Tag Archives: banding station

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 (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.


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.

November Trifecta

Dearest Birders,

Usually November tends to score pretty high on the blah-ness scale for me: dwindling light, onset of cold, but without the colour-frenzy of October, too early to embrace December festivities and much too early to justify a holiday card-writing extravaganza, onslaught of work, and often, to make matters worse, a dearth of fantastic birds.

Not sure what’s happening this year, but so far (and we’re well into the final week), it’s been anything but blah. Weather gods are acting utterly peculiar and we’ve had some of our most gorgeous indian summer days in mid-November! Light is, indeed, dwindling, but this year it’s not affecting me much as usual. Maybe it’s because I’m waking up earlier and catching the sunrise on my daily morning walks, and somehow that bolsters me for the day. Maybe it’s that I’ve had the honour of teaching two wonderful classes to remarkable audiences at the Royal Conservatory and Glendon College (Living and Learning in Retirement) that have offered intellectual stimulation and good cheer; more than anything, they remind me that aging isn’t just about mourning one’s youth (which, alas, we seem to do a fair bit of, here at Birds and Words headquarters), but it’s also about taking (and making) the time  to explore this strange world of ours with boundless curiosity. And that is something I’m more than happy to look forward to.

And the birds! Saturday began somewhat inauspiciously: not only were we headed to Niagara for a morning of gull watching (for those of you who have never been on a gull outing, it’s like playing Where’s Waldo for hours on end while shivering and succumbing to gale-winds and never actually finding waldo in the end because it turns out he had other plans that day), but I was convinced that I had just lost my wallet. The gulls did, indeed, turn out to be underwhelming, but the winds were nonexistent, and we ended up finding three Tufted titmice instead of the lone Kittiwake. I hadn’t seen a Tufted titmouse since I held one in my hand in October 2012 at Ruthven banding station. In a sense, the tufted titmouse is the bird that started it all. I had been afraid to hold him, but the enthusiastic volunteers at the banding station talked me off the cliff, put him in my hand and quickly snapped a photo. In the picture, I’m hovering somewhere between unbelievable joy and total terror.

It seems I’ve trained my memory to be as good a revisionist historian as it can. When I replay the moment in my mind, I craft an expansive narrative around my three seconds with a Tufted titmouse in my hand: I pinpoint those seconds as the turning point, the moment I decided I would volunteer in a banding station, the moment I wanted birds to be a regular part of my life, the moment where I knew that my calendar now gravitated around two poles–Spring and Fall migration.

After reconnecting with the titmice, we found red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, a brown creeper, white-breasted nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos. We left the Niagara region after a couple hours and headed back to Oakville where real magic awaited us. At the beach in Bronte Harbor, we saw a Red Phalarope bobbing about in the water, no more than two feet from shore! Seeing that lifer would have been enough for me — I didn’t even need binoculars, he was that close! — but we were alerted to cave swallows flying around, about 50 meters behind us! And there they were, three of them, choreographing elaborate nose-dives, just grazing the water, and flying up again. A few times they narrowly missed out heads! The cave swallows are on their way south to Texas or Mexico, but for the past three years, it seems that Oakville has become a reliable stop on their southward migratory route! And if that wasn’t enough — TWO LIFERS — we also saw a Snowy owl on the rocks in Bronte Marina.

Who would have thought that the red phalarope, cave swallow and a snowy owl trifecta could be seen in the same place? And when we returned to our parked cars, it turned out that my wallet wasn’t lost after all; it had slid under my seat. Who knew all of this excitement was possible in November?

And for those of you following my birdy interior decorating, we have a new acquisition in our living room. There’s no turning back now. I am officially one of those birders!

New Birds of America poster acquisition from PopchartLab.

Close-up of our new Birds of America poster acquisition from PopchartLab. Even Mr. Birds and Words is a (reluctant) fan. 

It turns out all sorts of magical things are possible in November!


I often think about happiness, and how difficult it is to capture it in words without sounding coy or ridiculous or trite. For me, birding consists of moments of pure happiness, joy so deeply rooted, so integral to the person I’ve become that I couldn’t find the words for it if I tried. I will keep trying to grasp at the words, but in the meanwhile, here’s a photo that pretty much says it all. I’m holding a Bufflehead at the banding station at Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station, the piece of Toronto paradise where I volunteer (with a stupid grin on my face for most of the day, even, and especially, when I’m scribing, which has turned out to be the most senselessly thrilling part of spring and fall). We banded the bird, and shortly after posing for this photo I released him by hurling him into the air over a half-freezing patch of Lake Ontario. And off he flew, out of sight.

Here I am holding a Bufflehead.

Here I am, holding a Bufflehead. Photo by Charlotte England.

And look — my hat matches the Bufflehead’s plumage! What a presentiment I must have had while picking out my outfit and rifling through my closet at 5am! As I said, senselessly happy.