Category Archives: Life

The Bird in front of You

Beloved Birders,

Every winter at about this time, I get desperate for a Northern Shrike. I haven’t yet figured out whether it’s hormonal or not, but every year in mid-January, the intense craving for a shrike sets in and there’s nothing I can do to stop myself. This morning was brutally cold. I suppose that if I were made of hardier stuff, I would have walked the length of Tommy Thompson Park anyhow, which might have put me in the path of not only one, but two Northern Shrikes, if reports are to be trusted. But when woke up this morning, I realized that a four-five hour walk was not in the cards, and headed out to my second-favorite park in Toronto, Colonel Sam Smith, at the juncture where Kipling Avenue meets Lake Ontario.

About five years ago, before I even knew of the existence of a Northern Shrike, I saw one in that park. I had pointed out movement to my bird guide, and initially, he dismissed the grey bird as a mockingbird, but upon taking a closer binocular view, he pronounced it a shrike, and proceeded to tell me all about this predatory songbird, known in some circles as the butcher bird. I had been impressed, but those were the early birdy days, long before I started reading up on the birds I saw in the field. A year after that first sighting, I once again happened upon the bird in the same locale, and this time he displayed textbook behavior: we watched as the Northern Shrike impaled a vole on a thorn and proceeded to dig right in and devour the rodent. No empathy whatsoever for the vole; the shrike showed us who’s boss and reminded us, once again, that there is nothing cute whatsoever about the avian kingdom. Life is ruthless.

Though there have been no shrike reported in the park recently, I still look for one every time I’m there and this morning was no exception. I took some time to admire the luscious female Snowy Owl reclining on the dock, surveyed the duck situation (meagre offerings early this morning) and then saw a grey bird flap its wings and fly from one tree to the other. I knew it was a Northern Mockingbird before I even saw it — the flash of white in its feathers and the long tail — but for a second I allowed myself to dream. What if this was the bird about which I’d been summoning the higher forces for an intercession?

It turned out to be a mockingbird. So did the next grey specimen. By this point I realized there would be no shrike for me this morning, and I started sulking in the freezing cold. I walked all the way out to Whimbrel point, still annoyed that I hadn’t seen much of anything, when I heard a few chip notes and saw movement in the small pine trees. Not a shrike, of course not, but two Golden-crowned Kinglets bopping around, hopping from branch to branch, feeding upside down, completely oblivious to the temperature and the fact that it’s a bit late for them to be hanging out in the Toronto area. I marvelled at their hardiness, their resolve, and took in the beauty of a tiny, 5.5g mid-winter kinglet. And I stood there, freezing while I listened to their notoriously high-pitched chip notes, which older birders often lament no longer being able to hear. Slowly I let go of the non-sighting of the Northern Shrike and let myself enjoy the bird in front of me. A sunny day, high-pitched chips that I can recognize, a bird I’d once mistaken for delicate on account of its weight and cute appearance turned out to be one of the fiercest creatures around.

In Lieu of Nostalgia: Scoter Trifecta

Beloved Birders!

Those of you who have been reading this blog assiduously since the early days (mom!) might remember that in November of 2011, I travelled back to Providence, RI, to revisit the scene of my undergraduate days. You might remember that I woke up at 7am and ran straight to my old dorm and wept in front of one of the janitors, bemoaning the fact that time had passed. You might also remember that I nearly broke down in the Blue Room — my old favorite cafe on campus — because their chocolate chip cookie recipe hadn’t changed since I graduated in 1997 and just the smell of it brought back my youth in technicolor. The trip was made all the more strange because my beloved husband categorically refused to partake in my nostalgia-rituals, and I had to confront the passage of time and my own propensity toward mythologizing my past all alone. And so I sat there on the steps of Sayles Hall, reliving as much as I could about the four years I spent at Brown, and feeling very much like Masha in The Three Sisters, who says, “I’m in mourning for my life.”

I undertook a similar trip this past November, only this time I was wise and left Mr. Birds and Words at home. He had little interest in revisiting Princeton with me, and I didn’t really want to inflict another nostalgia-overdose on anybody. So off I went, this time for US Thanksgiving, to see my dear friends in Hopewell, NJ. I spent an afternoon on campus, not at all shocked that Princeton had gotten over my departure in 2004, but I must admit that I was stunned at how well everybody had coped without me! College campuses are a funny thing: they are basically an idyll that lives according to its own time-space continuum. Nothing there ever changes. And yet here I was, 14 years older, still the same, but not. I took a minute to sit in the East Pyne courtyard, and realized that the last time I had sat there was the morning of my dissertation defence in September 2004.

I saw a great show at the art museum — about nature and the nation — and wondered why I hadn’t spent more time in that museum as a graduate student. I stood planted in front of an enormous Diebenkorn painting and thought that such a view might have been the answer to so many of my graduate school woes.

I could make a career out of inhabiting nostalgia. I could teach workshops on the art thereof. My imaginative capacities for reliving long-gone moments are extraordinary. Would that one could market such a skill.

And then, before things got entirely out of hand, we left campus and drove back to Hopewell, where everything was sufficiently new that didn’t have anything to relive and had to just enjoy the present moment. But what really cured my nostalgia was going birding the next day with Rick Wright. I’ve known Rick’s wife for years — we met in grad school — but this was my first time meeting Rick himself. We drove out to Sandy Hook, NJ, and immediately upon arriving, I saw a trifecta of scoters in large numbers: White-winged, my favorite Surf, and Black Scoter. And though I’d seen all three already, it takes a considerable amount of work to get all three in the same binocular view in Southern Ontario, so this was a thrill. And then I turned around and saw an even stranger sight: across the water was Coney Island with its rollercoasters and ferris wheels, and not far from that was Sheepshead Bay and Avenue Z in Brooklyn, where my grandfather had once lived, and where I had spent a few nights in 1985, when he gave me a silver glass-holder that I still have. This was as close as I’d ever get to Coney Island, at least for the foreseeable future. The day also included a lifer for me: a Northern Goshawk perched on a brach. I originally misidentified it as a Red-tailed Hawk, but the intensely barred breast gave it away.

On my way back to Toronto, I wondered why I hadn’t crumbled the way I had seven years ago, when revisiting Rhode Island, and realized — it must have been the birds. With binoculars in my hand, I was suddenly seeing a different New Jersey, an entirely new and fascinating place I hadn’t even imagined existed. And after a few hours staring at the birds, I found myself happy to be exactly where I am. In this place.

Postscript

Beloved Birders,

This post is for those of you who have been losing sleep over the Pine Grosbeak and whether I’ve managed to see it. YES! It happened yesterday morning: I hopped in the car at 7:30 and took advantage of the non-existent post-holiday traffic and headed straight for Rouge Valley, got to the house with the crab apple tree and….there were THREE Pine Grosbeaks munching away, furiously. The show-stopping male was perched upside down — it seems crab apples taste better when you’re upside down — while his mate luxuriated on a branch, doing her thing. Up above there was another grosbeak, likely a young male, because he had the reddish head, but a mostly grey body. I watched them for nearly 20 minutes, and then they let out a few high pitched call notes and poof! The trio flew up and literally vanished from my field of vision.

I did document the moment by texting my friend Martha and calling my husband, but as I saw driving home, I wondered whether I had dreamed the whole thing up. 24 earlier, I had been despondent about this bird; just now I’d seen three of them; and now, in this precise moment, the whole thing was a memory. If Proust were around, I’d commission him to write about my Pine Grosbeak incident — no doubt, he’d be able to weave it into a seamless, novel-length masterpiece. Could you imagine if instead of the iconic Madeleine, he’d have given us 20 pages on the Pine Grosbeak & the passage of time? Maybe I’ll have to tackle that one myself.

Now I feel like the year has begun in earnest. Especially now that I’ve discovered Russian Caravan tea, which basically tastes like a campfire in a mug, and now I wonder how I managed to live 44 years without it?

Zoological Curiosities

Beloved Birders,

We went away for a few weeks in September, and I just realized I didn’t write about it. The problem with coming back from a trip is that life hits you full force, and then suddenly you’re swamped and the fact that you stood face to face with mating ostriches in the Berlin Zoo just mere weeks ago no longer feels like it’s information in urgent need of sharing with the world.

But yes, you did indeed read that correctly. Our very first day in Berlin, we were jetlagged and decided that rather than facing Lucas Cranach’s masterpieces in a semi-conscious state, we’d be better off hanging out at the zoo. After seeing the resplendent, glistening hippos, the bears, and all sorts of other glorious fauna, including Snowy Owls, we happened upon an anxious looking ostrich. There he was flapping his wings like a bird possessed, and before I knew it he ran down the hill, and we followed, at a bit of a distance, and separated by a fence of course. As he got to his destination, we suddenly realized that there was another ostrich involved in the frenetic reunion, and that we had basically, accidentally, found ourselves in a nat geo documentary that often features commentary along the lines of, “and now the mounting.” Anyhow, I’m now pleased to add ostriches to my collection of copulating birds, in addition to Ring-billed Gull, Eastern Kingbird, and Peregrine Falcon. To be honest, the whole spectacle looked a bit unwieldy. And loud.

The rest of our trip, post-ostriches didn’t disappoint either. We visited the Boros Sammlung — a conceptual art museum located in a WWII Bunker in the heart of Berlin. A fascinating juxtaposition of historical layers. I finally got to hear the Berlin Philharmoniker LIVE, which was a highlight. We did get to Cranach and Botticelli and the gang post-jetlag, in the Gemaldegalerie, and even made it out to Dresden for a day, where we communed with more old masters (and ate delicious ice cream). And there was Klee and Giacommetti, and I had forgotten just how much art one can see in Berlin. On our last day it was unseasonably hot, so hot that I couldn’t think straight, so rather than look at more art at the Bode Museum, we opted for an afternoon at the Natural History Museum (Naturkundemuseum) in the company of extraordinary dinosaur skeletons. I became slightly obsessed with a stuffed hippopotamus who had apparently descended from the legendary Knautschke — one of the lone animals from the Berlin Zoo who managed to survive WWII — and couldn’t stop thinking of how he’d fit in perfectly into our apartment decor. As a side note, our audioguide also told us that Knautschke was apparently so fertile that he sired 38 children and if you visit a natural history museum in Europe and find yourself face to face with a stuffed hippo, it’s likely one of Knautsche’s offspring. Who knew?

But I am getting ahead of myself. Between the dinosaurs and the hippo, I actually had the birdiest moment of our entire trip. I SAW ARCHAEOPTERYX! Yes, the famous fossil! IN THE FLESH. In all honesty, it was better than Mona Lisa. This is the transitional fossil that proved the link between dinosaurs and modern birds — a truly a strange looking reptilian winged creature. Anyhow, the Archaeopteryx lithographica fossil is 150 million years old and probably the most famous fossil in the world. And all we could do was stare in wonder.

Just when I thought nothing could beat staring at a fossil, we travelled to the northern tip of Denmark and stood on a spit of sand in Skagen where the North Sea meets the Baltic. And suddenly windswept sand dunes displaced fossil talk. Travel is funny the way one thing gives way to another. Before arriving in Skagen all I could talk about was Cranach and Archaeopteryx, but now my mind focused solely on migrating sand dunes, Common Eider (IN THEIR PROPER BLACK AND WHITE PLUMAGE), seals, and Anna Ancher. And a few days later, we landed in Copenhagen, hung out in the park with Barnacle Geese and Eurasian Coots, and bought the cutest looking hippopotamus we’ve ever seen. In between the coots and the hippo, we visited the Louisiana Museum, which happens to be named not after the US state, but after the museum founder’s three wives, all of whom were named Louise. How convenient! What I love most about travel — and birds, come to think of it, and people — is how the things you see and learn are surprisingly so much stranger than anything I could have imagined. And isn’t that — opening your eyes to the strange –isn’t that the beauty of life?

Black Hippo. Designed by Kay Bojesen. It turns out this is everything I’ve ever wanted in life.

On (Failing and) Seeing a Virginia Rail

Beloved Birders!

Failure seems to be having its moment. Everyone seems to be flaunting their failures in the spirit of greater transparency, which is indeed important, especially in the climate of social media, which often only isolates success stories, as if forgetting how much hard work and, yes, failure happens behind the scenes. Anyhow, one could even say that this blog, Birds and Words, is a pioneer in failure, because for every bird I see and ID with certainty, there are dozens that I fail to see or misidentify. In other words, if you’re not failing, it probably means that you’re not doing much of anything.

Which brings me to the topic of the Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola), which I saw this morning at Colonel Samuel Smith Park, shortly before 8am. I watched him weave in and out of the reeds, stealthily as is his wont, and then followed him (with my binoculars) right into a clump of mud, where he sat, camouflaged, for the next twenty minutes. I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out if I’d just happened upon him in the mud, so perfectly was his camo outfit, but since I’d traced his trajectory, I knew he was there and had his exquisite red bill to myself for a thrilling quarter of an hour. Long enough to send my friend Martha a text. Long enough to call my husband with the good news. Long enough to forget that I’d been here five days ago with absolutely no luck. That is, long enough to forget my initial failure.

Virginia Rail. Photo from here.

You see last Friday, determined to see the rail — a notoriously skittish bird that I’ve only seen once, and even then, with the trusted help of my bird guru — I headed out and felt pretty smug to have bypassed rush hour completely. I woke early, made myself coffee and breakfast to go, and off I went in search of the Virginia Rail that was “next to the culvert.” The only problem was that I didn’t know a culvert was exactly, so I had to call my friend Martha and ask her. The next problem is that when Martha gave me directions to the culvert, she forgot to mention that the park has not one but at least three culverts, and so of course, as luck would have it, I spent 40 minutes searching for the bird at the wrong culvert. I did end up finding the correct culvert thanks to the good fortune of meeting another kind birder who told me that I’d be waiting an awfully long time if I stayed where I was…once at the correct culvert, I waited another half hour at which point I thought I’d buy myself a donut. And then I felt for my wallet only to realize that I’d left it at home, which wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but it kind of was because I had errands to run and couldn’t even pay for parking (let alone run the errands without said wallet). So I said goodbye to the promise of a Virginia Rail, and to my beloved culvert, and raced home, this time timing my drive with the thick of rush hour. I returned home feeling particularly dejected because I knew that heavy rains were expected and I didn’t think the rail would survive the storm…Some days just aren’t meant for birding, I guess.

But that isn’t true either. Because, you see, just as I was lamenting my Virginia Rail fail, I suddenly saw a pair of Blue-winged Teal! The same teal I’d been lamenting not seeing a few weeks ago at Tommy Thompson Park when we could have walked further, but I sensed that Mr. Birds and Words was tired and we decided to turn back. Suddenly, out of nowhere, my beloved Blue-winged Teal!

I wasn’t ready to give up on the rail, and so today I tried again. Had I not seen it, I would have tried tomorrow and the next day too, because when I get something into my head I can be quite stubborn about it. And I really wanted a Virginia Rail on my spring list. That is a complete lie. The truth of the matter is that I really wanted to prove to myself that I could find a Virginia Rail by myself.

I gave away the punch line in the title. Of course I saw the rail. It was there waiting for me, illuminated by sunshine — our first glimpse of sun in over five days — and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. But then it only got better: I walked toward the creek and saw not one but three American Woodcocks (Scolopax minor) waddling, flying haphazardly, alighting and flying off again, a Horned Grebe, a Brown Creeper (FOY!), numerous Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a Common Raven, Hermit Thursh, Black-crowned Night Herons, Eastern Phoebes and likely one of my last great looks at waterfowl (unless winter never ends and the ducks decide not to moult and they stick around forever….) And even though it doesn’t feel like Spring yet, I know it’s here because I got dive-bombed by at least a dozen Tree Swallows.

So….here’s to failure. And more failure.

 

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?

It Begins With an American Woodcock

Beloved Birders!

Spring season began at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station this morning. Actually, it began yesterday, but today was my first official day. I hadn’t realized how excited I was to start scribing until I couldn’t fall asleep last night; all I could think of was the possibility of starting the day off with a woodcock.

And sometimes, beloved birders, dreams really do come true. We drove into the banding station to the accompaniment of peents and our first — and most exciting — bird of the day was indeed none other than an American Woodcock (Scolopax minor):

Happiest faces at the banding station, with an American Woodcock. Left to right: Sarah Bradley, yours truly, and Mike. Photo by Sarah Bradley.

By the time daylight made its definitive appearance, the woodcocks were gone, but since we open mist nets a half hour before sunrise, we managed to catch this beauty. His eyes are perched so high on his head that he manages to see both forward and backwards at the same time. Such a peculiar, pouty little thing, and so much smaller than I had imagined — really it’s no larger than a robin! But look at our ecstatic faces on the photo! Who doesn’t love a woodcock? Could you imagine what we would have looked like had we seen the bird’s super-sexy aerial dance where the male American Woodcock flings himself into the air and flies in robust circles before letting out his signature peent sounds and plummeting to the ground?

The other birds paled in comparison, but it was still a fantastic day. I was so happy to be back at the station that even the Common Grackles glistened more than ever before and the American Tree Sparrows made me smile because I had no trouble distinguishing them from the Song Sparrows. And the lone Ring-necked Duck amidst dozens of Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneyes and White-winged Scoters made for great early morning company.

Happy Spring! It’s going to be a magnificent one.

Looking Forward

Beloved Birders,

This weekend, my friend C had a few of us over for brunch, and shortly before we left she asked us what we were looking forward to this spring/summer. And although I have a few trips planned that I’m excited about and a lecture series that I’m working hard toward, the first thing out of my mouth was, “the birds — they’re coming back!”

Sometimes it’s that simple. The fact that they’ll be back right on schedule, that I will see my first (FOY = first of the year) Yellow-rumped Warbler, followed (or immediately preceded) by the Pine Warbler, and shortly thereafter the battalion of Black-and-white, Yellow, Magnolia, Nashville, American Redstart, Black-throated-blue, Black-throated Green, and with Blackpoll warblers rounding out the season later in May. It all happens so quickly — over a period of 6-8 weeks over two dozen colorful songbirds transform Toronto into a hotbed of birdy activity. I sleep less in April and May than other months of the year, largely because I’m desperate to get as many hours of birding in as humanly possible. Because these weeks sustain me for the rest of the year.

Next week the bird banding station opens, and though early April starts off slowly, things will move into high gear by the middle of the month. And along with the warblers come the swallows and sparrows and thrushes and soon the rattle of the Belted Kingfisher will accompany me on my walks in the local park and for about two months I’ll be the happiest sleep-deprived person in the city.

It’ll be sad to see the ducks depart, and I’m still hoping for a Surf Scoter before I bid them all adieu, but in the event that I don’t see one, it won’t be the end of the world. I’ve already pulled out my Warbler Guide and have started reconnecting with Larkwire and trying to memorize as many birdsongs as I can. It’s an uphill battle, there will be ample misidentifications, embarrassing mistakes made in the field, but I’m excited about that part of the learning process as well.

It’s spring! The days are longer, the birds are heading northbound, and somehow the geographical stars have aligned, for once in my life, and put me in the centre of it all (well, that’s a slight exaggeration; I suppose if I lived in Leamington, at the edge of Point Pelee, I’d technically be in the epicentre of it all, but I’m trying to shed my perfectionist skin these days, so I don’t think epicentre is exactly what I’m after, either). Could I have really asked for anything better?

Goodbye Winter!

Beloved Birders!

I’m going to say the unthinkable: I’m sad to say goodbye to winter. Thankfully, I live in Southwestern Ontario, where winter takes a while to make a pronounced departure (there’s a lot of hemming and hawing, red herrings, faux-departures), so I don’t have to shed a tear just yet. That said, I’m super excited about spring, but also daunted by May Madness and already somewhat stressed about the fact that I can’t be in ten different places at once in May, chasing every single warbler that comes my way. May is challenging. I keep having to remind myself, in May, to take pleasure in what I’m looking at rather than stress about everything else that I’m not seeing. Oh, the perils of birding. It really is an emotional business.

But let’s recap winter, since it’s been one of my all-time best. I managed to get a lifer — the Tufted Duck that hung around Mississauga through the holidays and then when I finally had a chance to venture out it proceeded to elude me five times in a row. I finally got it mid-February, by accident, after I had stopped looking for it. Instead, I ventured out to LaSalle Marina in Burlington where I loaded up on waterfowl sightings and bald eagles galore, and from there drove up to see the rufous-phased Eastern Screech Owl nearby and met a friendly photographer who told me to sprint over to Windermere Basin in Hamilton because Mr. Tuftie was hanging out close to shore and easily visible sans scope! So off I went and indeed, he was in perfect binocular view. I’m not sure whether the best part was that I got the Tufted Duck or whether it happened when I least expected it. Either way, it was spectacular (and also confirmed that the only thing currently standing between me and the purchase of a scope is my physical fortitude, so I have begun a weight training regimen in earnest, to make sure that once I purchase said scope, I’ll actually be able to carry it! Tiniest of confessions: when powerlifter/Mr. Birds and Words saw me doing my 3-pound dumbbell exercises diligently, he laughed and said my scope purchase might be a long way off! Oh ye of little faith…).

Lifer aside, I have seen Snowy Owls every single weekend since late December. I’ve walked the length of Tommy Thompson park so many times that the owls I’ve encountered there feel like my personal pets. The only waterfowl I’m missing from my list are Surf and Black Scoter, but hopefully it isn’t too late to get those somewhere nearby. I even saw a surprise Northern Saw-whet Owl when I ran into a friend on the spit. Late one afternoon in February, I managed to catch sight of six Short-eared Owl coming in to roost. I also got the elusive Northern Shrike in Humber Bay park, and came face to face with coyotes twice — and didn’t die of fright, though I must admit I came close — in my quest to find birds. I’ve also seen five species of Goose — Canada, Cackling, Greater-white fronted, Snow and (darling) Ross’ — and that number could have been six had I driven up to see the lone Barnacle hovering around Schomberg, but I saw him five years ago in Stockholm, back when I didn’t know anything at all and couldn’t even tell if I was looking at a duck or a goose and needed my pal Rick Wright to identify him for me, and will likely see him again this summer in Europe, so I opted to be satisfied with the current state of affairs. I also managed to see flocks of majestic Tundra Swans flying overhead on a day with clear skies.

Winter birding is more meditative than spring birding. Not only are the sightings fewer in number, the temperatures sometimes daunting, but the rewards are enormous. And now, the Red-winged Blackbirds are singing everywhere, the Northern Cardinals are getting feisty, and it’s time for something altogether different.

In other, somewhat but not altogether less birdy news, I reread Jane Eyre, and did you know that the book Jane reads in chapter 1 is none other than Bewick’s History of British Birds? Needless to say, I was even more smitten this time round. To think — one of my favorite literary heroines was a BIRDER! I’ve now developed even more respect for Jane!

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.