Category Archives: Birding

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

Spring again!

Beloved birders!

It’s been a while. I’d love to offer you a tremendous excuse, but I don’t have one. Other than life, I suppose. So let me fill you in on the past 6 weeks or so: the Mister and I spent three fantastic days in Montreal. We went to see the Chagall show at the Musee des Beaux Arts (ostensibly) and though we did make it to the show, and it was fantastic, poor Chagall was entirely overshadowed by all the food we ate. Oh Montreal, glorious mecca of food, I miss you. We had bagels at St. Viateur and Fairmount, drank the best cappuccino of my life at San Simeon (rue Dante, near Jean Talon market), had the second-best cappuccino of my life at Cafe Olympico, ate exquisite sushi at Juni on Laurier, indulged in a requisite smoked meat experience at Lester’s, visited three fantastic bookstores, walked on the Mountain, and ate what felt like a lifetime supply of cannoli from Alati Caserta (also on rue Dante — I could easily, and happily, spend the rest of my life on rue Dante). We drove back to Toronto with a pound of lox from Victoria Fish Market (on rue Victoria & Van Horne), six cannoli, four gigantic lobster tails stuffed with riccotta (Italians are pastry geniuses), and 36 Fairmount bagels.

But it appears one can’t manage everything. The birds in Montreal were less than spectacular: our sightings amounted to four lone chickadees and a dozen dark-eyed juncos.

And now somehow we’re in the thick of migration, once again: I’ve been scribing at the banding station, wandering around local parks in the city searching for warblers (and finding them). A few weeks ago, I even saw my first Ruff.

In other news, our trip to Montreal sadly coincided with passover, which meant that Cheskie’s was closed and I couldn’t taste their chocolate babka. What’s a girl to do without babka? So I learned how to make it and spent an evening buried deep in dough, chocolate and orange rind. The results were extraordinary and in a way I’m thankful to the sad timing or our trip. Before the babka, I made cardamom buns, and before that I tried my hand at baking bread.

Chocolate babka, baked by yours truly. Pardon the dirty kitchen table.

It’s been a curious, birdy, wordy, and utterly satisfying spring.

What it takes to see a Northern Shrike

Beloved birders,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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