Category Archives: Bird Art

The Worst Photo of the Best Barred Owl I’ve Ever Seen

Beloved Birders,

Back in the dark ages, before I’d ever looked closely at a bird, it used to be much easier to travel. I would do my research, read some guide books, perhaps a cultural history of whatever place I was headed to, draw up a list of things to do, see, eat, and experience and off we’d go. But now that birds have entered into the equation, I constantly find myself torn. Museum or sewage lagoon? Art gallery or maintenance yard in some out-of-the-way park that happens to also double as a warbler trap come spring? And now it always feels like I’m missing something.

Nevertheless. We persist, even in our imperfect state. Our trip to Washington, DC was a delight — both on the art and the bird front (and, most unexpectedly, also the Afghan food front — if you go to DC, do eat at LAPIS and do order their dumplings and I guarantee your life will be forever altered. I’ve been cooking Afghan dishes ever since we returned and there’s no looking back.) On all my previous trips to DC, I didn’t venture much beyond the National Gallery — one of my favorite places in the world (we did take a full half-day to reconnect with Vermeer, Van Eyck, Manet, Rothko, et al.). But this time, we also ventured further afield to  the Hirshhorn, where I marvelled at Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s installations, filled with genius & humor & terrific sense of irony; the Phillips Collection (holy Klee! need I say more?); the surprisingly wonderful Kreeger Museum; and the stunning Hillwood museum, home of the astonishing Marjorie Merriweather Post who loved Russian art, icons, porcelain, Faberge eggs and schnauzers. We even made it to the gorgeous gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, and the cherry blossoms put on quite a show for us, as did the magnolias. Coming home to Toronto with its freezing rain felt like a culture shock on many levels.

We also ventured out to the National Zoo, where we saw a Bald Eagle fly over the caged eagles — a rather curious juxtaposition. I wonder if the caged ones saw their erstwhile friend and relative flying over and I wonder if they were jealous of his freedom. We went for long walks in Rock Creek Park, where I saw so many Tufted Titmice I nearly got bored of them. I saw my first-of-the-year Winter Wren, Eastern Phoebe and Hermit Thrush, and just when I started to lament the fact that I had been privileging art over birds, my husband noticed a dark lump high up in a tree. He had been seeing squirrel nests everywhere and we didn’t make much of the “dark lump” comment. But I looked anyhow and it turned out to be a Barred Owl! How is it that my husband, who specializes in naked-eye birding ONLY, manages to find the best birds? I’ll admit that I got a tiny bit competitive (not my finest moment), but pretty soon I let go of my extreme pettiness and enjoyed the fabulous up-close Barred owl experience! Needless to say, my picture didn’t do it justice. Actually, looking at this photo, I can’t even find the owl. But maybe you’ll be able to.

This photo perfectly illustrates why I so rarely photograph birds. I swear there’s a Barred Owl in there somewhere. And it was a ferocious beast of a bird. In the best possible sense.

And there he sat, his back to us, showing off his unmistakable brown and white barred plumage. A few minutes later, he began doing his formidable neck-twists, and then sat there for about ten minutes with one eyed closed and the other staring right at us. A sight to behold. If it hadn’t started to get dark, we probably would have stayed for hours more. It’s strange that my only material evidence of the Barred Owl also happens to be the worst photo I’ve ever taken. Yet knowing that we found the owl on our own when we were least expecting it, and that I could ID it with perfect certainty made it the best Barred Owl I’ve ever seen.

I also saw Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Eastern Towhees, and a phenomenal Northern Mockingbird who regaled us with a series of about twenty different songs, like an ipod on shuffle mode. We also had Northern Flickers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Downies galore. Not great in terms of numbers, but it turned out to be one of the most surprising and exciting urban birdy adventures.

And here I am at the National Gallery in front of Katharina Fritsch’s puzzling and extraordinary cockerel. It grew on us and left us smiling for days. And how awesome is that when my birding life and my art-loving life coincide perfectly?

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.

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.

Hello Mincing Mockingbird (Bring on 2017!)

Beloved Birders,

For those of you following me on Twitter, you might know that I had a momentary, yet profound crisis in November when I realized that the Sibley wall calendar did NOT have a 2017 iteration. I’ve lived with the Sibley calendar since 2010, roughly when my birdy nerdy ways began, and couldn’t really imagine how I’d cope without one. In my mind, David Sibley can do no wrong (except for that minor misstep when he chose the CANADA GOOSE as the September bird, and my birthday month began on the wrong note), and his calendar has become a critical part of my home-office decor. I searched for a replacement for the Sibley and eventually settled upon an Audubon calendar, but let’s face it, it wasn’t SIBLEY.

Yesterday, I went to my mailbox to find the most amazing gift: a MINCING MOCKINGBIRD wall-calendar by Matt Adrian, whose bird art blows me away. Check out this majestic Snowy:

Matt Adrian's Snowy Owl. From the Mincing Mockingbird wall calendar.

Matt Adrian’s Snowy Owl. From the Mincing Mockingbird wall calendar.

Now imagine a calendar with 12 such glorious images. And that’s what I received from a friend in NJ when I was least expecting it. In a way, the gift summarizes 2016: unexpected gifts in the midst of, well, all sorts of, world politics which started resembling a dystopian world more and more.

But in the midst of everything, there were extraordinary highlights:

  • A trip to Israel, where I met my wonderful relatives and their 45+ feline creatures and realized that my marriage can be summed up by the phrase “the steppe buzzard and the little bee-eater.”
  • A pair of hand-knit socks, made from wool called BLUE TIT, no less, from an amazing new acquaintance on Twitter
  • an introductory ballet class, where I move in fantastically clunky ways, but every so often I sense a glimmer of grace
  • an ornithology class (I’m four chapters in and currently learning the difference between pennaceous and plumulaceous feathers) which saved me on election night since I had the luxury of choosing theropod dinosaurs over the alarming and depressing results trickling in on my computer screen
  • an owl-shaped soap-on-a-rope
  • an unexpected warbler party at the banding station; watching my friends band a Snowy owl in the wild
  • multiple bird-chases that yielded a Gray Kingbird, a Lark Sparrow, among other highlights
  • wearing my binoculars more than ever before
  • seeing my first Pileated woodpecker and discovering the unexpected loss of no longer having a nemesis bird
  • watching my nephew learn to walk, “talk,” and grow 12+ teeth
  • driving the backroads in Southeastern Arizona and developing a rather keen fondness for taxidermy

It wasn’t all rosy: there were losses, from which I’m still reeling, painful rejections, spectacular failures of all and every persuasion, but that is pure evidence of living, putting myself out there, again and again.

This world is a truly strange and wonderful place, forever surprising, often devastating, and endlessly fascinating. And though I’m a little sad to retire my Sibley calendar, I’m entirely ready for the Mincing Mockingbird. Bring on 2017!

 

A Chicken, a Flicker, Roger Tory Peterson & Me

Beloved Birders,

I must left you all hanging yesterday when I told you that I bought a painting of a chicken, and forgot to share it with you. Hope you didn’t lose sleep over it. In any event, here is the Chicken, painted by the lovely Dawn Stofer of Denman Island. You’ll be happy to know that when I purchased said bantam chicken, I was very appropriately clad in my chicken T-shirt purchased at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. Serendipity? Or maybe the chicken stars were aligned that day. In any event, here is the masterpiece which makes me very very happy:

Bantam series 18, by Dawn Stofer

Bantam series 18, by Dawn Stofer. Embarrassingly terrible photography by yours truly. 

Chickens aside, I just learned that today is the birthday of Roger Tory Peterson, bird god extraordinaire. He would have been 108 today. I think of the great RTP every time I see a Northern Flicker because I know that was his favorite bird, and it happens to be mine too (or one of my 20 favorites). I’m enamored of the way the flicker wears his cacophonous polka-dotted & striped plumage with confidence; would that I had such assurance in my choice of dress. Seriously — a woodpecker trapped in a fashionista’s body.

But what I marvel at most is that Peterson — the man who had traveled the world and seen the most exotic species imaginable — still loved the common, ubiquitous flicker best. It’s the loveliest way of reminding me that the greatest, most exciting natural world is the one right outside our window and that there’s never an excuse not to pay attention. Thanks for the reminder, RTP, and happiest of birthdays. You enriched the world of birds (and, by extension, my world, too) immeasurably.

Families

Beloved Birders,

There’s something ridiculous about my new wall art, this new unwieldy poster of 740 North American Birds that we have just hung.

P-Birds_ImgA_5817ae04-bd01-4f89-b1ff-3754e83a60b2_1024x1024

Designed by the hip folks at PopChart Lab in Brooklyn, the poster makes me smile every time I walk by (which is multiple times a day because it hangs on a wall around the corner from our bathroom, which was a coup in and of itself, because my husband had originally hoped to relegate it to my study, aka: the Bird Horror room, as he sometimes refers to it, lovingly, of course). And yet there’s also something bizarre about the poster. It’s not a teaching tool the way by any stretch of the imagination, and the birds are recognizable to me only because I know them (or most of them, or know where to look to get more complete images of them). This is not a poster for the novice birder, but it’s poster for the bird lover at any stage of the process.

BackyardBirds_Poster_E

Compare it to Sibley’s backyard birds (which also, for those of you following my interior decorating reports, hangs in our home, to the left of my desk). Sibley’s birds are excellent teaching tools, for their detail, nuance, and the important addition of females as well as males.

Needless to say, my husband’s first question was, “ANOTHER BIRD POSTER?” Do we really need another didactic poster of birds to add to our already zoologically-heavy interior?

I’m not sure whether I’ve shared that my husband has more than a passing thing for elephants, and “our” collection numbers in the hundreds, and I put our in quotation marks, because isn’t that what happens in a marriage? My becomes ours, and inevitably the idiosyncratic kitsch collected by one’s spouse becomes an extension of one’s own. And suddenly one finds oneself inhabiting a zoo and has no idea quite how one got there, but the most shocking thing of all is that one finds it comfortable, and after a while, it’s just home. The place I’d usually rather be. (Except when I’m birding, which is always where I’d rather be. Oh, thoughts on home are complicated around here.)

I had no answer to my husband’s (somewhat reasonable) question about the need for another bird poster, other than I just liked it and wanted it and knew it would make me happy, and it does all of those things. But What I hadn’t realized is that the PopChart poster, by virtue of its composition by bird family is making me see birds in an altogether different way. It changes things to remember that an American Coot, though it hangs out with ducks, is actually a rail and belongs with their kin. Seeing finches and crossbills and their allies lumped together forces me to zone in on their feisty bills, and having the Gallinaceous birds congregating together is just plain bizarre and reminds me that birds are so very OTHER than humans, so very wonderfully strange, and that the strangeness might be the very reason I got sucked into this extraordinary avian world in the first place. (I know that field guides are arranged by family, too, but what a difference it makes to see them all in one place–what a world it feels like.)

And I think of my own family, with its bizarre, often inexplicable characters, most of whom I don’t exactly understand, but whose company nevertheless completely delights me.