Category Archives: Interview

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,

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 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.

Introducing Charlotte Wasylik, aka Prairie Birder

Beloved Birders!

The people who bird fascinate me. I’ve written about this here, and I continue to explore the people-angle of birding on this blog. I’m interested in the compulsion to bird, what drives birders out into the field, what inspires them, what they’re reading, and how birding intersects with the rest of their lives. To that end, I’ve decided to start an interview feature here on Birds and Words. If you’re a birder (at any stage of your birding career) and would like to be interviewed, let me know!

To inaugurate the series, I interviewed Canadian young birder extraordinaire Charlotte Wasylik. You may know her as the author of the fabulous blog Prairie Birder or you may have even heard her recently on the broadcast of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds radio show. I’ve been following Charlotte’s blog for the past three years and am consistently impressed by her knowledge (trust me, it’s vast!), her community involvement and commitment to conservation issues. I also love that Charlotte is sharing her enthusiasm for all things avian and I admire her all-round creativity. She was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions and has great advice for beginning birders!

Charlotte Wasylik, aka, Prairie Birder, from Vermillion, Alberta.

Charlotte Wasylik, aka, Prairie Birder, from Vermillion, Alberta.

How did you start birding? 
I‘ve always liked birds and nature, and I knew some of the common species around our part of Alberta, including Western Meadowlarks, Black-capped Chickadees, and Green-winged Teals. But until about six years ago, I didn’t pay that much attention to them.
I became hooked when lots of American Goldfinches visited our yard in the spring 2009, after my mother decided to put some nyjer feeders around the garden. More and more goldfinches visited our yard and they were such fun to watch.
What was your spark bird? 
Definitely those American Goldfinches — they are such cheery little birds with a beautiful song, but feisty when sharing a feeder with others.
Did you have a birding a-ha moment when you knew you were hooked? What/when was it? 
I can’t remember exactly when I became hooked on birding, but I think seeing the goldfinches at our feeders had that a-ha feeling to it.
What do you love most about birding? 
Birds are everywhere, so if you travel to a different city, or different country, you’ll see birds! Birds are beautiful, fascinating, and often challenging.
There have been times when birds were so co-operative and then other times when I’d catch just glimpses of a bird. I love the “search” for difficult-to-find species as well as the regular reliable species like Black-capped Chickadees and Tree Swallows. And then there’s the challenge of trying to capture them in a photograph or a field sketch. It’s something I keep working on.
What have some of your birding highlights been? 
Some highlights have been helping to tag Turkey Vultures, banding a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and getting the chance to see Common Cranes, Black-throated Blue Warblers, Cinnamon Teals, and Piping Plovers. And because I’m a lister, getting to 100 species on my life list (which is now at 333 species). 
In August 2012 I was selected to be part of the Young Ornithologists’ Workshop at the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario, so I got to spend a week banding birds, making a study skin, and meeting other young birders from across Canada. Until that time I hadn’t met any birders my age. In August 2013, I went back to Long Point for a four-week Young Ornithologists’ Internship, helping with migration monitoring, and working on a personal research project, a Monarch Butterfly census. It was a wonderful opportunity to spend so much time in such a beautiful part of the country, to devote so much time to a passion, and to learn more about how Bird Studies Canada, which oversees the programs, works.
This past November, I was invited to Washington, DC to be a part of a special 500th show broadcast of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds — a radio show I started listening to in 2010. I had a wonderful time with the Talkin’ Birds crew, and meeting everyone in person for the first time. (You can listen to the show here)
And I just got back from four weeks in Europe with my family. Although it wash’t primarily a birding trip, I did get to do lots of birding in France and Germany and saw more than 70 lifers.
I’m impressed at how you’ve been able to cultivate a birding community – what have you learned about birders? 
All the birders I’ve met online and in person have been so welcoming and generous with their time and knowledge, they’re always happy to see a young or teenage birder show an interest in birds and nature.
When I started the Alberta Birds Facebook group in 2012, I never imagined that in fewer than three years the group would have over 2,500 members from across Alberta, Canada, and even other parts of the world. Members post their birding questions, photos, provincial bird news, and anything bird-related — I’m so glad so many people enjoy the group.
How does birding intersect with the rest of your life? 
Birding is just a part of my life. I’m happiest going out for a bird walk around our farm, with my scope, binoculars, and camera. Birding has also been helpful to me during the difficult times my family has had to face in the past few years (both of my maternal grandparents died in 2010, my paternal grandfather had a serious stroke last year, and my father had cancer). I’ve learned that going birding often also helps to relieve stress, because whether I go around our farm or the provincial park nearby, it means very long walks.
And because we home school, I’m able to incorporate extra biology and bird reading into my studies, which is great. I’m working through the Cornell Home Study course of bird biology.
What’s next for Charlotte, bird-wise and otherwise?
I’m in Grade 12 and not sure what I’d like to do yet. Even if my career later in life doesn’t involve birds or birding, I’ll still enjoy birding as a personal passion.
Who are some of the birders/ornithologists/conservationists who have inspired you? 
Sharon Stiteler is one birder I look up to. She’s funny and makes birding cool, which is something I hope I’ll be able to do.
I’ve also been inspired by Kenn Kaufman and his book, Kingbird Highway, about his decision in 1973 to drop out of high school at 16 and hitchhike across the United States for a “Big Year.” It’s a wonderful book and a fascinating read, and I hope to have such a grand adventure before too long!
What advice would you give a birder who is starting out? 
Put up some bird feeders in your yard — I think this is one of the best and easiest ways to start learning about the different kinds of birds in your area, and observing their behaviour.
Get to know experienced birders in your area since they are some of the best resources for new birders, and they’re always encouraging. It’s also fun to go birding with others, and you might learn about new hot spots and new species in the area.
Keep a notebook to write down your observations or make quick sketches. You don’t have to write a lot at first, just list the species you see and keep notes about the details of your outings. You can then look back and remember what species you saw and when.
Whether you’re waiting for the first birds to visit your feeders or seeing that nemesis bird on your list, be patient. It might take a while to see a certain species, but when you do it will be worth the wait.
Thank you, Charlotte!