On Finding the Duck

Beloved Birders!

The unbelievable has happened. I read Ontbirds, the birdy listserv, saw that a Histrionicus histrionicus (Harlequin duck) was lurking in nearby waters, convinced the Mister that his life goal on a frigid Sunday afternoon was to see said bird (okok, I bribed him with coffee at Birds and Beans cafe — thank GOD for geographical happenstance), and off we went, AND I FOUND IT!

Yes, beloved birders, I had to scream those last four words because I am not accustomed to such turns of fortune. I’m usually the one who sees what I want to see rather than what’s in front of me, or make egregious misidentifications (mistakenly calling a Green heron an enormous hummingbird, for instance). Very — tremendously rarely — am I the one who actually sees exactly what is written on the bird listserv!

Not only that, but I also helped others find the duck. One photographer came in super handy because he took a great picture, showed it to my husband who was having a hard time distinguishing the Harlequin from the flotilla of greater (?!) scaup. My directions didn’t seem to help much either: JUST LOOK FOR THE GORGEOUS ONE! THE ONE YOU’D WANT TO BE IF YOU WERE A DUCK!

Photo from here. Photo by Andy Johnson. Seeing two Harlequins side by side like this would be a dream come true. Nothing of the sort happened today. I saw ONE Harlequin lazily dozing amidst a couple hundred Greater (or lesser, who knows…) Scaup. But then he put his head up and I swooned. The duck with the greatest fashion sense ever.

Let’s just say the photo helped. Anyhow, once he saw the duck, my husband agreed with me. It really was a bird worth putting on three layers of clothes. We also saw gorgeous, sunlit Redheads, Common Goldeneye, Buffleheads, Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers, and a lone White-winged Scoter. And then, we thawed our freezing hands and feet at Birds and Beans cafe, over delicious coffee, spinach empanadas and breakfast cookies.

There do exist those rare days when everything happens according to plan. And let me tell you, they’re marvellous.

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.)

First Birds of 2017

Beloved Birders!

I wouldn’t want you to lose sleep over the question of my first birds of 2017. The very first was a Barn Owl, courtesy Matt Adrian’s fabulous artwork in my new Mincing Mockingbird calendar:

Matt Adrian’s Barn Owls. Image from here. 

I actually heard my second bird before I saw it: a White-breasted Nuthatch. The bird greeted me on my first morning walk of the new year. In its familiar place, even creeping down its favorite branch, headfirst. Familiarity is one of the greatest surprises of birding: the more you get to know a bird, the more you know exactly where to expect it. It turns out that for all my love of spontaneity, I’m also a creature of habit and routine, and knowing that I share that quality with many of my favorite birds is something I’ve grown quite fond of.

2016 ended with a fantastic birding outing along Lake Ontario with my friend Martha. I learned about the beauty of sometimes setting an easy target bird (you’re pretty much guaranteed to find said bird), finding it, and then laughing at the idea of even having a “target” — isn’t the point just to get out and enjoy whatever appears before you? The morning wasn’t rich in numbers or diversity, but our lovely conversation, the radiant Northern Shovelers, glowing Hooded mergansers, and fiery House finches more than made up for it.

This afternoon, we celebrated my grandmother’s 86th birthday, and in the midst of it, we learned that our dear family friend, Stuart Hamilton, a giant in the Canadian classical music scene, has passed away. I’ll never forget the time Stuart invited my sister and me to his house to recite Racine’s Phedre to us. He had recently committed the play to memory (!) and we had the privilege of hearing two of its acts, recited by Stuart, en francais. I will miss that fabulous intellectual curiosity, extraordinary sense of humor and intrepid approach to life. His life is a true lesson in how to live: keep learning, keep practicing your art, keep improving, keep laughing, never stop. He lived an inspired life, and I’m a better person for having known him. We all are.

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!


35 Lifers and a New Designation

Beloved Birders!

You guessed it. Birds and Words has been traveling. We spent a week in Southeastern Arizona and I waited over a week to write about it because I’m still processing the thrill of spending a week glued to my binoculars every day, roaming the wilds of the Wild West, hiking in the Chiricahua National Monument and basking in 20 degree (celsius) weather and clear blue skies day in day out. I seem to have acquired a new life goal: to become a professional snow bird.

We spent the first three nights in Bisbee, AZ, about 10 miles north of the Mexican border, and a stone’s throw from some of the best birding in the state. Highlights included waking up one morning, telling the Mister that I wanted to see a road runner, and then seeing four of them that very day. Greater Roadrunners do indeed run across the road, apparently as fast as 32 km/hour. Few sightings can compare to a prehistoric-looking avian creature whizzing in front of your car. And that happened FOUR times over the course of a day. After a hike in the otherworldly universe of the Chiricahua National Monument, we descended the mountain and caught the sunset at the White Water Draw, along with approximately 30,000 Sandhill cranes (give or take a few). Just when I thought life couldn’t get any better, I turned around and saw flocks of red-winged blackbirds, which I initially dismissed as just thousands of red-wings, but something forced me to look harder and lo and behold, I came across dozens of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, which only happens to be my second favorite bird in the universe. While at White Water Draw, I embarrassingly misidentified a Great Blue Heron as a Black-Crowned Night Heron, but the universe will forgive me that misdemeanor.

After perusing the art galleries in Bisbee and drinking the best coffee I’ve ever had at the Bisbee Coffee Company and buying stamps in the most delightful post office and visiting the stellar library built in 1906 (or thereabouts — Bisbee used to be a huge copper mining capital; immigrants came from all over the world to work in the mines and the town population was over 20,000 in 1900; now the city clocks in at 5000 souls), I headed for the bookstore (of course) and bought the lovely, indispensable Birds of Southeastern Arizona. (That’s also when I realized that I had also just seen the Mexican Jay).

Bisbee treated us superbly: we ate, drank, listened to fine country music at a local bar, bought some beautiful earrings, and admired the gorgeous vistas.

From there, on we went to Tombstone, where we lasted about half an hour. The highlight of our time in Western-Kitsch-Central was a conversation with the woman who worked in the tourism office; she recommended we watch the classic Paint Your Wagon for a full experience of the west, and we took her at her word, which resulted in two wasted hours of life, but more on that perhaps later, or not.

After Tombstone, we made our way to Patagonia — via San Pedro riparian forest, where my knowledge of sparrows was so pathetic that all I could safely ID was a Loggerhead Shrike (no complaints, the bird is divine); all the sparrows, save the White-crowned, were lost on me. In Patagonia (pop. 950), we spent four nights at the Duquesne House, where breakfasts were divine, and the garden fabulously birdy: I saw my first Broad-billed Hummingbird along with a Black-chinned hummingbird, a Curve-billed Thrasher, a Pyrrhuloxia, Lesser and American Goldfinches galore, Northern Cardinals that went positively bonkers at sunset, and a gazillion sparrows.

Birding in Patagonia was as close as I’d ever come to experiencing birding bliss: we saw the most perfect Vermillion flycatcher perched on a post, giving us photo-worthy poses (if only I had my camera!) at the Nature Conservancy. I saw my first Say’s Phoebe and Black Phoebe, which looked like he’d just put on a freshly ironed tuxedo. Later, at Paton’s — the home of the late Paton family, who graciously opened their garden doors to birders of the world after someone had discovered a rare hummingbird on their property — I saw a Ladder-backed woodpecker and a Gila Woodpecker, along with an Anna’s hummingbird. The following day we ventured out to Patagonia State Park and did not manage to see the Green Kingfisher, which would have been extraordinary, but really, how many extraordinary experiences can I have on one trip? The Kingfisher might have actually brought me to sensory overload, so it’s perhaps a blessing in disguise that we missed him. But I did manage to see a Black-throated Grey warbler, which was thrilling, because he has the best of both the Blackpoll and the Black-and-White warbler.

We spent our last day in Patagonia birding with Matt Brown, an extraordinary bird guide and fantastic guy. He took us to Pena Blanca, where we saw a Bewick’s wren and a Canyon wren, a Verdin, which tried to elude us but for once we happened to outsmart the bird! We got the Acorn woodpecker and the Arizona woodpecker and the Red-naped sapsucker, which brought my AZ woodpecker count to 6 species, which I consider downright amazing. I squealed when we got the Painted Redstart and Townsend’s warbler (the volume of the squeals were proportional to the splendor of the bird; in other words, I screamed louder at the sight of a painted redstart). There were other fabulous birds, of course, including the Canyon towhee, the Chihuahuan Raven, the Bridled Titmouse, the rufous-winged sparrow, the grey flycatcher, and others I’m likely forgetting. Of course our day wouldn’t be complete without spectacular misses, including the Elegant Trogon and the Rufous-capped warbler, but these misses only make me want to come back to AZ for more. I’m completely grateful to Matt for the great day, the awesome birdy conversation, the fabulous hike along a canyon, and the extraordinary birdy knowledge. It was the perfect way to end our holiday.

And Matt Brown even crowned my husband with a new designation. It turns out he’s an S.O.B = spouse of a birder, which sums things up rather well.

As I filled up our tank on our way out of Patagonia, the attendant at P.I.G.S. (Politically Incorrect Gas Station) informed me that the gas station was for sale and asked me if I was interested in buying it. We nearly said yes.

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.)


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.

Naked Birding

Beloved Birders!

Alas, nothing risqué going on here in middle-aged birder-land at Birds and Words. The title is a slight misnomer, since all it really means is that I went birding yesterday and forgot my binoculars in the car. I could have perhaps gone back to get said binoculars, but I was also desperate for coffee, and given that the forecast was 100% rain, I let the actual birding take a backseat to the coffee quest, which felt nothing short of essential.

Anyhow, I birded sans binoculars, essentially by GISS (general impression, size and shape), and none of this was too difficult since there were almost no birds around Ashbridges Bay yesterday. Bufflehead, long tail ducks, mallards, a gazzillion chickadees, northern cardinals, a downy woodpecker. I probably missed a few ducks and a few sparrows, but I wasn’t too concerned.The skies had darkened, it was about to rain, and I didn’t feel like I was missing all that much anyhow. I thought about what a boring morning it was, but also recognize that boring mornings are a healthy phenomenon too. The highs of chasing after birds are naturally followed by ho-hum birding experiences.

And then right when I got to my car, a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) swooped down and grabbed a rat in its talons and absconded with said beast. I watched the hawk fly to a nearby tree and ran to get my binoculars from the car. And there he sat on a low tree branch, a dozen meters away from me, feasting on his (her?) mid-morning snack. How very civilized to watch a hawk delighting in his elevenses.

Not the Red-tailed hawk I saw. This is perhaps the most famous Red-tailed hawk in North America, New York City's Pale Male. Photo from here.

Not the Red-tailed hawk I saw. This is perhaps the most famous Red-tailed hawk in North America, New York City’s Pale Male. Photo from here. The hawk I saw had a darker head and the stripes on his breast-band were more pronounced, but the rat was very much identical. I am no rodent-watcher so cannot (yet) comment on the singularity of rats. The tail on yesterday’s rat was a little perkier, however.

As I watched the hawk up close — saw its cinnamon tail with a black band near the tip, the dark rusty band no its belly — and watched him disembowel the rat and dig its hooked beak deep into the rodent’s body, there was suddenly nothing whatsoever ho-hum about the morning. It had turned into a riveting spectacle, and reminded me that there is absolutely nothing cutesy and pretty about nature. Fierce, primal, vital, a manifestation of raw energy. But maybe that’s a better way to describe nature after all.