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On Not Getting What I Want

Beloved Birders,

Part of what makes January 1st exciting (other than my grandmother’s birthday, of course) is trying to guess what the first bird of the year will be. This year, I wanted the first bird to be a special one, and as luck would have it, there has been a Pine Grosbeak (!!) hanging around the Rouge Park area. So, I jumped in my car early this morning and headed straight there, feeling a little smug about the entire enterprise, imagining the blog post I would write, the tweet I’d send out to the Universe, and the barrage of texts I’d send to my birder friends. “Hey y’all, NBD just saw a PINE GROSBEAK, THIS YEAR IS GOING TO BE AWESOME!” or something to that effect. How auspicious would that be for a beginning? A year full of unbelievable promise. Not just starting off with a rarity, but also starting off with the magic of being in the right place at exactly the right time.

You know where this is headed, of course. I waited around for said Pine Grosbeak for 40 minutes before heading to my grandmother’s birthday party and…instead of the resplendent bird I imagined I’d have to start off my year list, I got a chickadee. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a Black-capped Chickadee. The bird is fantastically resilient, hardy, crafty, and intelligent but it’s a bird I could have seen from my window without having to drive 30 km. It’s the commonest of common winter birds.

Would I really send out a tweet about a chickadee? No, there would be no tweet. There would be no gloating texts, there would be no blog post as I had envisioned it.

How inauspicious a beginning is it to chase a bird only to find out that it had other plans? To begin the year with the bird that got away.

And yet, that is what birding is all about. It’s about coping with not getting what you want, and becoming friendly and comfortable with that feeling might be the most auspicious beginning ever to 2019! Because sometimes that’s just how life works out: you do everything possible for the stars to align, you work hard, you try hard, and…they don’t. And the sooner I befriend that feeling, the better this year will be. I’m quite confident I’ll get to see a Pine Grosbeak at some point this year, but I can’t exactly predict when, much as I’d like.

So I started to embrace the notion of a chickadee as my first bird of 2019. I admire its resilience and hardiness — two qualities I’m working on developing. And just when I finally accepted that this will be the year of the ordinary Chickadee, I went for a late-afternoon walk and saw a Great Blue Heron doing a one-foot balancing act on the ice, and I stared at him through my binoculars until my feet started to freeze. Here’s a bird I see every time I come to my neighborhood park, and yet its posture still manages to surprise me. I’ll never tire of the power of the ordinary to thrill and delight me.

I missed the Pine Grosbeak, but I saw my favorite resident birds in a new light. And that may be the best way to start the year after all. Happy 2019!

On the Cusp

Beloved Birders,

I wasn’t going to write a wrap-up post to 2018 because in some ways it felt like nothing had happened. And then I went through the year, month by month, and found myself smiling. It’s been a good year and though there are no tangible achievements, nothing glaringly exciting that happened, everything about it has made me smile.

The year began and ended with Snowy Owl sightings — all of them in urban Toronto parks, which brings me so much joy. The fact that I live in a city that I can make wild, just by visiting the right places. I extracted more birds from mist nets than ever in my life, and though the process still terrifies me and though I still have to radio for help, I’m slowly becoming more confident. I also came face-to-face with an American Woodcock, which has been a dream of mine since I started birding eight years ago. (Has it really been that long? Am I turning into one of those middle-aged women who occasionally mutters where has the time gone and then feels mildly ashamed, as if she’s turning into her mother.)

This was the year I finally stopped saying “I’d love to visit Wyoming one day” and actually flew to Laramie, WY, and then drove two hours south to Saratoga and spent a few glorious weeks at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, where I made good headway on my book, hung out with Mountain Bluebirds every day, and chased sunsets every evening. I came home with a pair of cowboy boots and an unexpected interest in taxidermy. (Stay tuned.)

This was also the year I stopped saying “I wish I could celebrate US Thanksgiving again” and finally booked a trip to NYC/NJ and ate the turkey of my dreams with my best friends in their new house in Hopewell, NJ and saw Eastern Bluebirds on their property. But shortly before eating that turkey of my dreams, I spent an afternoon at the American Museum of Natural History and was so entranced by all the animal bones that I nearly absconded with a Woolly Mammoth skeleton. This unexpected interest in extinct species stems partly form the research that went into an article I wrote for The Walrus about de-extinction and the Passenger Pigeon. I also finally saw Frank Chapman’s bird dioramas and could have spent all day in those rooms.

On the birding front, I saw my first Tufted Duck shortly before getting a haircut that gave me a tuft of my own, alas, and made me resemble said duck for about 4 months. Thankfully hair grows. I also saw 150K Northern Gannets in Quebec this summer, on Ile Bonaventure, which took my breath away. Later, in Denmark, I saw hundreds of Common Eider looking just the way they do in my field guide, in their tuxedo plumage. I also watched my husband befriend a Barnacle Goose in the park outside our airbnb in Copenhagen and while I sat nearby and nearly overdosed on pickled herring.

This was my first year of mostly-solo birding, and I’ve done ok. I’m getting a handle on waterfowl, including females, and recognize more ducks by shape; warblers–even fall warblers–no longer feel like mysterious terrain, so the next step will likely be raptors or shorebirds or gulls. It’s slow-going, I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a lifelong beginner, and I still find it absolutely riveting.

The year also included meeting my new nephew, who was born in mid-October, and many hours spent entertaining his older brother with duplo-building sessions and impromptu dance parties. Speaking of dance, I’m still enthralled with ballet and continue to learn how to move through space. My tendu is a bit more disciplined and my port-de-bras occasionally approximates grace. My pirouettes are still lopsided, but I attack them with gusto. Once my glasses even flew off. May this be the energy with which I approach 2019.

Happy New Year! May 2019 bring more joy and adventure.

Wind and Other Surprises

Beloved birders,

I’ve already mentioned that the bird banding station at Tommy Thompson park is my favorite place in Toronto. Everything about the experience delights me: watching the sun rise over the city, traipsing through urban wilderness, holding a bird in the hand. Even the 4:30 am wakeup time has become part of the incomprehensible pleasure. And everything is perfect until the direction of the wind changes and suddenly we’re regaled with fishy stench from the 30,000 or so Double-crested Cormorants that breed in a nesting colony in the park, just west of us.

When the cormorant perfume wafts by, it feels like you’re stranded in a fish shop on a humid day; there’s literally no reprieve from the odours. While I’m holding my breath, waiting for the fragrant fumes to pass, it’s hard to recollect what it is I love about this place that used to be a landfill and is now a peculiar human-made urban wilderness.

And just like that, the wind reminds me that I live at the whim of weather, that beauty is a thing of this world and doesn’t exist outside of it. It’s so important to be reminded that the cormorant smells exist alongside the gorgeous migratory warblers in the hand, that it’s not a question of choosing one or the other, but rather recognizing that they both have their place. Too often, I want nature to be some sort of perfect respite from my day-to-day life, I long for photoshopped, Instagram-style natural surroundings, but reality is that it’s dirty, it smells, it’s buggy, too hot, and never entirely as you expect it. And that’s the most beautiful part of it.

This morning, my husband and I went for a walk by the lake in the Beaches at 7:30 am to beat the heat. As we sat on the new pastel-colored Muskoka chairs sipping our coffee and eating cranberry muffins, I saw thousands of cormorants pass by, gliding just barely over the surface of the water. First one group, then another, then so many of them all I could see were thick black oscillating lines along the horizon. This bird that I usually can’t stand, suddenly transformed into something approaching beauty.

And They’re Back!

Beloved Birders,

It’s still hot, sticky and humid here in Toronto, but according to the warblers, it’s fall already and time to begin journeying southward! Even when fall is the furthest thing from my mind –meteorologically speaking — the birds already feel it in their bones. They know when it’s time to go. Their perception of time is dictated largely by food and light and breeding. In a sense it’s life stripped down the the barest of essentials, but there’s also an enviable single-mindedness of purpose.

This is my fifth fall season at the banding station and I still make embarrassing mistakes. This morning, for instance, I extracted two warblers from the nets and could not (for the life of me) ID them. I saw greenish grey on the back, an eyestripe, whitish underneath (and a manifest lack of tail on one of the birds), but all of this told me nothing. I went through my mental list of warblers and the markings didn’t correspond to any birds I knew. And since I had gotten a few challenging ID’s right just minutes before, people started to suspect that I might indeed the bearer of great news — a rarity! a tick! a banding station first! And then my friend Taylor took one look at the bird and said, “Tennessee.” Of course it was a Tennessee. I’m so notoriously awful at identifying this drab-ish warbler in the field that I forgot it existed entirely!

How could I have forgotten the Tennessee? Maybe because to me it’s the plain Jane of warblers; the only thing I really love about the bird is it’s needle-sharp pointy bill, but in this case I didn’t even notice it.

Identifying birds is funny sometimes. Often, it’s a question of focusing on things I recognize, rather than zeroing in on markings that confuse me. Had I stopped to look at the bill, I would have immediately seen the tennessee-ness of this warbler. But instead, I focused on the greenishness of the bird’s back and started feverishly running through all the warblers I wasn’t sure about — could it be a pine? an orange-crowned? a deeply confused chestnut-sided? My guesses, which I kept to myself, started getting more and more delirious.

I had just accomplished that same feat with the saddest looking (female) Cape May Warbler, which had none of the colorful markings of its male counterpart in breeding plumage. This one sported a brown exterior punctuated but a buttery chest with the faintest of stripes; the diagnostic facial markings were barely visible, but I immediately ID’d it correctly because I saw a diagnostic yellow patch on its rump — not as bright as the appropriately named Yellow-rumped Warbler, but bright enough — and that detail told me all I needed to know. If nothing else, birding is giving me the confidence to trust in what I do know. It’s often much more than I had anticipated.

 

When Gannets Render You Speechless

Beloved Birders,

Have you ever wondered what being surrounded by 150,000 Northern Gannets (give or take a few) would feel like? We recently returned from a trip to Quebec, to the Gaspé peninsula, which, on top of rewarding us with some memorable meals, exquisite smoked fish and possibly the best croissants I’ve ever tasted, is also home to Ile Bonaventure, a phenomenal provincial park which just happens to be the largest Northern Gannet breeding site in North America.

An afternoon on Ile Bonaventure would convert even the most skeptical nature novice into a birding fanatic. Watching these enormous birds with a wingspan almost the size of a pelican’s chatter, run amok, fight, care for their fledgling, scratch one another’s necks lovingly, lock bills in a tense dispute was easily the highlight of my summer. That I could stand on the edge of their breeding colony, or even on top of an observation tower literally in the midst their colony and that they would go about their business without even paying an iota of attention to me made me feel like I was privy to some sort of magical spectacle. And magical it was; we were surrounded by gannets as far as the eye could see. And when we looked out on the water there were thousands more gannets plummeting headfirst into the water (up to 100km/hour!), collecting fish for their partners and offspring.

Northern Gannets on Ile Bonaventure, Quebec. Look at the fuzzy babies!  They’ll be ready to fly away in a few weeks!

Morus bassanus. Northern Gannet, Fou de bassan as they say in Quebec. Looking absolutely regal.

Northern Gannets as far as the eye can see. Ile Bonaventure, Quebec

Five years ago, we went to Newfoundland and I saw about 20 or so gannets, fell in love with them, but missed out on getting the full gannet experience at Cape St. Mary’s because our itinerary was already packed, and I had to content myself with thousands of Atlantic Puffins instead. I’m well aware of the fact that these are fist world problems, but to miss something as spectacular as a gannet breeding colony when one is only 200 km away and when one knows that a trip to Newfoundland doesn’t happen that often, well then the unseen gannets turn into a near-catastrophe. Not only that but one talks about the missed gannets every time somebody mentions Newfoundland, to the extent that the unseen birds have almost eclipsed the dozens of spectacular species I did manage to see. Birding is a strangely emotional business.

When planning our trip to Gaspesie, the first thing my husband said was, “will a trip to Bonaventure Island make you stop talking about the gannets we didn’t see in Newfoundland?” I assured him it would. But I can’t say for sure.

I’d like to tell you that I had an earth-shattering epiphany when standing in the midst of the spectacular seabirds, that somehow the contours of my existence became clearer to me, that I could feel things in a new way, that suddenly my life made sense to me. But no. I spent a day with the gannets, and all I could think was, “I am where I need to be.” And I was struck by how banal that thought was, in and of itself.

But maybe that’s it? That when I’m in the company of birds, I feel at peace.

There weren’t just gannets: we saw thousands of Kittiwake, Black Guillemots, Common Murres, Razorbills, Great Black-backed Gulls, and five Minke whales on our crossing from Percé to Bonaventure Island. And we visited fantastic parks, saw a beaver and a moose (!), two skunks and six marmots; we stopped in more fromageries than I care to admit and ate more smoked fish than was reasonable and consumed a year-long supply of croissants.

The pictures I took of the gannet colony doesn’t do it justice. You can’t hear the cacophony of screeching, uproarious, grating calls and you can’t inhale the stench — a blend of fish, guano (fancy word for excrement) and ocean perfumes. But most of all, you can’t capture the way the breeding colony is brimming with the frenzy of new life. And in the face of all that, I was rendered speechless.

Spring Migration FOMO

Beloved Birders!

Spring birding is both the time I live for and also the time of year that makes me most anxious. And a few minutes ago, my friend Monika put it into words for me: “the bird FOMO is sometimes hard to take,” she said in an email. And that’s exactly it. Before the age of eBird, where I can see exactly who has seen which bird in which location, I think I used to be happier.

Here I am at the bird banding station, holding my favorite migrant, the Black-and-white Warbler. Photo taken by Taeko K, exactly 20 hours before I missed the Least Bittern and experienced severe spring FOMO that resulted in tears. This birding business is highly emotional.

Here is what life looked like a mere two years ago: in May, I would go out birding, see as many warblers as I could and return home entirely fulfilled and glowing. (OK, honesty alert: two years ago I would return home perplexed and wondering about whether I’d ID’d the warblers I’d seen correctly and a little concerned that everything that wasn’t a show-stopping Blackburnian or Cape May Warbler seemed to look like a female Common Yellowthroat. If I am to be brutally honest, two years ago, I couldn’t ID much and that too put a damper on things.) Now, when I come home from birding, the first thing I do is check eBird to see what else was seen in that particular location, and inevitably see the most dreadful news spelled out for me: the Least Bittern I’d gone out to find poked its head out of the reeds exactly five minutes after my departure.

Two years ago, I might have thought: well, I gave the Least Bittern my best shot, I’ll try again next year. Now, I start to feel like a failure. Not only was it there, but I missed it by a matter of minutes. And that Whimbrel I saw flying overhead? Well, had I stayed an hour longer, I would have seen 1000 Whimbrel.

Come May of every year, there’s a certain desperation in the air. Migration is short. The song birds are on their way north and my window for seeing them is relatively small. Every outing matters. The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) has become intense. So intense, in fact, that I wish I could go back to pre-eBird days when I had no idea what I was missing and was consequently happier.

But was I really happier? I’m not exactly sure that’s true either. My ignorance was perhaps more acute two years ago, but I also struggled to identify relatively simple things a lot more. So I’m not convinced I want to return to that state of affairs either.

In the end, after eBird told me that I’d missed the Least Bittern, I went right back out and found the bird two days later. I now knew more specifically where to look (and how long!) and did manage to get phenomenal looks at it. And if I’m even more honest, I wasn’t the one who found the bird; after searching for an hour, I left to find some Whimbrel, and upon returning there were two other gentlemen there who had their eyes on the bird. But I later ran into some acquaintances and repaid the favor by showing them the bittern. And you should have seen the look on their faces — the exact same intense gratitude and awe that I had just bestowed upon the folks who had helped me find the bird. I had just saved my birdy pals from some FOMO of their own!

This FOMO in May just seems to come with the territory. I’ve been seeing a lot, and missing out on just as much, if not more, but that’s part of the beauty of May birding. And I realized very quickly one of the greatest hazards of falling in love with birds: the more you see the more you want to see. It’s a hobby (obsession?) that revolves very much around the pursuit of something, the quest. And where there is pursuit, there lies endless disappointment, because it seems you’ll never get there quick enough and see quite enough.

But there’s also endless appreciation for the things you do see, and with that comes the most profound joy. And in the end, I’d rather have some FOMO than not see birds at all.

When Clothes Make the Birder

Beloved Birders!

I’ve discovered the particular thrill in matching my wardrobe choices with bird sightings. There’s nothing better than seeing a Dickcissel while wearing a DICK t-shirt, designed by Paul Riss. I saw Sandhill cranes in Arizona while wearing my SACR t-shirt. I’ve spotted many a Snowy owl while clad in my SNOW toque. The first Red-winged Blackbird sighting of spring is made all the more splendid if I’m wearing my RWBL tshirt.

In fact, I attribute my failure to see the Scissortail flycatcher that graced Toronto’s west end earlier this summer to the fact that my STFL t-shirt was in the laundry. But such is life.

I returned from vacation on the West Coast with numerous birdy items, including a fetching owl sweatshirt, two bird prints, and too many bird cards to count. The only thing I regret, in retrospect, is that I didn’t manage to purchase a wearable item with shorebirds on it, because we’re now in shorebird season and I’m convinced that distinguishing between a Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs would be easier if I had the bird imprinted on an item of clothing.

There’s a misconception that birders wear primarily Tilley hats and multi-pocketed vests. Although the two items often form the staples of a birder’s outfit, people have started branching out. Designers such as Paul Riss are fearlessly revolutionizing birders’ wardrobes, which seems to go hand in hand with the general trend that birding is suddenly becoming hip. (A recent article in Macleans speaks to the popularity spike of birding as a hobby among millenials.)

What is happening? Have I suddenly, unbeknownst to me, transformed from arch-nerd into inadvertent trendsetter?

Scribing

Beloved Birders,

I could tell you about my amazing trip to Carden Alvar, where I saw two Wilson’s Snipe up close and personal (so close I didn’t even need binoculars), where I saw numerous Bobolink, correctly identified the song of a Grasshopper Sparrow (it would have been hard NOT to ID this song — he was buzzing nonstop and somewhat ferociously), saw a Golden-winged Warbler, a Loggerhead Shrike, an Upland Sandpiper, and even a hybrid Brewster’s Warbler. I could tell you about how I accidentally misidentified a Brown Thrasher as an Eastern Meadowlark, not once, not twice, but four times total until the form finally sank in and now I feel like I could recognize a Brown Thrasher in my sleep…until, of course, the next time I misidentify him…I could tell you all that and more.

But instead, I’ll tell you that this morning, I finally decided to go through my 1970 & 80s children’s books, all sent to me by my grandmother from the former Soviet Union, books I read myself and books that were read to me by my parents, poems and prose, most of them imaginatively illustrated, printed on brittle paper, with a price stamp on the back (most of the books cost between 5 and 10 kopeks). I’ve been keeping these books for my nephew, and I think he might be old for us to read him some of these…then again, he might just try to eat the books and they’re likely toxic, so this might backfire! I remembered some of these books — fairy tales, stories by Pushkin, poems by Chukovsky, but I had no idea how many books I had growing up about birds! Titmice and Nightingales and Woodpeckers and Eagles and Owls and Bullfinches — this was a world I felt quite at home in as a child. Who knew?

I keep saying that I discovered birds at the age of 35, accidentally, on a whim, while auditioning hobbies, but now it turns out the narrative is more nuanced. That maybe, unbeknownst to me, this birding obsession is, in itself, a homecoming of sorts. Maybe they were there all along, just waiting for me to look up and take notice.

How little it turns out we know about the very things we think we understand so deeply.

And so the scribing continues (both at the banding station and beyond, in my semi-writerly life, too), as a way of gaining yet another ounce of a semblance of understanding. But without that impulse, that striving toward understanding(no matter how flawed) — where would I be?

Staring at a Magnolia Warbler

Beloved Birders!

There’s a magnolia warbler staring at me from my wall. It’s March and the Mincing Mockingbird calendar pic couldn’t be more uplifting:

Magnolia Warbler by the Mincing Mockingbird. Image from here.

This means spring is actually coming, which, in truth, was confirmed to me two weeks ago when I saw my first Killdeer up on the mountain near Hamilton. But seeing the Maggie face to face like this is of another order of magnitude. Two months from now, I’ll be volunteering at the banding station again, will likely extract one from the net and hold it in my hand. That’s when I’ll know it’s actually spring.

That I measure the seasons now by the birds I know, sometimes even by the birds I hold in my hand, is something new. That I measure time by the months until my first pine warbler sighting, first robin, first snowy owl delights me. This year, of course, time and weather are performing peculiar acrobatics: one day it feels like spring, I shed my winter clothing and the next day there’s a dusting of snow on the ground. I feel I’m standing on uncertain ground most days, never exactly sure what to wear, either sweating or shivering. I’m not a creature who basks in uncertainty: I much prefer routine,

And yet the Magnolia warbler stares back at me every time I turn my head to the left, and I can’t help but smile knowing that the trees will soon be dotted with warblers (if you know where to look) and that soon I’ll awake to bird song.

When a Raven Looks like a Goose

Beloved Birders,

There are some days when, no matter how you look at things, a raven looks more like a goose. It’s an unfortunate moment in time when ravens start to look gooselike, because I think it’s a sign of larger things going awry. And that’s the kind of couple weeks it’s been here in Birds and Words land. (You’ll remember that a few years ago I nearly lost it when my beloved Sibley wall calendar had a Canada Goose grace my birthday month. A friend of geese I am not. I want to tell the geese of the world that it’s not you, it’s me. But they likely won’t listen to me.)

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Sheojuk Etidlooie’s magnificent “Raven in Red” (1996) is, alas, a misnomer. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this raven looks positively goose-like. 

The good thing about time is that it passes. And what appeared to look like a goose a few weeks ago, now still looks like a goose, but without the touch of resentment.

And then before you know it you’re out in the field searching for a Lark Sparrow and you see it almost immediately, which relieves you from having to stand in frigid temperatures for more than five minutes, and the day keeps getting better because you then drive to Thickson’s woods, dreaming of owls, see none, but continue onwards to Lynde Shores — where you happen upon a field of 10,000 CANADA GEESE of all things and instead of screaming you just laugh — and find the most resplendent Barred Owl imaginable. And you’re home by noon, just in time for the day’s second cup of coffee and the pile of holiday cards that need composing, and the work projects that need attending to.

And suddenly that goose-like raven, which had offended you so gravely, now looks rather cute. And you wonder how an artist’s imagination could perceive a slick black raven in such radiant red hues. And for the first time in a while, you smile, in earnest.