Category Archives: nostalgia

From a Ross’ Goose to a Cardamom Bun

Beloved Birders,

My good friend Kerry Clare believes that all roads and life decisions and quandaries basically lead to cake. She’s as terrific a writer (check out her wonderful novel Mitzi Bytes) as she is a font of wisdom. And so immediately after seeing my first Ross’ Goose (lifer! happy dance!), I decided to test Kerry’s adage and I embarked on another milestone — the baking of Cardamom Buns (vetebullar), which I first tasted in Stockholm in 2012. The experience felt not unlike falling in love; in other words, I nearly screamed to the Cardamom bun, “Where have you been all my life?”

For those of you who have never tasted a Cardamom bun — I simultaneously pity and envy you. Pity because you have no idea what you’re missing, and envy because there’s nothing I’d like more than to rewind time and taste a cardamom bun for the very first time. Kind of how I’d love to go back and see my first Snowy owl, and read that last page of Anne of the Island where Anne and Gilbert finally kiss.

Imagine a cinnamon bun with the added touch of celestial cardamom. The only problem is that once you’ve tasted heavenly manna, it’s pretty hard to muster up the confidence to try to concoct some yourself. What if I botched the recipe? What if I couldn’t knead the dough properly? What if my rolling pin and I just weren’t destined to find mutual happiness and a rhythm that could produce a smooth and even layer of dough?

But for whatever reason, Kerry’s life-philosophy about cake coupled with my monumental Ross’ Goose sighting gave me the gumption to try my luck with flour, yeast, and a rolling pin. (It’s also geographically inconvenient for me to procure a decent cardamom bun in Toronto. My North York neighbourhood privileges bubble tea over the Swedish pastry niche.)

So off I went, buoyed by the extraordinarily proud gait of the Ross’s goose, who paraded with his head high amidst gargantuan Canada Geese — almost like a little Napoleon. Would that we all had his confidence. I used the recipe from  FIKA: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Breakwhich was expertly reviewed by my friend Teri Vlassopoulos a few years back, and which I bought strictly for the nostalgia it brought back about my first 2012 cardamum-bum-encounter.

And so I spent close to three hours manhandling dough and a rolling pin and the result turned out better than I could have imagined. Not yet perfect, but so good that I will be making them again, and again and again, and not just as an accompaniment to the sighting of a life bird.

Photo taken by yours truly. Pardon the disastrously messy dirty stove. Note that one cardamom bun is already half eaten. The others were consumed (largely by yours ever so truly) within the next 30 or so hours.

And so maybe Kerry is correct in her life-affirming assumption that all roads — even and especially a Ross’ Goose — actually lead to cake, in one form or another.

On Wanting and Not Wanting

Beloved Birders!

I’ll be entirely honest here: I didn’t want to go to Long Point yesterday. The weather was dismal: flurries, freezing fog and an attendant, constant drizzle, coupled with winds and eternally grey skies. What was the point of driving the two hours to see a bunch of swans and sandhill cranes in poor visibility when I had already seen Tundra swans a few weeks ago and had seen more cranes in Arizona than I could ever have imagined. Would it really be worth it?

You’ll also be happy know, beloved birders, that I kept these thoughts to myself.

Our first stop on Lakeshore Rd yielded a dozen or so gorgeous, if prehistoric-looking, Sandhill Cranes standing in a small ditch very close to the road. As soon as I saw their facial red patch, I was transfixed. Sure, I’d seen close to 30,000 of them in Whitewater Draw a few months ago, but cranes never get old, especially the way they parachute down from the sky, exhibiting the kind of celestial grace I can only ever aspire to in ballet class, when I see my own jumps in the mirror end in unsavory thuds.

Shortly thereafter we heard the bugling calls of the Tundra swans, a bit of cacophony on its own, but when you know it signals the advent of Spring, the sound becomes a sign of something larger, more majestic, and you delight in it, over and over and over again (and they are incessant).

These are the birds I had expected to see — Long Point never disappoints this time of year — but I still wondered if it was worth the drive.

And then we stopped at Lee Brown’s to scan the small pond and I saw a sight I couldn’t ever have imagined. Hundreds of American Wigeon — with their platinum mohawk-streak — both in and out of the water, waddling on the grass, in the company of Wood Ducks. We scanned for Eurasian widgeon, but it was not to be. In the water, I saw more Ring-necked Ducks than I’d ever seen before — I can now safely ID them because of the white patch on their side which looks like a sideways whale (thanks for the tip, Mary!). And there were Redheads and Northern Shovelers and Northern Pintail, which I loved all the more because I could ID them. And later we stopped in another place and picked up all three Merganser species, Scaup (lesser & greater though I couldn’t tell those apart have no fear — I”m not yet ready to change my brand to Intermediate Birder Extraordinaire) along with a bonus Bald Eagle.

On our drive back home we decided to make a quick stop at RBG in Hamilton/Burlington, where a particularly cooperative Ross’s Goose was reported. To be honest, I didn’t really want to stop there either because I’ve never been a Goose-Gal if you know what I mean. I love warblers and even raptors and woodpeckers and wrens and most things, but geese leave me cold, so I didn’t see what the possible big deal about a Ross’s goose could be. (And who was Ross anyhow? Ah, turns out he was Bernard R. Ross, a 19th Century budding naturalist who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Northwest Territories; he was ultimately responsible for considering the Ross’s goose as a distinct species and later donated all his specimens to the Smithsonian. More on Bernard R. Ross anon.)

Again, I kept my opinions to myself. Once we arrived at RBG, and I laid eyes on the stupendous, and utterly bizarre, diminutive Ross’s goose, for which there exists no other adequate descriptor than CUTIE, I understood. This is a goose like no other. A miniature Snow goose, a strange otherworldly creature amidst the gaggle of Canada Geese, he stands out, proudly and defiantly. There he was, grazing on a little hillside, with the Canada Geese who were almost twice his size. What was he really thinking that this sight could look remotely normal?  

(The fabulous photograph comes from here.) There was something fantastical and extravagant about this smallish goose walking proudly amidst giants.

I couldn’t have imagined a better way to end the day.

Oh but there WAS a better way to end the day: we finished off at Colonel Sam Smith park, where we picked up the King Eider (juvenile, sadly), a Red-necked grebe, long-tail ducks, and brought our waterfowl count to a record-breaking (for this beginner birder) 25 species.

Thank heavens I never listen to myself in earnest when I don’t WANT to do something. As with writing, there is no WANTING. One just does it, ploughs ahead, shows up, and the rewards are colossal (some of the time).

Winter Birding

Beloved birders!

There’s no better way to deal with winter than to embrace it full-on. And by embrace, I mean go on an 8 km walk looking for waterfowl and owls in Tommy Thompson park with the good people of the Ontario Field Naturalists. Had I checked the weather report, I might not have gone on the outing — -10 celsius, plus wind. I put my woollens to work (basically, two layers of everything) and set out before reading the weather forecast.

And…the weather was bracing. I met up with over 20 other intrepid, fabulously winterized birders and off we went. Highlights of the day included a gorgeous Northern Pintail duck, an American Widgeon, a King Eider (sadly not in gorgeous adult male breeding plumage, but what can you do), White-winged Scoters, and a Mockingbird that struck me as deeply confused because he was IN the water, pretending to be a duck. Birds are weird creatures. There seems to be no other way to say it.

The greatest peril of the day wasn’t freezing my extremities, as I had feared. Oh no, it was trying to bite into a rock-hard, frozen granola bar and nearly breaking my tooth in the process. But near-injuries aside, the day was a success. Three species of mergansers, a gorgeous Red-tail hawk, and the other usual winter suspects. The numbers weren’t spectacular, but it felt so good to be out in the semi-wilds of Toronto, binoculars in hand.

The beautiful, sunny winter day wasn’t without a tinge of sadness: I learned from my friend Anne-Marie that Don Barnett, fabulous birder, and the person who introduced me to the Christmas Bird Count, passed away. I didn’t know Don well, but I have fond memories of his encouragement, exemplary generosity and empathy back when I was a total novice who still couldn’t tell a Chickadee from a nuthatch.

(In other news, it appears that Anton Chekhov traveled back to Moscow from Sakhalin Island by way of Ceylon, where he acquired a mongoose with whom he lived for two years before donating the animal to the Moscow Zoo. This sheds light on a whole different side of Chekhov. The Chekhov-Mongoose terrain seems rich and positively bursting with potential meaning.)

Hello Mincing Mockingbird (Bring on 2017!)

Beloved Birders,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Septemberish

Beloved Birders!

September is my favorite month of the entire year, for reasons egotistical and otherwise, but largely because it’s the end of summer, and thus the end of my meteorological malaise. So it’s a formidable month on many occasions (least of all, or most of all, depending on your perspective, because it contains my birthday), but for some reason the weather gods didn’t get my memo and Toronto remains sweltering, and every morning it think it will be otherwise and somehow I wear the wrong clothes and end up sweating more than is socially acceptable, and really none of this should be happening in September of all months.

My birdy news for you is that this summer I had the privilege of writing a profile of Caroline Biel, a fabulous 17-year-old Toronto birder who also won the ABA’s Young Birder of the Year Award, for Ontario Nature Magazine. And the issue is now out and you can read the piece here.

In non-birdy-wordy news, I signed up for an adult ballet class. Nothing like (re)learning 1st position to reacquaint you with the full meaning of humility. It reminds me of when I first started birding and didn’t yet know how to use my binoculars and for so long the only bird I could safely ID was the red-winged blackbird. And in retrospect, those were beautiful months, when everything felt so new, with my attention to every moving creature magnified. But it was also a bit of a frustrating time. I am grateful to be past the frustration, but a little nostalgic for the newness of it all. It seems I can’t have everything, can I…

In even less birdy news, I have found myself a phenomenal Finnish rye bread provider who also bakes a delicious Pulla, which seems to have satisfied my cardamom cravings for now. It’s quite possible that I will never complain about the sad lack of perfect rye bread in Toronto ever again. Unlike all my other nostalgic rituals, the lack of a perfect loaf of bread is not something I’ll ever miss.

And that seems to be it for this almost last official day of summer.

 

Medium-Sized Thrills and a Chicken Mystery

Beloved Birders!

You are no doubt wondering how I’m faring in the company of my new chicken painting, and the answer is absolutely splendidly. The chicken has brightened up my days — and you’ll be happy to know that she finds herself propped up next to a rather fierce print of a hawk by Sarah Kinsella Waite, another favorite artist from Vermont, so though chickens rarely flourish in isolation, mine is well taken care of; as long as the hawk doesn’t viciously attack and abscond with said chicken in his talons — as hawks are wont to do without notice — the two will happily coexist on my desk for years and years to come.

So, chickens aside, this weekend yielded some non-negligible birding thrills. The first was a full frontal view of a SORA — I kid you not. Beloved non-birder readers among you (and let it be known that I welcome and adore all types of readers, whether you’re birdy, non-birdy, or simply a really kindhearted relative of mine), seeing a Sora happens rarely. I’ve heard the call of a sora at least a half dozen times, but these creatures hang out in the reeds and cattails and camouflage perfectly with their surroundings. Imagine my total shock and awe when I finally saw a Sora and realized that it looks very much like a miniature chicken!

Sora

Sora (Porzana carolina). Photo from here. Isn’t there something chickenesque in the bird’s shape? The Sora is a rail — a member fo the Rallidae family — which has to be related to the Galliformes order. Oh no. I’ve gotten myself in a near-taxonomic mess. Please, beloved Bird Nerds, wherever you are, help me solve this mystery? Why does the Sora resemble my somewhat ridiculous Bantam chicken?

And as if seeing the Sora wasn’t enough to make me jump for joy, a VIRGINIA RAIL also leapt out of the cattails and into my field of vision! Two lifers within twenty seconds of each other! And would you believe that all of this took place just north-west of Stratford, in wetlands just outside Mitchell, while we were serenaded by the call of a BELTED KINGFISHER, which I could correctly ID (thanks, Larkwire)?

The whole thing was a bit much and I had to sit down for a while. And then we were on our way to some other wetland somewhere near aforementioned wetland (pardon the geographical ineptitude here; I passed out from the sora/virginia rail overstimulation and napped while we drove from wetland to wetland). As if the day weren’t already a banner day, I then saw a Wilson’s snipe (alas, I could only identify it as “OMG YOU GUYS THERE’S A FAT SHOREBIRD OUT THERE WITH THE LONGEST BILL EVER” — I do aim to be more eloquent and scientific than that, but sometimes that’s all I’ve got in me). And it turned out to be a Wilson’s snipe, and as far as I was concerned, I had just landed in heaven.

You see, this year I was robbed of the American Woodcock. Didn’t see a single one, though I did accidentally flush two of them at the banding station, but I tend not to count fly-by’s, and besides a woodcock has to be seen up-close-and personal to fully appreciate the spectacular accident of nature in all its glory. What other bird pouts so evocatively with eyes firmly planted WAY TOO HIGH on its head? I love the American woodcock. Anyhow, the Wilson’s snipe is a fantastic consolation prize for not getting a woodcock.

Wilson's snipe. Image from here.

Wilson’s snipe. Fabulous image by Terry Sohl from here.

American woodcock. Image from here.

American woodcock. Image from here. See how the Wilson’s snipe comes close to Woodcockian perfection, but not quite? There will be more — much more– on the American woodcock here and elsewhere. Stay tuned.

The following day, I stayed local and birded in High Park with the lovely folks at the TOC and we had warblers galore! Well, perhaps not galore, but enough to keep me happy: Wilson’s, northern parula, black-and-white, yellow-rumped, magnolia, American redstart, northern waterthrush, and I know I’m forgetting a few.

Beloved birders, I have a confession to make. There are days when I wonder why I keep this blog, what the purpose of it is, whether anybody out there is reading. But then every time I write a post I relive a birding adventure and it makes me inordinately happy. So perhaps that’s the only answer I can give: I keep this blog going for myself. To recap and relive.

A Chicken, a Flicker, Roger Tory Peterson & Me

Beloved Birders,

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

Bantam series 18, by Dawn Stofer

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

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

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