Tag Archives: banding station

What 18 hours can bring

Beloved Birders,

There are days when the stars align in the strangest, most perfect and unexpected combination. On Saturday night, I headed over to the banding station at Tommy Thompson Park for the season’s last hurrah — an all-night owl night, where we band Northern Saw-whet Owls, but given my half-workday on Sunday, I could only manage the early shift, much to my chagrin. We got the cutest little saw-whet owl early in the evening — before I had the chance to nearly overdose on sour keys and salt-and-vinegar chips — and I squealed with delight as we banded the bird, weighed it, sexed and aged it, and then paused for glamor shots with the celebrity bird. I hadn’t seen a saw-whet in a few years, so this was a serious thrill.

And then, a half-hour before I left the station, at 11:25pm, we did a net check, found another owl that nearly escaped (I played a pivotal role in holding the net tight while my friend Denise performed a masterful, lightning quick extraction), quickly called it an enormous female saw-whet and then took another look because the owl was so big and feisty and it turned out to be an EASTERN SCREECH OWL (grey morph)! I had to scream that last bit because Easter screeches have never flown into our nets before! This turned out to be a station first, and a very big deal indeed. A lengthy photo shoot followed after I scribed the data and we marvelled at the owl’s plumage and how expertly he camouflaged with the Master Bander’s camo jacket. No wonder those sweet creatures are so hard to see in the trees! They really blend in perfectly.

After getting a good night’s rest, we headed off to Humber Bay Park (after a requisite stop at the inimitable Birds and Beans cafe) where I happily greeted old friends: Redhead, Bufflehead, Long-tailed duck, Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, and my all-time fave, the resplendent Hooded Merganser, with a crest that rivals my rhinestone headband in allure. We went out with friends who told me they found ducks boring because they all look the same! Ah….I remember the day when I too felt this way. When the world seemed monochrome and all ducks were one. That feels like a lifetime ago… So as we walked, I stopped to point out all the beauties, encouraged (forced) them to see them through my binoculars (thanks Zeiss!) and by the end of the walk they came away with some new favorites.

And then just as we were leaving, I saw a juvenile Cooper’s hawk sitting in a tree, calmly awaiting her next victim. To be honest, I’m not sure what made me happier — seeing the bird or being able to correctly identify it. Either way, it was a perfect end to the birdiest 18 hours.

 

And Sometimes…Things Work Out

Beloved Birders,

An update on the folding bike that was meant to change my life: it has. Yesterday included a bike ride out to the lighthouse at Tommy Thompson Park (aka: Leslie Spit), which made Toronto seem beautiful and otherworldly in ways I hadn’t experienced in a while. Lake Ontario felt as vast as an ocean, and I was virtually alone at the tip of the spit, which is something that rarely happens in a city the size of Toronto. The minute I leave my apartment, I never feel alone, so this was an unexpected treat.

Today, I biked along the spit twice — once to the banding station (ok, full disclosure: I plopped my sweet little fold-up bike into a friend’s car and hitched a ride to the station), and once to see a ….FORK-TAILED FLYCATCHER (Tyrannus savana).

Photo from here. The beauty I saw was sitting atop a dead tree. It flew every few minutes and showed off its magnificent tail

Oh yes, beloved birders. You’ll recall that I dipped on the Scissor-tailed flycatcher when it hung out at Marie Curtis Park in Mississauga; I tired, hot, busy, hungry, etc, and was somehow convinced that the bird would stick around for a couple of days. But, my beloved (and as of yet unseen) Tyrannus forficatus turned out to be a one-day wonder.

The day started out bright and early, and already extremely hot, and only got hotter as the afternoon progressed (meteorologically speaking, we’re in total mayhem here: I’m sorry, but 40 degrees celsius –including humidity — is not normal in September). I managed to extract a Black-capped chickadee from the mistnet even as it hammered on my knuckles, woodpecker-style, and nipped my fingers constantly. A few years ago, I had tried to extract a chickadee, but gave up once the hammering started. Alas, my friend Charlotte’s pep talk, “you’re stronger than the chickadee!” did nothing to convince me, and I let her finish up the extraction.

I’m trying to figure out what changed and I don’t yet know exactly. This morning, I did a net check, cloth bags in my pocket, and didn’t let myself think about it too much. I would try a bird, and then another, and then a third, and then the fourth one turned out to be that chickadee, and we did exchange a few harsh words, the bird and I, but ultimately I just fiddled with the netting until I had the feet firmly gripped, then slowly removed each wing from the mesh netting — almost as if I were taking the bird’s overcoat off — and then the head came off quite easily. Strangely, the whole thing was rather painless. (I did have to radio for help with the next bird — a feisty and challenging Winter Wren, lest you think I’ve become extractor extraordinaire.) In any event, it felt good to be rid of some of my fears; at some point I think I stopped imagining extracting as this thing I could never figure out and just started doing it, small failures notwithstanding. And that has made all the difference. As with writing, when I give myself permission to fail, sometimes the very opposite happens.

We closed the station early, because by 10:30am, it was sweltering and well above 30 degrees. Just as we were leaving, someone got an e-bird alert that the Fork-tailed Flycatcher had just landed at Tommy Thompson Park! The bird has absolutely no business being in southern Ontario since its regular range is in South America — to say he’s colossally flown off course would be an understatement. And for those of you who’ve been following this blog (and perhaps my life) for a while, you know that there’s nothing I can relate to more than being an accidental visitor in an unknown place.

So I hopped on my bicycle and headed for cell 2, where I met up with a bunch of birders, scanned the area, and nearly passed out from the heat. My water had run out, the sun was scorching, and I realized that I wouldn’t last long, so I bid people farewell, and rode back to my car, a little sad, but knowing that if I stuck around for long I’d likely get heat stroke.

As I rode to my car, I composed a blog post called All the Tyrannus Birds I did not See. Rather dramatic, eh? That’s how I was feeling at the time, and indeed, about 10 minutes after I left, the bird was found in a dead tree, a couple hundred meters from where I had been. Once I came home, I proceeded to feel wildly sorry for myself, cooked dinner, did some work, and kept checking bird reports semi-obsessively. When my friend Justin posted a photo on Twitter of the bird, which I saw at 5:45 pm, I hopped into my car, drove back to Tommy Thompson park, unfolded my bike and sped over (this time with a big bottle of water), and…there it was, waiting for me.

The Fork-tailed Flycatcher was better than I had imagined. It flew every couple of minutes and showed off its resplendent, fantastically long tail. And I watched and watched and watched until the sun started to set and slowly turn pink, at which point I got back on my bike and rode the rest of the way to my car with a ridiculous grin on my face. And sometimes, for no reason whatsoever, things do work out and it’s wonderful.

Spring in These Parts

Beloved Birders,

It’s May, peak of spring migration, the month I’ve been looking forward to all year. And like anything I long for, there is also attendant anxiety: will I see more warblers than last year? Will I manage to see that Canada warbler that has eluded me for two years no? Will I properly savor the month of May without wishing it to go faster or slower — will I just let it be while knowing that I’m getting out as much as I can, binoculars in hand, looking up whenever possible, learning more bird songs, recognizing more field marks?

Of course May is all of that and more. I’ve been volunteering at the banding station when work has allowed (on average 1-2 times/weeks), and it’s been wonderful. The act of scribing only gets more riveting, as I’m slowly improving my ability to age and sex birds; I can now tell you which kinglet tail looks younger (most of the time). The knowledge doesn’t come in robust bursts — as I wish it would — largely because I’m not putting in the requisite hours (because…well, work, life, etc), but it’s trickling in slowly, relentlessly, and the accumulation of bits of knowing — birdy factoids, mainly — is a pleasure in itself.

Apart from all the magic of birds that May brings, it also ushers in some stunning fashion experiments and discoveries. As Lake Ontario water levels continue to rise, we’ve been forced to move into classier attire at the banding station, since knee-high boots no longer suffice:

Yours truly at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station. Photo taken by Hellen Fu, approximately 10 minutes after I had extracted a black-and-white warbler from a mist net, accompanied by the whooshing sound of a gigantic carp swimming by.  

I know not whether there could be a sexy way to sport hip waders, but I certainly haven’t figured it out yet. In any event, walking through thigh-high water is a far better leg workout than most of what I do on the elliptical machine. It should be recommended in all fitness regimens.

Sadly the photo doesn’t show the full splendor of my baseball hat: perhaps if you look very closely you can see the outlines of an embroidered Javelina. I bought this hat last December at the Chiricahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona and wearing it reminds me of the day I saw approximately 30,000 sandhill cranes and a flock of yellow-headed blackbirds in Whitewater Draw. And even if I hadn’t just extracted my favorite warbler from a mist net (every extraction is an EVENT), I’d still be smiling because when wearing a Javelina hat — container of so many memories — how could anything but a smile be possible?

I wonder about my fidelity to my favorite birds. I’ve seen dozens of birds more splendid than the Red-winged blackbird, but I’m still indebted to the redwing for being the bird that made me look twice. As my spark bird, it holds the top place, if somewhat unwarranted, in my hierarchy of favorite birds. Then there’s the black-and-white warbler — the bird trapped in a zebra outfit — which I also love best (yes, I have a favorite for every species) because it was the first warbler I recognized BY MYSELF. Now I know it by its behavior — the warbler that thinks it’s a nuthatch and often creeps, head-first, down a tree. I still swoon when I see it, even thought the Blackburnian, Hooded warbler, Prothonotary, and Northern Parula are, objectively, more spectacular. And yet, in the end, I’ll always choose the black-and-white. The warbler that made me want to see more, the one that made me recognize the potential in these tiny, fluttering migrants that boldly embark on the most perilous of journeys twice a year.

Anyhow all that to say that this spring has been extraordinary. I finally saw a Tennessee warbler in the hand, and marvelled at its elegant white eyestripe, and seeing the bird so close-up has finally cured me of years-worth of statements like, “Tennessee warblers are boring.” What a gift it is to be able to see birds this close, even if it does require hip waders and 4:15 am alarms. How wonderfully strange life is.

 

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!

 

Warbler Party Etiquette

Beloved Birders!

Every so often, the stars align and you find yourself smack in the middle of the world’s best Warbler Party:

Photo by Charlotte England. Magnolia, Nashville, Parula, Black-throated Blue warblers.

Photo by Charlotte England. Magnolia, Nashville, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue warblers. I’ll let you figure out which warbler I’m holding.

Last Wednesday at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station (TTPBRS) in Toronto felt like a slow uneventful day until there was a rush of exquisite warblers, exquisite even in their fall plumage! So what’s the etiquette for a Warbler Party?

  1. Study your flashcards (or warbler app or field guide or whatever suits your learning style best). Peterson famously coined the phrase “confusing fall warblers” but have faith: not ALL fall warblers are confusing!
  2. Give yourself permission to get some of the IDs wrong. It’s ok — everyone has made mistakes IDing fall warblers. But do look closely at the bird’s plumage (and their feet!) when you have it in the hand — or if you’re scribing, look closely at what the bander is holding in her hand.
  3. Don’t dress up like a warbler. They’re flashy enough as it is. Wear whatever you’d usually wear in the woods. Yes, your pants will likely be tucked into your socks. Trust me, the warblers won’t mind. They’ll applaud your sensible fashion choice.
  4. Don’t try to talk like a warbler. It’s annoying to those around you. Including the birds.
  5. Always have a decent camera on hand. You won’t want to miss this photo opportunity.
  6. It’s ok to kiss the birds. They’re that cute.
  7. Enjoy every minute it; these parties don’t happen every day. Commit the moment to memory. Come home and tell your partner and your friends. You can bet they’ll be jealous.
  8. Tell people about the party, show them your photos, explain where the birds are flying to and how perilous their journey actually is. Remind yourself (and everyone around you) how privileged we are to have these birds in our midst, and how the work we have to do to ensure that they remain in our midst.
  9. Don’t forget to buy bird friendly coffee — it helps maintain the habitat that these birds desperately need.
  10. If you have cats, keep them indoors. Or walk them on a leash. Leashes are sexy!
  11. Support organizations like FLAP that spread awareness about the dangers migratory birds face in an urban environment — namely window collisions — and also help rescue and rehabilitate injured birds. The birds you see in the photo are the ones we’re losing.
  12. Holding a tiny 8-gram bird in your hand and feeling its heart beat is an emotional experience. You might find yourself speechless when faced with their fragility. Remember: these birds need us to protect them and fight on their behalf just as much as we need them.
  13. The cute photo of the warbler party is a reminder that things we hold dear are in fact imperiled. Visit a local migratory monitoring station, go on a bird walk, watch a youtube video, develop a crush on David Attenborough, do whatever it takes to learn more about birds or if bird-nerdy info isn’t your thing, consider donating to a conservation group.
  14. Squeal with joy! I dare you not to.

Medium-Sized Thrills and a Chicken Mystery

Beloved Birders!

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

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

Sora

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

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

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

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

Wilson's snipe. Image from here.

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

American woodcock. Image from here.

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

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

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

Blogworthy

Beloved Birders,

It’s been a somewhat slow start to May migratory madness and the only warblers I’ve laid eyes on so far are the palm and yellow-rumped, but today’s rain will bring extraordinary fall-out conditions for the coming week. Now wouldn’t that be blog-worthy?

In the absence of any such spectacular sightings, I still had a great morning of birding yesterday in Whitby and Oshawa. We saw a gorgeous canvasback, two extremely odd looking, likely young trumpeter swans with long auburn necks and heads, blue-winged teal, lovely flyover great blue herons. White-throated sparrows congregated everywhere, along with a few song sparrows and a lone white-crowned sparrow. Juncos and pine warblers sang their virtually indistinguishable songs (I couldn’t have told you there were both juncos and pine warblers in one tree; that blog-worthy piece of info came from a local song-expert in the neighborhood). Downy woodpeckers fluttered about and I could almost detect their undulating flight pattern. A lone red-bellied woodpecker hammered away at a branch, his red nape illuminated by the morning sun. I even managed to ID a chipping sparrow for the first time. At Cranberry marsh we saw a large collection of waterfowl floating about lazily, as if they too felt sluggish in the sudden onset of Spring: a northern shoveler, ring-necked ducks, red-breasted mergansers, bufflehead, scaup, and a few others I can’t recall. But the last day of May was surprisingly warbler-less. I kept wanting to hear a yellow warbler because it’s a song I could recognize anywhere, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Instead, I was regaled by the sight of two copulating northern flickers. A brief moment of passion — or biological necessity — and off they went and sat on separate branches.

Northern flicker. My favorite bird (today). It turns out I'm in good company because the flicker was Roger Tory Peterson's favorite bird as well. The ones we saw were rather feisty.

Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus). My favorite bird (today). It turns out I’m in good company because the flicker was Roger Tory Peterson’s favorite bird as well. The ones we saw were rather feisty.

Blogworthy? I’m not so sure. But it was a wonderful day regardless. Sometimes blogworthy just means living the day-to-day and enjoying whatever it is your binoculars happen to land upon.

In other birdy wordy news, I have a book review up on the ABA website.

The Little Green Bee-Eater and the Steppe Buzzard

Beloved birders!

We’re just back from a whirlwind trip to Israel, and I’m not quite sure how to sum it all up. In short, it was extraordinary. I feel like we did it all: we swam in the Dead Sea, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the waterfalls in Ein Gedi, we visited Roman ruins in Ceasarea and Beit She’an, stayed on a kibbutz at the foot of Mt. Gilboa, toured Jerusalem, drank fresh squeezed orange-pomegranate juice in Tel Aviv, reconnected with relatives (both human and feline), and ate extremely well. But why didn’t anyone tell me that the best part of Israel — by far the BEST, most striking, extraordinary — is the birds. I saw more than 60 lifers (but who’s counting?) and can’t wait to go back for more.

On our first day in Tel Aviv, jet-lagged and overheated, we walked along the beach in search of great hummus (have no fear, we found it) and happened upon our first Hoopoe (Upupa epops), sporting an exquisite & slightly surreal-looking crown of feathers. I took that as a good omen.

The Hoopoe, Israel's national bird. Image from here.

The Hoopoe, Israel’s national bird. Image from here. Except this bird looks like his head is on backwards. The ones we saw faced the opposite direction. Apologies for misrepresenting our sighting, but as usual I remain photographically challenged and all my pics of Hoopoes are basically photos of grass. I’ll spare you the 31 attempts.

Once I saw the Hoopoe, which I had fallen in love with a few years ago in Donana National Park in Spain, I knew that we were in for a fabulous vacation. Yes, beloved birders, I fear I’m starting to entertain the practice of augury somewhat seriously. Maybe I have a future in reading birds as well as texts?

The Hoopoe brought along the regal Hooded crow (Corvus cornix) and the whimsical Palestine sunbird (Cinnyris osea), which I initially mistook for a Blue headed hummingbird, only to find out that it’s endemic to Martinique (THANK YOU GOOGLE!).

Here's the gorgeous Palestine sunbird. How I could have mistaken this for a hummingbird is now beyond me, but it seemed apt at the time.

Here’s the gorgeous Palestine sunbird. How I could have mistaken this for a hummingbird is now beyond me, but it seemed apt at the time. Photo from here.

Amazingly, our visit to Jerusalem began at the bird observatory behind the Knesset (because our tour guide was a total genius and knew how to start the day off right!), where I met my first (of many) Eurasian blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) and marvelled at how scribes at Israeli bird banding stations use computers rather than transcribing data by hand! Oh the technology in the Old World. After chatting briefly with some kindred spirit bird banders we were on our way to more important sites, such as Yad Vashem and the Old City. Weaving in and out of holy sites, we also got to know the Spectacled Bulbul (Pycnonotus xanthopygos) and and the spectacular Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius), which sadly puts our Blue jay to shame.

While we were in the north, in a kibbutz located a stone’s throw from the Jordanian border, we saw thousands of White pelicans (Pelecanus onocratalus) and White storks (Ciconia ciconia) flying overhead all day long. We also got to know the somewhat ridiculous and omnipresent (fluorescent green) parakeets. While on the feline leg of our trip (my aunt has 40+ cats, but her exquisite culinary skills more than made up for the curious experience), I am pretty sure I saw trees full of glossy ibises but I could be entirely wrong given that it was I who proudly pronounced the ID.

Other non-negligible sightings in Israel included classy Byzantine public toilets — with facing columns, no less — in Beit She’an (otherwise known as Scythopolis to the Ancients), stunning Roman theatres, a slightly out of place Koala in a bizarre Australian oasis called Gangaroo (OK I admit it — I was at least 30 years too old to properly enjoy the park), a ferocious goat who ripped a map out of my hand and ate it, promptly convincing me that herbivores happily eat paper too…

And then, the birdy piece de resistance of our trip took place in Eilat, where I hired the best bird guide ever to drive us around for 6.5 hours. Itai Shanni took us up into the mountains of the Arava desert where we saw hundreds of Steppe buzzards (Buteo buteo vulpinus) migrating north from Africa. They were joined by countless Levant sparrowhawks (Accipiter brevipes), Booted eagles (Aquila pennata), Lesser spotted eagles (Clanga pomarina), Black kites (Milvus migrans), Honey buzzards, Kestrels, and my favorite, the Hobby (Falco subbuteo). The sky was literally dotted with raptors and by the time we left the mountain, the counter had already counted 6000 raptors!

It appears that my husband and I have fairly stereotypically gendered birding preferences: he adores the brute force exuded by raptors whereas I can’t get enough of the colorful, more diminutive, elegant migrants. Where I squealed with delight at every Little green bee-eater sighting, he just wanted more and more and more Steppe buzzards. Good thing we got plenty of both on this trip.

The Steppe Buzzard. Fantastic photo by Bryn de Kocks, image from here.

The Steppe Buzzard. Fantastic photo by Bryn de Kocks, image from here.

The Little green bee-eater. Image from here.

The Little green bee-eater. Image from here.

And in a way that sums up our marriage. Sometimes I get the sense that we are the Little green bee-eater and the Steppe buzzard. To imagine that there is a world that holds both of these radically, senselessly different creatures within its confines, to imagine that they somehow coexist within the same geographic range, dare I say happily. Now that’s true, if incongruous, magic. The same goes for my marriage.

 

In Memory of Bronwyn Dalziel (1991-2016)

This morning we opened the bird banding station at Tommy Thompson Park (TTPBRS) for spring season, and though I’ve been looking forward to this day for the past month, it was bittersweet.

Beloved birders, this is a post that I have put off writing for the past three days. It’s a post I never imagined I would write. It’s a post I hate having to write. Because writing this means acknowledging that my friend Bronwyn Dalziel, bird bander extraordinaire, passionate ornithologist, inspired educator, tireless volunteer, lively and good humored young woman, forever-curious scientist, preternaturally patient bird-extracting-mentor, is no longer. And the reality of it hasn’t quite sunk in.

Bronwyn Dalziel (1991-2016). In her natural element and at her happiest -- with birds in her hands.

Bronwyn Dalziel (1991-2016). In her natural element and at her happiest — with birds in her hands. Bronwyn died as the result of an automobile accident on March 27th.

The last time I saw Bronwyn was at the Toronto Ornithological Club meeting two weeks ago. All we could talk about was how excited we were for the beginning of spring banding season, how we couldn’t wait to see the warblers again. And now I wish more than anything that at some point during that conversation I had just stopped, given her a big hug and thanked her.

Bronwyn helped me extract my first bird from a mist net in August 2014. She found a gorgeous Cedar Waxwing that was just barely tangled and easy to pluck out from the net, and encouraged me to try my first extraction. Make no mistake, beloved birders, I am no banding station whiz-kid; I’m a midlife learner — slow, clumsy, and largely petrified of most living creatures. Bronwyn knew this — I had been volunteering for close to two years before I even attempted an extraction! — and gently suggested that perhaps I might want to give this bird a go. I remember shaking, terrified that I would hurt the bird or get myself tangled in the net or somehow end up eaten by the bird (I didn’t grow up with animals and I have a overactive, slightly hypochondriacal imagination), and I remember Bronwyn’s incredible patience and herculean empathy for the slightly deranged middle-aged woman that I must have resembled. And yet she never once mocked or judged my fears (or questioned the fact that I came to the banding station weekly, diligently, and solely to scribe — a job most people find completely boring). Instead, she slowly walked me through the bird-extraction process and before I could back out of the whole enterprise, I had somehow miraculously extracted a gorgeous, silky cedar waxwing!

I miss Bronwyn’s quirky sense of humor and the conversations we had about Shakespearean tragedies on our way to check nets. I miss hearing her rattle off Japanese verb forms or regale me with stories about her latest manga reading or fanfiction stories she was writing. I miss Bronwyn’s photo album full of grackles (only she could craft a narrative arc out of an album with 200+ grackle photos). I miss Bronwyn’s infectious enthusiasm about all things bird-related. I miss listening to her educate people who walked into the banding station on a weekend. I miss her teaching; so much of what I know about birds came directly from her. I miss her endless encouragement and her smile, every time I told her about yet another bird that I had managed to extract.

This morning was particularly eerie because Bronwyn’s presence was everywhere in the banding station. Her handwriting was on the whiteboard, her notes & lists were in the drawers, her walking stick by the door. I kept expecting her to walk through the door with stories of grackles, or data transcription or her master’s thesis project or the latest writing project she was working on.

I wish so much this blog post didn’t have to exist.

Thank you, dear Bronwyn. You are greatly missed.

My Two Lives

I can’t say that I think about Anton Chekhov every single day, but I do think of him most days. More specifically, I think of this passage in my favourite story, “The Lady with a Little Dog,” where he writes about the two lives of his protagonist:

He had two lives: an apparent one, seen and known by all who needed it, filled with conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his acquaintances and friends, and another that went on in secret. And by some strange coincidence, perhaps an accidental one, everything that he found important, interesting, necessary, in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, which constituted the core of his life, occurred in secret from others, while everything that made up his lie, his shell, in which he hid in order to conceal the truth — for instance, his work at the bank, his arguments at the club, his “inferior race”, his attending official celebrations with his wife– all this was in full view. And he judged others by himself, did not believe what he saw, and always supposed that every man led his own real and interesting life under the cover of secrecy, as under the cover of night.

And I have started to wonder about my two lives, which I deliberately keep separate. In my non-birding world, which occupies the bulk of my existence, I write, I play the piano sloppily, I lecture to later-life-learners about the Avant-Garde or Russian/Soviet cultural history or Russian music, I talk about Tolstoy and Chekhov and Dostoevsky and any other Russian writer my students want to discuss, occasionally I teach creative writing classes to later-life-learners, and I work with high school students, I cook dinner, I swim slowly, I buy too many books and mugs and shoes and, lately, Vermont-made woollens. I am a thank-you-card writing addict and, most recently, an obsessive aunt. And you see, none of this has anything to do with birds.

Once a week, I morph into a birding maniac. I rise before dawn, tuck my jeans into wool socks, arm myself with Tim Horton’s coffee (which my other self never drinks — she’s all about locally sourced food and shade-grown, ethical beans), and off I go in search of….ANYTHING, really. All week, I look forward to the day I get to whip out my Carl Zeiss binoculars and experience a moment of recognition when I happen upon a bird I know (sometimes I even know the Latin binomial, sometimes I can even visualize the marks on its primaries and secondaries, which I know from the banding station where I’ve likely held the bird in my hand; other times, well, I get everything wrong).

I keep the lives distinct because there is no overlap between the two. And yet. Last Saturday I gave a lecture about Stalinism and Musical Comedy (no, it’s not an oxymoron) and before the lecture started, as I hooked up my computer to the console in the lecture hall, the first image that graced the screen wasn’t my opening slide with a portrait of Stalin, but rather a photo of me holding a BUFFLEHEAD, with a delirious smile on my face.

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And just like that, the lives had merged. Who was this crazed happy person holding a duck and how was the audience supposed to reconcile this with the person who was about to give a serious lecture, replete with secondary sources, sophisticated terminology? What could possibly be the relationship between the two?

I usually keep my birdy side of myself a secret, mainly because it doesn’t fit into the larger narrative I’m trying to express. But what if I were to work on blending the two? What if I were to inject some of the enthusiasm and energy from my secret life into my apparent one? I had originally thought that the apparent, more prosaic life would suffer. But now I’m not so sure. You see, when I bird I’m entirely imperfect and I happily accept that limitation. Most of the IDs I make are misguided and just plain wrong. But for every embarrassing, glaring error, I get something right, and that moment of recognition feels infinitely better than any good performance evaluation or award or public recognition I could hope to achieve. When I’m birding I’m not after perfection or after success. Instead, I’m mesmerized by the process.

What if I were to bring more of my birding life into my writing life? What would my “apparent life” life resemble if I let my secret, truer life infiltrate it just slightly?

I think I’m willing to take the risk.