided it was time to give my layers of woollens a workout. The day turned out to be so sunny that I almost forgot about the freezing temperatures, and the path had a dusting of snow on it which made it almost non-slippery. I’ll admit that for the first hour or so, I wondered what I was doing out there braving the elements, and my bird count amounted to three long-tailed ducks, five gadwall and two gargantuan mute swans. But then as soon as I questioned the point of the outing, I stared out at the glistening water and the sky so bright it could have been midsummer. I scanned every rock on the shoreline, got excited by a few oddly shaped greyish mounds only to realize they were rocks or, rather embarrassingly, logs, but there seemed to be nary an owl in sight.

I’m not sure when I got it into my head that I needed to see a Snowy Owl to mark the official start of the year, but poor Mr. Birds and Words can attest to the fact that for two weeks straight all I talked about were owls. I didn’t want to accept that my year began with something as ordinary as an American Robin. I craved the monumental, raptorial, fierce, menacing, and gallant. And I wasn’t ready to give up.

The first Snowy I saw sat nonchalantly on the edge of a pier in the marina, mostly with its back to me, but occasionally regaling me with a slick turn of its head. I was inordinately pleased, because I’d accomplished my mission, but I can’t say I was entirely satisfied. You see, this owl was shown to me by a friendly couple I saw with binoculars. As I was starting at the five lonely gadwall by the shore, out of sheer desperation, I started scanning for people walking along the path and eventually pointed my binoculars straight at a couple pointing their binoculars and gesticulating wildly toward the marina. So I abandoned the gadwall and ran through the reeds toward the couple, nearly slipped on the ice, and nonchalantly asked them if they’d seen anything exciting. In response, they pointed to the Snowy and I responded with shrieks of joy.

But I still wanted more. I decided I’d give myself another hour, and kept walking further along the shore, scanning everything, including trees and posts and even high up in the sky because you never know from whence a Snowy might descend. I might have been getting a little delirious at this point. I passed the frozen pond where I had seen the Fork-tailed Flycatcher during a heatwave back in September, and the adjacent pond where I’d seen the Tricolored Heron on a sweltering day in July, and then I turned toward the shore again and put my binoculars up just for kicks, because a snowy couldn’t possibly be that easy to see, it couldn’t possibly be right in front of me, surely that must be yet another rock that I’m looking at. And there it was. Majestic and regal and staring right at me. I stood there watching the owl bounce about, hopping from rock to rock, acting as if she owned the entire beach. I stood there until I very nearly froze. And then I looked some more. My very first solo Snowy Owl sighting.

I finally felt that the year had begun.

 

Hairy Duet

Beloved Birders!

I snuck out to a nearby park to see my first bird of the year — largely because I didn’t want bird #1 to be a House Sparrow — and saw…..an American Robin! So this might be the year of the Turdus migratorius, awful as that sounds. But turdus means thrush, and not that’s not at all a bad way to begin. After bemoaning the fact that my year began in such an ordinary way, I happened upon a duet of Hairy Woodpeckers, hammering away at a complicated syncopated rhythm that would have made my drummer brother-in-law proud. So perhaps not that ordinary after all. And soon the Hairys were joined by a Downy, and a fly-over Red-tailed Hawk and a few Song and American Tree Sparrows. I heard nuthatches and goldfinches and Black-capped Chickadees. Reluctantly, I had to tear myself away from the woodpeckers as they worked through their technically sophisticated drumming passage in order to get to my grandmother’s 87th birthday on time.

The day before, on New Year’s Eve, I treated myself to a three hour walk in my favorite Toronto park, Ashbridges Bay, and came across two intrepid kayakers as they positioned their boats on the frozen shore of Lake Ontario, hop inside and shimmy their way into the water. I couldn’t take my eyes of them, and shivered in their stead. I marvelled at their fearlessness. So cold, and yet here they were, paddling, one stroke after another.

It dawned on me that I had spent so much of 2017 afraid — both for our planet, my beloved birds, and sundry other things. I want 2018 to be a different kind of year. I have great admiration for those kayakers who set out on their journey in spite of the cold, who put their boat in the water simply because they wanted to, who weren’t questioning is this the right thing to do? Am I doing it right? will this get me to where I want to be? what if I fail? what if I’m too old for this? What if nobody cares? No, the kayakers asked no such questions: they just jumped right in and did it. I’m going to borrow some of their fearless spirit and optimism this year.

But 2017 wasn’t all fear and gloom — I had fantastic moments, exciting publications, lectures that I’m really proud of, amazing visits with friends and family, and the year was bookended by two phenomenal films: “Toni Erdmann” and Agnes Varda’s luminous “Faces Places.” In early December, we traveled to Curacao for a week and I saw a Crested Caracara and Magnificent Frigatebirds and Venezuelan Troupials galore. The day after our return, during our Christmas Bird Count, I was welcomed home by a Harlequin Duck. On the penultimate day of 2017 I scanned a raft of hundreds of Scaup and managed to find the lone Scoter. Of course I misidentified him initially as a Black Scoter, but upon coming home and opening my field guide, I corrected myself: it was a White-winged. And the fact that I had found him myself, misidentified him and then correctly re-identified him made the White-winged Scoter my favorite bird of the year.

And the very best part of 2017? My binoculars got their best workout yet — I managed to get out at least three times/week, even if some of the outings were no longer than an hour. Carl Zeiss would be proud.

Happy New Year, beloved birders. And thanks for reading.

On Seeing Nothing

Beloved Birders,

You know the day. It’s that day when you decide to venture out on your own even though it’s drizzling and you walk around the park and the most exciting thing you see is a White-breasted Nuthatch. And you half-heartedly berate yourself for not driving out to Rondeau Provincial Park with your bird group in search of the Townsend’s Warbler, but also know that such a journey would have been logistically impossible, so you try as hard as you can to enjoy the Nuthatch. You’re mostly successful and manage to take genuine pleasure in the sight of the nuthatch, largely because you recognized its call before you saw the sharp-billed bird creeping down the tree-trunk. You take a minute to appreciate the fact that a few years ago you would have confused this bird with a chickadee and a red-breasted nuthatch and would have mistaken the bird’s nasal call notes for a squirrel’s.

But you’re not exactly satisfied with the nuthatch. You want more, and so you wade into the bushes and happen upon a few White-throated Sparrows, several Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, and a charm of goldfinches. Before long you’ve also seen a Hairy and a two Downy Woodpeckers, which you correctly differentiated based on the length of their bills. Overhead, a Red-tailed Hawk zooms by, and later a few Turkey Vultures display their prominent angled wings, which you know to call a dihedral. And you chuckle to yourself at the word dihedral, which you couldn’t have imagined using ten years ago.

And later, when your husband asks you what you’ve seen today, you respond, somewhat dejected, “nothing.” But before you’ve finished uttering the word nothing, you follow it with a quick rundown of everything you’ve seen. And suddenly the “nothing” transformed into a dozen common, but absolutely stunning species that you saw, heard, and easily recognized on your own. There was a time, not so long ago, when you would have walked through that park and literally seen nothing save a pigeon and a pack of dogs. But now, even on the day when you think you’ve seen nothing you’ve actually recognized, identified, communed with, and marvelled at every bird that crossed your path.

Sometimes the days when we see “nothing” are the ones that remind of just how far we’ve come.

What 18 hours can bring

Beloved Birders,

There are days when the stars align in the strangest, most perfect and unexpected combination. On Saturday night, I headed over to the banding station at Tommy Thompson Park for the season’s last hurrah — an all-night owl night, where we band Northern Saw-whet Owls, but given my half-workday on Sunday, I could only manage the early shift, much to my chagrin. We got the cutest little saw-whet owl early in the evening — before I had the chance to nearly overdose on sour keys and salt-and-vinegar chips — and I squealed with delight as we banded the bird, weighed it, sexed and aged it, and then paused for glamor shots with the celebrity bird. I hadn’t seen a saw-whet in a few years, so this was a serious thrill.

And then, a half-hour before I left the station, at 11:25pm, we did a net check, found another owl that nearly escaped (I played a pivotal role in holding the net tight while my friend Denise performed a masterful, lightning quick extraction), quickly called it an enormous female saw-whet and then took another look because the owl was so big and feisty and it turned out to be an EASTERN SCREECH OWL (grey morph)! I had to scream that last bit because Easter screeches have never flown into our nets before! This turned out to be a station first, and a very big deal indeed. A lengthy photo shoot followed after I scribed the data and we marvelled at the owl’s plumage and how expertly he camouflaged with the Master Bander’s camo jacket. No wonder those sweet creatures are so hard to see in the trees! They really blend in perfectly.

After getting a good night’s rest, we headed off to Humber Bay Park (after a requisite stop at the inimitable Birds and Beans cafe) where I happily greeted old friends: Redhead, Bufflehead, Long-tailed duck, Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, and my all-time fave, the resplendent Hooded Merganser, with a crest that rivals my rhinestone headband in allure. We went out with friends who told me they found ducks boring because they all look the same! Ah….I remember the day when I too felt this way. When the world seemed monochrome and all ducks were one. That feels like a lifetime ago… So as we walked, I stopped to point out all the beauties, encouraged (forced) them to see them through my binoculars (thanks Zeiss!) and by the end of the walk they came away with some new favorites.

And then just as we were leaving, I saw a juvenile Cooper’s hawk sitting in a tree, calmly awaiting her next victim. To be honest, I’m not sure what made me happier — seeing the bird or being able to correctly identify it. Either way, it was a perfect end to the birdiest 18 hours.

 

Raptorial Polyglot

Beloved Birders,

It’s no secret that I have a hard time with raptors. They’re not nearly as challenging or gulls or shorebirds, but my raptor learning curve has been steep, and so far my misidentifications far outnumber my correct IDs. It’s a challenge, it’s a process, and lately, I’m all in.

What changed? Well, it might be that I’m finally wrapping my head around Red-tailed hawks and their streaked belly band, and have learned to identify them perched on light poles. It might also be our trip to Arizona last year, when we drove from Bisbee to the Chiricahua National Monument and counted over a hundred raptors along the way. It might also be the fact that my husband is fascinated by raptors — oh yes, they are manly birds, which is part of the reason I wasn’t drawn to them in the first place, since they’re often testosterone magnets — and there’s always the sly manipulative part of me that constantly searches for ways to get him hooked on birding. It’s a lifelong project, and raptors are likely the easiest way to accomplish said feat.

Back in April 2016, we visited Israel, watched the raptor migration from the mountains above Eilat, and while I was mesmerized by the sheer volume of birds flying overhead (the counter had reached 6000 just in the hour we stood watching the skies), I had really hired a bird guide to lock eyes with some Little Bee-eaters, so the bird-of-prey portion of the morning left me impressed, but not ecstatic. My husband, however, could have watched those Steppe Buzzards all day.

But something changed mid-September when we found ourselves at Second Marsh in Oshawa, ostensibly to look for shorebirds, but the waters turned out to be so high that the place was completely deserted of its usual mid-September bird population, save for two Northern Harriers performing something akin to an aerial dance over the marsh, and a few eclipse plumage ducks which I’ll likely see the point in attempting to identify 10 years down the line. And for the first time — embarrassingly, probably because there was nothing better to look at — I took the time to study the harriers, to follow them with my binoculars until I felt a little queasy. I couldn’t take my eyes off their gleaming white rump patch as they soared and dipped, utterly majestic.

Last week, I got Pete Dunne’s new book from the library, Birds of Prey: Hawks, Eagles, Falcons and Vultures of North America, and am reading it slowly. It’s one I’ll likely buy because of the fine balance of alluring prose, great pictures, and sheer volume/quality of information. But it wasn’t until Dunne described the Crested Caracara as a “raptorial polyglot” that I was completely smitten. Somehow I had found my point of entry.

It’s funny — I have no trouble relating to the Northern Flicker; after all, no other bird has taught me more about being intrepid in my fashion choices. The Waxwings (Cedar and the elusive Bohemian alike) have instructed me in all things relating to my coiffure. But hawks?

I started to wonder how many languages the Crested Caracara has in its repertoire. Would we be able to converse in Yiddish? Could we discuss the Sholem Aleichem stories I’ve been reading? Suddenly, the possibilities seem endless and I’m dying to go out this weekend and see more raptors. More raptorial polyglots. Who knew?

 

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.