Category Archives: seeing

Birding, Even When It’s Too Cold

Beloved Birders!

It was cool yesterday. Cold and damp and windy and icy and I nearly stayed home. Thank heavens my birding friend Martha is almost as crazy as I am, and when she said she was prepared to brave the ice, I couldn’t exactly cancel. And I’m so glad I didn’t.

There’s always a moment on cold days when I contemplate staying home. When I couldn’t be bothered to put on my long underwear, my extra pairs of woollen socks, and all the other winter accoutrements, and when I’d rather just sit in my recliner, reading and sipping my coffee. That moment of hesitation is often deadly. It’s the same moment of hesitation that I fight against every morning when I wake up to swim and it’s dark out and cold and the last thing I want to do is jump in the water and start swimming laps. But I do it anyway, and once I’m in the water, I wonder who that person was who had hesitated, so happy am I to be swimming back and forth and back again.

All that to say the world is always better (from my vantage point) after I’ve been birding. And so off I went. The paths in the park were covered in ice, the conditions were treacherous, but we walked slowly and our perseverance (or foolishness) paid off. We saw a Snowy Owl reclining on the marina, twisting her head this way and that. I saw my first House Finches of the month (not that I keep monthly lists), along with American Tree Sparrows, Northern Cardinals and several Downy Woodpeckers. We walked around the park reminiscing about spring and remembering which birds we had seen where: we paid tribute to the culvert where we’d had the Virginia Rail in April, and the pond where the Least Bittern posed for exquisite photos, and the tree where I saw my first Blackpoll warbler just mere seconds after expressing a desire to see one, and the path where I happened upon six American Woodcocks in one place, and the open area where the Sora hung out, and the bushes where the Nelson’s Sparrow had been seen. So much of birding is connected with specific memories of places (and trees), and suddenly it felt like the park was coming alive, my feet felt less cold and it seemed that spring wasn’t so far off after all.

And just when things couldn’t get any better, we saw a Long-eared Owl hiding out in a tree, watching us from his perfectly camouflaged perch, laughing silently to himself. I couldn’t tell you if he was really laughing or not, but it seemed like he must have been. After all, isn’t it ridiculous to watch birders looking up and down trees for a sign of you, staring right at you but not seeing you? On second thought, I’m pretty sure he couldn’t be doing anything but laughing. The things we humans will do, just to get a good look.

I did have to take a half-hour-long shower upon coming home to properly thaw. But the birding in the cold was so very worth it.

Raptors Galore

Beloved Birders,

Devoted readers of my blog might remember that eight years ago (!) I visited Amherst Island, Ontario for the first time. But that was before I knew how to dress for birding and, perhaps more significantly, before I had any interest in raptors. So what I remember most acutely from the day was freezing feet. The entire day took on the color of freezing feet, and if you’re not familiar with that particular hue in the crayola color box, it’s a morose grey with occasional pain flashes of the scarlet variety.

This year’s trip to Amherst was a vast improvement, not only because of my Sorel boots that apparently withstand temperatures down to -40 (but that is nonsense because it was only -7 and I was still a bit cold, but nothing extravagant). What made this trip infinitely more satisfying — apart from the fantastic company — was that I knew my raptors better. So when we saw dozens of Northern Harriers practically grazing out in the field and I saw the white spot on their rump, I knew exactly what I was looking at. And when a Northern Harrier scared off a group of 30 Common Redpolls, I couldn’t help by smile. I’d been trying to see redpolls all winter, and finally, here they were, so close they nearly invaded my personal space. I managed to find a few Bald Eagles, which thrilled me to now end, and winked at a gorgeous Red-bellied Woodpecker. I wanted to apologize to the Downy, whom I didn’t have time to properly acknowledge or appreciate, as he (actually it was most definitely a SHE) made an appearance just as I was fawning all over the red-bellied. I saw my first Rough-legged Hawks of the season, and watched a Red-tailed Hawk devour a vole in slow-motion. Voles pretty much littered the terrain. So much so that the Red-tailed Hawk looked a bit nonplussed about the whole enterprise and dug into the vole rather sluggishly. We also saw a total of five Snowy Owls and three Northern Saw-whets, most of whom were busy chilling or sleeping, or a blend of the two. I love how birds give not a hoot (pun intended) for us (unless we’re disturbing them) — it’s a comforting thought. Even walking on icy surface, terrified I’d fall, trip over my binoculars and break every bone in my body, for three hours didn’t detract from the spectacular day. And as if the birds weren’t great enough, the sun shone brilliantly from morning till evening. We ended the day with a magical ferry right back to shore, back to Millhaven, back to reality, where the ferry ploughed through the ice majestically, as the sun slowly set and the light turned from bright blue to sparkling pinkish-purplish to never-ending glowing indigo.

The Best Worst Birding Day

Beloved Birders!

For those of you not following Toronto weather, the unimaginable happened on Saturday. The sun shone brightly all day and it was one of those perfect winter days, so bright I had to wear my sunglasses. After our endless stream of nonstop greyness, this was the day I’d been waiting for all winter. Actually, it was the day that reminded me how much I love winter when it cooperates with my one requirement: LIGHT.

I put on layers upon layers of woollens and headed out to Tommy Thompson Park. I didn’t think I’d make it very far because the main path had morphed into a skating rink, but once I got my footing and found patches of snow to walk on, I didn’t want to turn back. I searched for Snowy Owls on along the marina and didn’t find any. All the ducks I had seen a few weeks ago had migrated further down the peninsula because everything had frozen over. I walked for over an hour and saw nothing but a few gulls flying overhead. In fact, it took me an hour and a half until I saw my first Black-capped Chickadee! I wondered if this would be another one-bird day for me, but then I did see a few Common Goldeneyes, Bufflehead, Long-tail Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, White-winged Scoters, Greater Scaup — and they all positively glistened in the sun. I detected the greenish purplish hues on the Bufflehead, which one can only see in blazing sunlight. Even the Greater Scaup, which usually look dirty to me, seemed crisp. The Common Goldeneye was the showstopper yesterday, the sun hitting its dark head at such an angle that it looked like a majestic malachite. I kept eyeing the white spot on its cheek, to make sure it wasn’t elongated and that I wasn’t actually looking at a Barrow’s Goldeneye! Funny, a year ago, I wouldn’t have even thought to look. Even the common birds are now acquiring so much more nuance to me.

Let’s just say that the beauty of the day was disproportionate to the quality of birding. Apart from the 10 species of waterfowl, the chickadee and an American Tree Sparrow, I saw nothing. I know there are Northern Saw-whet Owls in the park and Common Redpolls, Northern Shrike, but none of them made an appearance for me. Every time I uttered a sigh of disappointment, I looked back out at the lake and couldn’t get enough of its blueness. This was a day unlike any we’ve had in the past, and it was also the rare occasion when my wardrobe choices were perfectly calibrated to suit the weather.

And just as I was leaving the park, thinking that in spite of the brilliant sunlight and perfect wintry landscape I probably didn’t have a blog post in me, because really, who wants to hear me wax lyrical about how much I love mid-winter light and about how I’ve been inhabiting a sad sea of greyness for the past two months, at that very second I saw a bird fly toward a lamppost in a decidedly non-pigeon kind of way. And knowing that it was exactly the size of a pigeon, I identified the American Kestrel even before I laid eyes on him. And there he sat, immersed in thought, surveying the area around him, while I got phenomenal looks at this wonder of a bird whose bright orange back with black stripes contrasts sharply with its deep blue-jeans-colored wings and black polka-dotted pale breast. How did nature come up with that one?

And suddenly the best worst birding day transformed into the best day. Period. To end the day by staring at a technicolor Kestrel is nothing short of magic.

On Blogging and Birding and Me

Beloved Birders,

I started this blog a few months after I started birding because I realized that the only way I can make sense of birds and this strange world of birding and birders is if I write about them, because writing is just about the only thing I know how to do. (Not quite true: I’m a gifted sleeper, too. And eater. And I know a few languages. And I can play the piano at a very moderate pace. I can almost do a pirouette in adult ballet class, and a few years ago I came close to becoming a mean machine on the badminton court. So, I shouldn’t sell myself short. I am nothing if not polyvalent.)

For the past couple of years I haven’t been posting much because I’ve been working on a book about becoming an unintentional birder, and the project looks a whole lot more book-like than it did even a year ago, so I’m proud of that. It is still a ways from becoming a for-real book, but that too is part of the fun.

This morning, I went birding even though it was -13, winds pounded my face, and I didn’t last too long by the water. But nevertheless, I wandered into some shrubs and came across 12 Northern Cardinals chasing one another, acting frankly a little too randy for the weather. There were just as many Black-capped Chickadees darting about without paying me any heed. One nearly landed on my nose. I’ve always wondered about those photos people post: selfies w/chickadee on one’s head. It turns out most of them probably aren’t even staged: a chickadee is likely to land on anything, especially if there’s food in the picture.

When the wind wasn’t bossing me around, I also managed to see a decent, though not spectacular, assortment of ducks, including Long-tailed, Redhead, Greater Scaup (ha! it might have been lesser — I haven’t gotten that far in my bird skills yet), Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Common & Red-breasted Mergansers. And as I watched this scene, I realized that I’ll likely be blogging about birds for many years yet. As long as I’m still learning something new and still asking questions and still looking up birds in my field guide and still misidentifying so much of what I see and still marvelling at plumage, I’ll be writing about it.I’ve long been inspired by Kerry Clare, my favorite blogger, and how she uses her blog as a space to process the world around her (and write fantastic book reviews). More than anything, I like the way she stresses the in-progress/in-process-ness of blog. It’s so very much like birding, really: you go out there, no matter the weather, and what you end up seeing will, without a doubt, surprise you if you’re open to noticing what’s in front of you. And slowly, strangely, miraculously, one sighting will inform another, and before you know it a narrative thread will emerge.

In other words, I’ll be blogging about birds until I’m dead.

So thanks for reading. Thanks for commenting. There are exciting things on the horizon, both birding-wise and travel-wise and writing-wise.

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?