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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.

Back from the land of Arctic Terns

Dearest, Birdiest Readers!

I’m back from two weeks in Iceland and am trying to figure out how to readjust to Toronto life where the weather doesn’t change drastically every couple of hours, where the northern light doesn’t blind you at 8pm in late August, where I can’t sip a delicious latte in a cowshed cafe. Yes, you read those last words correctly. We discovered Iceland’s best cafe, located in a bona fide cowshed about 10 km south of Akureyri. Where else in the world could we sip lattes and eat waffles with fresh cream whilst surrounded by 200 cows going about their (somewhat smelly) business? We even watched the milking process via webcam, and it was nothing short of riveting (yes, our portion of the cafe was glassed in).

Here are the lovelies at KaffiKu. Not your usual coffee shop. Many great black-backed gulls flying overhead, above the barn.

Here are the lovelies at KaffiKu. Not your usual coffee shop. Many great black-backed gulls flying overhead, above the barn.

It’s not easy to readjust to a landscape with trees, with more than one lane of traffic, with crowds of people. I seemed to have no problem getting used to the miles of lava fields, volcanic rock covered in thick moss, and to the near constant crisply harsh sounds of arctic terns overhead. I miss being surrounded by ocean, I miss the omnipresent geothermal swimming pools (we tried out eight different ones; if you’re planning a trip to Iceland, I have plenty of advice!), I miss the delicious vinarbraud (custard and almond croissants of which I consumed at least two every single day), I miss the herring (sadly we didn’t make it to the national herring museum), I miss the colossal sky and fabulously fickle weather, I miss Icelandic non-nonsense ways and absence of garrulous & often meaningless politeness, I miss it all. Perhaps, if I’m being brutally honest, I also miss being on vacation.

In birdier news, I was proud of my modest ID skills that I managed to exercise: we saw Kittiwakes, Oystercatchers, White wagtails, a gazillion great back-backed gulls, and shore birds of every persuasion, but I was scope-less (not to mention skill-less in the shore bird department!), and couldn’t ID much of anything. I studied the birds I knew and contented myself with that.

I did have one unexpected birdy experience. While visiting Halldor Laxness’ house/museum, Gljufrasteinn, I happened on the most lovely sight in his bedroom. Right there, on the windowsill, across from his bed, lay a pair of Zeiss binoculars, which Laxness used every single day of his life. I was alone in the museum and probably proceeded to do something semi-legal: I picked up the binoculars and took a look through his mid-century Zeiss optics, to catch a glimpse of the world — his ancestral hills, mountains and fields — exactly as Halldor Laxness saw it. And to think that five years ago, I wouldn’t have even noticed the binoculars; they would have meant as little to me as the religious paraphernalia on the bedside table.

Halldor Laxness' Zeiss binoculars. Gljufrasteinn museum.

Halldor Laxness’ Zeiss binoculars. Gljufrasteinn museum.

How delightfully strange life is. How miraculously unexpected its twists and turns.

Meanwhile, with birds

It’s been hard to find the words. Or rather, I’ve been searching for and sifting through words about my relationship with birds elsewhere of late. If anything comes of my meandering thoughts, I’ll let you know. So we’ll save the big-picture discussions for another time, and I’ll let you know what’s been happening in the meanwhile.

Where to begin. I could tell you about my catastrophic ID experience a few weeks ago, wherein I accidentally called a Green heron a Hummingbird (yes, I did admit that the hummingbird seemed exceedingly large for some reason) or all the ways in which I’ve failed to differentiate between a Magnolia and a Canada warbler, or my inability to distinguish between a Chestnut-sided and Bay-breasted (from below). Or I could tell you about my most recent trips to Long Point and Pelee and Rondeau. Or I could relay that I’ve recently completed my second birdathon, with a grand total of 129 birds, most of them seen in abysmally dismal fog and rain conditions. I could regale you with lists and new lifers.

Instead, I’ll tell you this. My life now seems to be with birds, and I’m not sure how that change has come about exactly. I wear my Zeiss bins across my chest, like a purse. When stopped at a traffic light, my eyes immediately wander to the tops of trees, scanning instinctively. New urban sounds now comfort me: I’m in the company of robins, cardinals, mourning doves, a lone Baltimore oriole. That something so simple as birds could bring so much meaning to my life, so much intrinsic pleasure, and that these birds had been here all along, and that I’m finally learning the art of how to pay attention, how to abandon expectation (who doesn’t walk into a situation with a target bird?) in favour of the spontaneity of the moment, the beauty of the unplanned and unimagined — now that might just be magic.

 

 

Castanea

Dearest, Birdiest Readers! In non-birdy news, I will regale you with an essay I wrote called The Chestnut Roast, which has just gone live over at The Toast — a fabulous, quirky, hilarious, slightly subversive online hub of greatness. The action takes place a mere two years before the narrator (aka:yours truly) discovers Birds and she is, admittedly, in a bit of a sorry state. Aren’t you happy she found birding (or birding found her)? Otherwise, it might have been a life of chestnut chasing… And if you like what you read, please do share!

This Season: 29 warblers

Beloved birders! This changing of the seasons is a bit emotional for me. You see, I get so invested in Spring and then poof, it’s gone. Perhaps not quite that suddenly, but it really does feel altogether too quick, these 31 days of May. A quick recap of the season, which has been my most productive yet. (Although, I should note that right when I thought my birdsong recognition was improving, I had an embarrassing moment wherein I confused the Cardinal’s song for the Ovenbird’s. And of course I still think that everybody is singing “drink your tea”, not just the Eastern Towhee… more on mnemonics later… and I seem to hear “whitchety whichety whichety” even when the bird is saying something else altogether. Humbling, as always.)

This season yielded 29 warblers and, perhaps even more notably, a warbler dream! On Friday night, I dreamt I was teaching my husband how to distinguish the Blue winged warbler song from the Golden-winged warbler’s: bee-buzz vs. (a trilled) brrrr bzz bzz bzz! And I got the song right in my dream. I don’t remember my husband’s reaction to such technical bird-talk, but I woke up completely startled by my birdy prowess. This hobby that I thought would be so temporary is now weaving its way into my subconscious! This elevates Spring Migration to a whole new order of magnitude.

The highlights? A Hooded warbler peeking out of the foliage in Backus Woods (Long Point area), a Canada Warbler (misidentified as a Hooded by yours truly, but such is life) fluttering about in Rondeau, an Indigo Bunting singing his heart out at eye level at Carden Alvar, a Cerulean warbler frenetically jumping from branch to branch at eye level (Long Point), a Scarlet Tanager adorning a tree — almost like a Christmas ornament, a Prairie warbler demonstrating the full range of his crescendo on the ascent of his staccato song at Carden Alvar, Black-throated blue warblers showing off the elegance of their inimitable metallic blue coloring, Black-throated green warblers greeting me unexpectedly, countless American Redstarts — decked out in Halloween colors, and, the piece de resistance, a Yellow-headed Blackbird screeching his cacophonous song at daybreak.

We ended the season yesterday with a Mourning warbler sighting, which brought me to a grand total of 29 warbler species for the month of May. Of those, I managed to learn four songs. But it’s better than last spring, when I managed to learn one (!) song! It doesn’t come easy, this birding business, but it delights me more than I ever imagined.

That Other Life (A Blog Tour)

So you might be wondering, dear birdy readers, what it is that I do in those hours when I’m not misidentifying birds or suffering from warbler neck. In my other life, when I’m not lecturing to later life learners, or teach writing to exuberant teenagers or massacring a Beethoven piano sonata, I’m writing. And this post is dedicated to just that.

Thanks to the brilliant Maria Meindl for inviting me to join on this literary blog tour. Next week I will pass the torch to two wonderful writers, Heidi Reimer and Rebecca Rosenblum. Heidi writes both fiction and creative nonfiction and her brilliant essay about becoming a mother was most recently featured in The M Word. Rebecca has published two fantastic short story collections (Once and The Big Dream, which has one of my all-time favorite stories, Loneliness). Tune in next week to read their answers to the following four questions.

What am I working on?

Currently, I have a few things on the go. I’m usually not a multi-tasker, so this is new for me, but it seems to be working (thanks to generous support from the Toronto Arts Council, Ontario Arts Council and Access Copyright). I am tinkering with a memoir, Geographical Error, about my failed attempts at finding love and a home in mid-Missouri. I’m also working on a nonfiction project about how I unintentionally became a (somewhat crazed) birder. Another nonfiction project is all about how learning Yiddish is helping me unravel my family history.

How does my work different from others’ in this genre?

I write somewhere at the crossroads where fiction and reality meet. Happily, there’s a name for this world my writing inhabit, and it’s called creative nonfiction, but I hesitate to put a label on what I’m doing. I strive to bring a world to life, to fuel it with energy. I have great admiration for Gary Shteyngart – especially his memoir, Little Failure. In particular, I love how he pays homage to a tradition of humorists who have the power to make you laugh and cry in the same sentence. I like to think that my writing highlights the absurdities of life, the ridiculous inconsistencies, and also the accompanying pain. Most often, I write out of admiration, out of a love of literature; most of all, I want my words to add to a conversation with writers whose language I cannot fathom living without: Chekhov (always Chekhov), Tolstoy, Babel, Franzen, Munro, Proust, Lahiri, Robinson.

Why do I write what I do?

I write because I’m addicted to making sense of the world around me. There’s nothing stranger and more fascinating to me than what I see and hear on a daily basis, whether it be family stories, overheard conversations, absurd interactions with my movers, what have you. I write to hoard and embalm the present moment. Yes, I’m a hoarder at heart.

How does my writing process work?

I wake up. I walk. I pour a cup of coffee. I settle into my office chair, turn on the computer, activate Freedom (it keeps me off the internet for large chunks of time; yes, I paid for this program; yes, I have an internet problem; no, I cannot write with any sort of online temptation; no, I’m not working through this issue at the moment, I’m just living with it), and attack the blank page. I hit the delete key a lot. There’s a notebook next to me. I write in it when things stall (often). Sometimes I take a hot shower. I read Marilynne Robinson and Anton Chekhov. Over and over, for the wisdom, the deceptive simplicity, the rhythm. I turn back to my computer screen, armed for another benevolent attack, desperate to figure out where my story is headed. I stare out the window (a lot). Eventually words accumulate. It’s humbling, and tortuous, and brutal and exhilarating (usually after the fact, rarely during).

 

Coping with the Melancholy of May

Beloved Birders! You know that feeling you get when the moment you’ve been waiting for all year (MAY! Migration! Warblers!) has finally come and suddenly you glance over at the calendar and realize that you’re already more than half-way through and you’re unexpectedly overcome with total melancholy because this thing you’ve basically been living for, well, it’s rather short-lived in the end, and even though you’ve been savoring every moment, and marvelling at every warbler (Canada! Hooded! Black-and-white! Cerulean!), still, there remains the knowledge that not only is this moment not forever, but it’s frighteningly near its end. That’s where I’m at right now, having completed my first ever Birdathon (131 species!!). I will be writing about my trip to Point Pelee and Rondeau Provincial Park and a few sewage lagoons in between, have no fear! But the problem with doing something as intense as a birdathon is that one has to return to reality afterwards. And that’s when the melancholy gripped me.

So, I write this post as an antidote. Here are some pictures of our trip to Sedona & Tucson, Arizona, where the sky loomed large, the sun shone fiercely, I learned life lessons from an Acorn Woodpecker, I saw my first Gila Monster, fell in love with the Javelinas and confirmed my initial supposition that the Southwest just might be the most beautiful place on earth.

Bell Rock in Sedona. We walked around this gargantuan beauty of a rock & even tried climbing

Bell Rock in Sedona. We walked around this gargantuan beauty of a rock & even tried climbing it until I realized that I’m deathly afraid of heights. A bit of a rude awakening. I screamed, swore a few times, and made it safely back to firm ground. A Phainopepla was seen at the base of Bell Rock. 

These Javelinas came to visit us nightly at our B&B in Sedona. Where there's one javelina, there are likely about 15 more lurking. We bonded in the best possible way. They only bared their teeth once. Totally cooperative during the photo shoot, too!

These Javelinas came to visit us nightly at our B&B in Sedona. Where there’s one javelina, there are likely about 15 more lurking. We bonded in the best possible way. They only bared their teeth at me once. Totally cooperative during the photo shoot, too!

Cathedral Rock in Sedona.  Saw a Northern Harrier Hawk here and had another bad reaction to heights. Passers by may have seen a crazed woman in binoculars fiercely gripping a garbage can while her husband scrambled up the rocks. That might have been me.

Cathedral Rock in Sedona. Saw a Northern Harrier here and had another bad reaction to heights. Passers-by may have seen a crazed woman in binoculars fiercely gripping a garbage can while her husband scrambled up the rocks. That might have been me.

We visited Arizona when the cacti bloomed.

We visited Arizona when the cacti bloomed.

Enormous, 20-metre tall Saguaro cacti in the Sonoran desert in Tucson. Otherworldly and thankfully flat terrain in Saguaro National Park. Tons of lizards, a Gila Monster, and snakes, but it appears that reptiles don't freak me out as much as heights. I saw a Summer Tanager (which I misidentified as a Vermillion Flycatcher) behind one of these cacti.

Enormous, 20-metre tall Saguaro cacti in the Sonoran desert in Tucson. Otherworldly and thankfully flat terrain in Saguaro National Park. Tons of lizards, a Gila Monster, and snakes, but it appears that reptiles don’t freak me out as much as heights. I saw a Summer Tanager (which I misidentified as a Vermillion Flycatcher) behind one of these cacti.

Not all the cacti looked like pics you'd send home to mom & dad.

Not all the cacti looked like pics you’d send home to mom & dad. PG-rated Santa Catalina Mountains in the background. 

Next door to our B&B in Tucson, a family of Great Horned Owls have taken up residence. Here's the baby.

Next door to our B&B in Tucson, a family of Great Horned Owls have taken up residence. Here’s the baby. Incidentally, the Azure Gate Bed & Breakfast, where we spent 3 nights, might be the best B&B we’ve ever stayed at. Like, best in the universe! Highly recommend. 

You know what? It worked. Revisiting Arizona made me smile. The month of May is certainly ending, but I’m going to squeeze in as many birding days as I can into these last 10 days. Thanks for indulging my Arizona photo-essay and letting me wallow in tragically-soon-to-be-non-Mayness for just a bit.