Tag Archives: binoculars

And Somehow, Spring

Beloved Birders,

I won’t be the first to say that winter got the better of me this year. It wasn’t so much the cold as the ice; every step felt tentative and for every outing I went on, the payoff/effort ratio seemed skewed. Of course there were exceptions: we went to Costa Rica for a week in February and I fell in love with Motmots with a fervor that took me by surprise, so much so that one morning, when marveling at the tennis-raquet-like tail feathers of a Turquoise-browed Motmot, I actually pushed my husband out of the way to get a better look, which is a level of annoying I hadn’t stooped to before (the slightly more rarefied Toddy Motmot failed to arouse the same level of fervor, and I merely gazed in well-behaved, silent reverence). Basically, in Costa Rica, I became a birding beast. It wasn’t always a pretty sight and I wasn’t always my best self.

I spent most of the winter lamenting the fact that the Northern Shrike kept eluding me. And then, in late March, I went out to Tommy Thompson Park with my genius birding friend Sarah, and the stars were aligned. First I asked for a loon, and one appeared within a few meters of us at the Unwin Street bridge. Then I smugly requested a Canvasback, which also materialized on the little island in cell 2, and finally, throwing caution to the wind, I rashly demanded a Northern Shrike, fully expecting nothing in return. To this day, I have no idea why the bird gods listened, but they did, and the shrike appeared, as if on command, sitting high atop a bush, surveying its territory, and I watched him until I tired of watching him. The moment I put my binoculars down, he too seemed bored with posing and swept low into the adjacent bushes and was gone. To say the moment was magical is no exaggeration.

In between early signs of spring and riotous Red-winged Blackbird songs, I spent hours in the hospital with my grandmother, in what turned out to be a protracted 6-week goodbye. She was 99, lived a great, eventful life, but even so, it all felt too soon. I found myself hovering between the twilight of a life and the exciting beginning of another, brimming with light, song, spring, migratory restlessness. Early April was a strange time. Even stranger, perhaps, was the song of four Killdeer, as they accompanied my grandmother’s internment, squealing louder than our mourner’s Kaddish, and serenaded her from this world into the next.

And now I’m back at the bird banding station two mornings a week, scribing, extracting little by little (emphasis on the little), bearing witness to the birds as they trickle in, miraculously on schedule as always, and no matter how hideous the news — and it only seems to get worse in these parts — the birds make me smile. Today, I even got a lifer, which is happening less and less often in Ontario — a White-eyed Vireo. Though I’d never seen one before, I knew exactly what it was when my friend extracted it, which means that all the reading and rereading and (horrible) drawing I’m doing is amounting to something.

I have a horrible secret to share with you. Every year, I fear I’m going to lose interest in birds. I’m often a serial beginner (what haven’t I tried? pottery, bookmaking, yoga, pilates, cycling) and have been known to give up when my skill-level starts to plateau. Every fall and winter there are days when I head out into the field and see a fraction of what people report on eBird, not for lack of trying but for lack of skill. Or there is the inevitable embarrassment of mistaking a Red-necked Grebe for a Common Loon, or a White-winged Scoter for a female Common Goldeneye, when I start to wonder whether my energy might not be spent elsewhere, and the fact that I still don’t really understand moult and get the primaries and secondaries confused and can’t distinguish the lesser from the greater coverts. The day in February (these thoughts always strike me in February) when I thought maybe this wasn’t really my thing after all, I saw a Dark-eyed Junco, the commonest of winter birds. His cute, chubby body with a sweet pink bill made me smile when I least expected to, not only because I could correctly ID him, but also because I knew exactly which field markings to look for.

I may not bird forever, but I have no plans of quitting any time soon.

Birding, Even When It’s Too Cold

Beloved Birders!

It was cool yesterday. Cold and damp and windy and icy and I nearly stayed home. Thank heavens my birding friend Martha is almost as crazy as I am, and when she said she was prepared to brave the ice, I couldn’t exactly cancel. And I’m so glad I didn’t.

There’s always a moment on cold days when I contemplate staying home. When I couldn’t be bothered to put on my long underwear, my extra pairs of woollen socks, and all the other winter accoutrements, and when I’d rather just sit in my recliner, reading and sipping my coffee. That moment of hesitation is often deadly. It’s the same moment of hesitation that I fight against every morning when I wake up to swim and it’s dark out and cold and the last thing I want to do is jump in the water and start swimming laps. But I do it anyway, and once I’m in the water, I wonder who that person was who had hesitated, so happy am I to be swimming back and forth and back again.

All that to say the world is always better (from my vantage point) after I’ve been birding. And so off I went. The paths in the park were covered in ice, the conditions were treacherous, but we walked slowly and our perseverance (or foolishness) paid off. We saw a Snowy Owl reclining on the marina, twisting her head this way and that. I saw my first House Finches of the month (not that I keep monthly lists), along with American Tree Sparrows, Northern Cardinals and several Downy Woodpeckers. We walked around the park reminiscing about spring and remembering which birds we had seen where: we paid tribute to the culvert where we’d had the Virginia Rail in April, and the pond where the Least Bittern posed for exquisite photos, and the tree where I saw my first Blackpoll warbler just mere seconds after expressing a desire to see one, and the path where I happened upon six American Woodcocks in one place, and the open area where the Sora hung out, and the bushes where the Nelson’s Sparrow had been seen. So much of birding is connected with specific memories of places (and trees), and suddenly it felt like the park was coming alive, my feet felt less cold and it seemed that spring wasn’t so far off after all.

And just when things couldn’t get any better, we saw a Long-eared Owl hiding out in a tree, watching us from his perfectly camouflaged perch, laughing silently to himself. I couldn’t tell you if he was really laughing or not, but it seemed like he must have been. After all, isn’t it ridiculous to watch birders looking up and down trees for a sign of you, staring right at you but not seeing you? On second thought, I’m pretty sure he couldn’t be doing anything but laughing. The things we humans will do, just to get a good look.

I did have to take a half-hour-long shower upon coming home to properly thaw. But the birding in the cold was so very worth it.

Raptors Galore

Beloved Birders,

Devoted readers of my blog might remember that eight years ago (!) I visited Amherst Island, Ontario for the first time. But that was before I knew how to dress for birding and, perhaps more significantly, before I had any interest in raptors. So what I remember most acutely from the day was freezing feet. The entire day took on the color of freezing feet, and if you’re not familiar with that particular hue in the crayola color box, it’s a morose grey with occasional pain flashes of the scarlet variety.

This year’s trip to Amherst was a vast improvement, not only because of my Sorel boots that apparently withstand temperatures down to -40 (but that is nonsense because it was only -7 and I was still a bit cold, but nothing extravagant). What made this trip infinitely more satisfying — apart from the fantastic company — was that I knew my raptors better. So when we saw dozens of Northern Harriers practically grazing out in the field and I saw the white spot on their rump, I knew exactly what I was looking at. And when a Northern Harrier scared off a group of 30 Common Redpolls, I couldn’t help by smile. I’d been trying to see redpolls all winter, and finally, here they were, so close they nearly invaded my personal space. I managed to find a few Bald Eagles, which thrilled me to now end, and winked at a gorgeous Red-bellied Woodpecker. I wanted to apologize to the Downy, whom I didn’t have time to properly acknowledge or appreciate, as he (actually it was most definitely a SHE) made an appearance just as I was fawning all over the red-bellied. I saw my first Rough-legged Hawks of the season, and watched a Red-tailed Hawk devour a vole in slow-motion. Voles pretty much littered the terrain. So much so that the Red-tailed Hawk looked a bit nonplussed about the whole enterprise and dug into the vole rather sluggishly. We also saw a total of five Snowy Owls and three Northern Saw-whets, most of whom were busy chilling or sleeping, or a blend of the two. I love how birds give not a hoot (pun intended) for us (unless we’re disturbing them) — it’s a comforting thought. Even walking on icy surface, terrified I’d fall, trip over my binoculars and break every bone in my body, for three hours didn’t detract from the spectacular day. And as if the birds weren’t great enough, the sun shone brilliantly from morning till evening. We ended the day with a magical ferry right back to shore, back to Millhaven, back to reality, where the ferry ploughed through the ice majestically, as the sun slowly set and the light turned from bright blue to sparkling pinkish-purplish to never-ending glowing indigo.

On Blogging and Birding and Me

Beloved Birders,

I started this blog a few months after I started birding because I realized that the only way I can make sense of birds and this strange world of birding and birders is if I write about them, because writing is just about the only thing I know how to do. (Not quite true: I’m a gifted sleeper, too. And eater. And I know a few languages. And I can play the piano at a very moderate pace. I can almost do a pirouette in adult ballet class, and a few years ago I came close to becoming a mean machine on the badminton court. So, I shouldn’t sell myself short. I am nothing if not polyvalent.)

For the past couple of years I haven’t been posting much because I’ve been working on a book about becoming an unintentional birder, and the project looks a whole lot more book-like than it did even a year ago, so I’m proud of that. It is still a ways from becoming a for-real book, but that too is part of the fun.

This morning, I went birding even though it was -13, winds pounded my face, and I didn’t last too long by the water. But nevertheless, I wandered into some shrubs and came across 12 Northern Cardinals chasing one another, acting frankly a little too randy for the weather. There were just as many Black-capped Chickadees darting about without paying me any heed. One nearly landed on my nose. I’ve always wondered about those photos people post: selfies w/chickadee on one’s head. It turns out most of them probably aren’t even staged: a chickadee is likely to land on anything, especially if there’s food in the picture.

When the wind wasn’t bossing me around, I also managed to see a decent, though not spectacular, assortment of ducks, including Long-tailed, Redhead, Greater Scaup (ha! it might have been lesser — I haven’t gotten that far in my bird skills yet), Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Common & Red-breasted Mergansers. And as I watched this scene, I realized that I’ll likely be blogging about birds for many years yet. As long as I’m still learning something new and still asking questions and still looking up birds in my field guide and still misidentifying so much of what I see and still marvelling at plumage, I’ll be writing about it.I’ve long been inspired by Kerry Clare, my favorite blogger, and how she uses her blog as a space to process the world around her (and write fantastic book reviews). More than anything, I like the way she stresses the in-progress/in-process-ness of blog. It’s so very much like birding, really: you go out there, no matter the weather, and what you end up seeing will, without a doubt, surprise you if you’re open to noticing what’s in front of you. And slowly, strangely, miraculously, one sighting will inform another, and before you know it a narrative thread will emerge.

In other words, I’ll be blogging about birds until I’m dead.

So thanks for reading. Thanks for commenting. There are exciting things on the horizon, both birding-wise and travel-wise and writing-wise.

The Bird in front of You

Beloved Birders,

Every winter at about this time, I get desperate for a Northern Shrike. I haven’t yet figured out whether it’s hormonal or not, but every year in mid-January, the intense craving for a shrike sets in and there’s nothing I can do to stop myself. This morning was brutally cold. I suppose that if I were made of hardier stuff, I would have walked the length of Tommy Thompson Park anyhow, which might have put me in the path of not only one, but two Northern Shrikes, if reports are to be trusted. But when woke up this morning, I realized that a four-five hour walk was not in the cards, and headed out to my second-favorite park in Toronto, Colonel Sam Smith, at the juncture where Kipling Avenue meets Lake Ontario.

About five years ago, before I even knew of the existence of a Northern Shrike, I saw one in that park. I had pointed out movement to my bird guide, and initially, he dismissed the grey bird as a mockingbird, but upon taking a closer binocular view, he pronounced it a shrike, and proceeded to tell me all about this predatory songbird, known in some circles as the butcher bird. I had been impressed, but those were the early birdy days, long before I started reading up on the birds I saw in the field. A year after that first sighting, I once again happened upon the bird in the same locale, and this time he displayed textbook behavior: we watched as the Northern Shrike impaled a vole on a thorn and proceeded to dig right in and devour the rodent. No empathy whatsoever for the vole; the shrike showed us who’s boss and reminded us, once again, that there is nothing cute whatsoever about the avian kingdom. Life is ruthless.

Though there have been no shrike reported in the park recently, I still look for one every time I’m there and this morning was no exception. I took some time to admire the luscious female Snowy Owl reclining on the dock, surveyed the duck situation (meagre offerings early this morning) and then saw a grey bird flap its wings and fly from one tree to the other. I knew it was a Northern Mockingbird before I even saw it — the flash of white in its feathers and the long tail — but for a second I allowed myself to dream. What if this was the bird about which I’d been summoning the higher forces for an intercession?

It turned out to be a mockingbird. So did the next grey specimen. By this point I realized there would be no shrike for me this morning, and I started sulking in the freezing cold. I walked all the way out to Whimbrel point, still annoyed that I hadn’t seen much of anything, when I heard a few chip notes and saw movement in the small pine trees. Not a shrike, of course not, but two Golden-crowned Kinglets bopping around, hopping from branch to branch, feeding upside down, completely oblivious to the temperature and the fact that it’s a bit late for them to be hanging out in the Toronto area. I marvelled at their hardiness, their resolve, and took in the beauty of a tiny, 5.5g mid-winter kinglet. And I stood there, freezing while I listened to their notoriously high-pitched chip notes, which older birders often lament no longer being able to hear. Slowly I let go of the non-sighting of the Northern Shrike and let myself enjoy the bird in front of me. A sunny day, high-pitched chips that I can recognize, a bird I’d once mistaken for delicate on account of its weight and cute appearance turned out to be one of the fiercest creatures around.

In Lieu of Nostalgia: Scoter Trifecta

Beloved Birders!

Those of you who have been reading this blog assiduously since the early days (mom!) might remember that in November of 2011, I travelled back to Providence, RI, to revisit the scene of my undergraduate days. You might remember that I woke up at 7am and ran straight to my old dorm and wept in front of one of the janitors, bemoaning the fact that time had passed. You might also remember that I nearly broke down in the Blue Room — my old favorite cafe on campus — because their chocolate chip cookie recipe hadn’t changed since I graduated in 1997 and just the smell of it brought back my youth in technicolor. The trip was made all the more strange because my beloved husband categorically refused to partake in my nostalgia-rituals, and I had to confront the passage of time and my own propensity toward mythologizing my past all alone. And so I sat there on the steps of Sayles Hall, reliving as much as I could about the four years I spent at Brown, and feeling very much like Masha in The Three Sisters, who says, “I’m in mourning for my life.”

I undertook a similar trip this past November, only this time I was wise and left Mr. Birds and Words at home. He had little interest in revisiting Princeton with me, and I didn’t really want to inflict another nostalgia-overdose on anybody. So off I went, this time for US Thanksgiving, to see my dear friends in Hopewell, NJ. I spent an afternoon on campus, not at all shocked that Princeton had gotten over my departure in 2004, but I must admit that I was stunned at how well everybody had coped without me! College campuses are a funny thing: they are basically an idyll that lives according to its own time-space continuum. Nothing there ever changes. And yet here I was, 14 years older, still the same, but not. I took a minute to sit in the East Pyne courtyard, and realized that the last time I had sat there was the morning of my dissertation defence in September 2004.

I saw a great show at the art museum — about nature and the nation — and wondered why I hadn’t spent more time in that museum as a graduate student. I stood planted in front of an enormous Diebenkorn painting and thought that such a view might have been the answer to so many of my graduate school woes.

I could make a career out of inhabiting nostalgia. I could teach workshops on the art thereof. My imaginative capacities for reliving long-gone moments are extraordinary. Would that one could market such a skill.

And then, before things got entirely out of hand, we left campus and drove back to Hopewell, where everything was sufficiently new that didn’t have anything to relive and had to just enjoy the present moment. But what really cured my nostalgia was going birding the next day with Rick Wright. I’ve known Rick’s wife for years — we met in grad school — but this was my first time meeting Rick himself. We drove out to Sandy Hook, NJ, and immediately upon arriving, I saw a trifecta of scoters in large numbers: White-winged, my favorite Surf, and Black Scoter. And though I’d seen all three already, it takes a considerable amount of work to get all three in the same binocular view in Southern Ontario, so this was a thrill. And then I turned around and saw an even stranger sight: across the water was Coney Island with its rollercoasters and ferris wheels, and not far from that was Sheepshead Bay and Avenue Z in Brooklyn, where my grandfather had once lived, and where I had spent a few nights in 1985, when he gave me a silver glass-holder that I still have. This was as close as I’d ever get to Coney Island, at least for the foreseeable future. The day also included a lifer for me: a Northern Goshawk perched on a brach. I originally misidentified it as a Red-tailed Hawk, but the intensely barred breast gave it away.

On my way back to Toronto, I wondered why I hadn’t crumbled the way I had seven years ago, when revisiting Rhode Island, and realized — it must have been the birds. With binoculars in my hand, I was suddenly seeing a different New Jersey, an entirely new and fascinating place I hadn’t even imagined existed. And after a few hours staring at the birds, I found myself happy to be exactly where I am. In this place.

On (Failing and) Seeing a Virginia Rail

Beloved Birders!

Failure seems to be having its moment. Everyone seems to be flaunting their failures in the spirit of greater transparency, which is indeed important, especially in the climate of social media, which often only isolates success stories, as if forgetting how much hard work and, yes, failure happens behind the scenes. Anyhow, one could even say that this blog, Birds and Words, is a pioneer in failure, because for every bird I see and ID with certainty, there are dozens that I fail to see or misidentify. In other words, if you’re not failing, it probably means that you’re not doing much of anything.

Which brings me to the topic of the Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola), which I saw this morning at Colonel Samuel Smith Park, shortly before 8am. I watched him weave in and out of the reeds, stealthily as is his wont, and then followed him (with my binoculars) right into a clump of mud, where he sat, camouflaged, for the next twenty minutes. I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out if I’d just happened upon him in the mud, so perfectly was his camo outfit, but since I’d traced his trajectory, I knew he was there and had his exquisite red bill to myself for a thrilling quarter of an hour. Long enough to send my friend Martha a text. Long enough to call my husband with the good news. Long enough to forget that I’d been here five days ago with absolutely no luck. That is, long enough to forget my initial failure.

Virginia Rail. Photo from here.

You see last Friday, determined to see the rail — a notoriously skittish bird that I’ve only seen once, and even then, with the trusted help of my bird guru — I headed out and felt pretty smug to have bypassed rush hour completely. I woke early, made myself coffee and breakfast to go, and off I went in search of the Virginia Rail that was “next to the culvert.” The only problem was that I didn’t know a culvert was exactly, so I had to call my friend Martha and ask her. The next problem is that when Martha gave me directions to the culvert, she forgot to mention that the park has not one but at least three culverts, and so of course, as luck would have it, I spent 40 minutes searching for the bird at the wrong culvert. I did end up finding the correct culvert thanks to the good fortune of meeting another kind birder who told me that I’d be waiting an awfully long time if I stayed where I was…once at the correct culvert, I waited another half hour at which point I thought I’d buy myself a donut. And then I felt for my wallet only to realize that I’d left it at home, which wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but it kind of was because I had errands to run and couldn’t even pay for parking (let alone run the errands without said wallet). So I said goodbye to the promise of a Virginia Rail, and to my beloved culvert, and raced home, this time timing my drive with the thick of rush hour. I returned home feeling particularly dejected because I knew that heavy rains were expected and I didn’t think the rail would survive the storm…Some days just aren’t meant for birding, I guess.

But that isn’t true either. Because, you see, just as I was lamenting my Virginia Rail fail, I suddenly saw a pair of Blue-winged Teal! The same teal I’d been lamenting not seeing a few weeks ago at Tommy Thompson Park when we could have walked further, but I sensed that Mr. Birds and Words was tired and we decided to turn back. Suddenly, out of nowhere, my beloved Blue-winged Teal!

I wasn’t ready to give up on the rail, and so today I tried again. Had I not seen it, I would have tried tomorrow and the next day too, because when I get something into my head I can be quite stubborn about it. And I really wanted a Virginia Rail on my spring list. That is a complete lie. The truth of the matter is that I really wanted to prove to myself that I could find a Virginia Rail by myself.

I gave away the punch line in the title. Of course I saw the rail. It was there waiting for me, illuminated by sunshine — our first glimpse of sun in over five days — and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. But then it only got better: I walked toward the creek and saw not one but three American Woodcocks (Scolopax minor) waddling, flying haphazardly, alighting and flying off again, a Horned Grebe, a Brown Creeper (FOY!), numerous Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a Common Raven, Hermit Thursh, Black-crowned Night Herons, Eastern Phoebes and likely one of my last great looks at waterfowl (unless winter never ends and the ducks decide not to moult and they stick around forever….) And even though it doesn’t feel like Spring yet, I know it’s here because I got dive-bombed by at least a dozen Tree Swallows.

So….here’s to failure. And more failure.

 

The Worst Photo of the Best Barred Owl I’ve Ever Seen

Beloved Birders,

Back in the dark ages, before I’d ever looked closely at a bird, it used to be much easier to travel. I would do my research, read some guide books, perhaps a cultural history of whatever place I was headed to, draw up a list of things to do, see, eat, and experience and off we’d go. But now that birds have entered into the equation, I constantly find myself torn. Museum or sewage lagoon? Art gallery or maintenance yard in some out-of-the-way park that happens to also double as a warbler trap come spring? And now it always feels like I’m missing something.

Nevertheless. We persist, even in our imperfect state. Our trip to Washington, DC was a delight — both on the art and the bird front (and, most unexpectedly, also the Afghan food front — if you go to DC, do eat at LAPIS and do order their dumplings and I guarantee your life will be forever altered. I’ve been cooking Afghan dishes ever since we returned and there’s no looking back.) On all my previous trips to DC, I didn’t venture much beyond the National Gallery — one of my favorite places in the world (we did take a full half-day to reconnect with Vermeer, Van Eyck, Manet, Rothko, et al.). But this time, we also ventured further afield to  the Hirshhorn, where I marvelled at Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s installations, filled with genius & humor & terrific sense of irony; the Phillips Collection (holy Klee! need I say more?); the surprisingly wonderful Kreeger Museum; and the stunning Hillwood museum, home of the astonishing Marjorie Merriweather Post who loved Russian art, icons, porcelain, Faberge eggs and schnauzers. We even made it to the gorgeous gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, and the cherry blossoms put on quite a show for us, as did the magnolias. Coming home to Toronto with its freezing rain felt like a culture shock on many levels.

We also ventured out to the National Zoo, where we saw a Bald Eagle fly over the caged eagles — a rather curious juxtaposition. I wonder if the caged ones saw their erstwhile friend and relative flying over and I wonder if they were jealous of his freedom. We went for long walks in Rock Creek Park, where I saw so many Tufted Titmice I nearly got bored of them. I saw my first-of-the-year Winter Wren, Eastern Phoebe and Hermit Thrush, and just when I started to lament the fact that I had been privileging art over birds, my husband noticed a dark lump high up in a tree. He had been seeing squirrel nests everywhere and we didn’t make much of the “dark lump” comment. But I looked anyhow and it turned out to be a Barred Owl! How is it that my husband, who specializes in naked-eye birding ONLY, manages to find the best birds? I’ll admit that I got a tiny bit competitive (not my finest moment), but pretty soon I let go of my extreme pettiness and enjoyed the fabulous up-close Barred owl experience! Needless to say, my picture didn’t do it justice. Actually, looking at this photo, I can’t even find the owl. But maybe you’ll be able to.

This photo perfectly illustrates why I so rarely photograph birds. I swear there’s a Barred Owl in there somewhere. And it was a ferocious beast of a bird. In the best possible sense.

And there he sat, his back to us, showing off his unmistakable brown and white barred plumage. A few minutes later, he began doing his formidable neck-twists, and then sat there for about ten minutes with one eyed closed and the other staring right at us. A sight to behold. If it hadn’t started to get dark, we probably would have stayed for hours more. It’s strange that my only material evidence of the Barred Owl also happens to be the worst photo I’ve ever taken. Yet knowing that we found the owl on our own when we were least expecting it, and that I could ID it with perfect certainty made it the best Barred Owl I’ve ever seen.

I also saw Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Eastern Towhees, and a phenomenal Northern Mockingbird who regaled us with a series of about twenty different songs, like an ipod on shuffle mode. We also had Northern Flickers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Downies galore. Not great in terms of numbers, but it turned out to be one of the most surprising and exciting urban birdy adventures.

And here I am at the National Gallery in front of Katharina Fritsch’s puzzling and extraordinary cockerel. It grew on us and left us smiling for days. And how awesome is that when my birding life and my art-loving life coincide perfectly?

It Begins With an American Woodcock

Beloved Birders!

Spring season began at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station this morning. Actually, it began yesterday, but today was my first official day. I hadn’t realized how excited I was to start scribing until I couldn’t fall asleep last night; all I could think of was the possibility of starting the day off with a woodcock.

And sometimes, beloved birders, dreams really do come true. We drove into the banding station to the accompaniment of peents and our first — and most exciting — bird of the day was indeed none other than an American Woodcock (Scolopax minor):

Happiest faces at the banding station, with an American Woodcock. Left to right: Sarah Bradley, yours truly, and Mike. Photo by Sarah Bradley.

By the time daylight made its definitive appearance, the woodcocks were gone, but since we open mist nets a half hour before sunrise, we managed to catch this beauty. His eyes are perched so high on his head that he manages to see both forward and backwards at the same time. Such a peculiar, pouty little thing, and so much smaller than I had imagined — really it’s no larger than a robin! But look at our ecstatic faces on the photo! Who doesn’t love a woodcock? Could you imagine what we would have looked like had we seen the bird’s super-sexy aerial dance where the male American Woodcock flings himself into the air and flies in robust circles before letting out his signature peent sounds and plummeting to the ground?

The other birds paled in comparison, but it was still a fantastic day. I was so happy to be back at the station that even the Common Grackles glistened more than ever before and the American Tree Sparrows made me smile because I had no trouble distinguishing them from the Song Sparrows. And the lone Ring-necked Duck amidst dozens of Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneyes and White-winged Scoters made for great early morning company.

Happy Spring! It’s going to be a magnificent one.

Looking Forward

Beloved Birders,

This weekend, my friend C had a few of us over for brunch, and shortly before we left she asked us what we were looking forward to this spring/summer. And although I have a few trips planned that I’m excited about and a lecture series that I’m working hard toward, the first thing out of my mouth was, “the birds — they’re coming back!”

Sometimes it’s that simple. The fact that they’ll be back right on schedule, that I will see my first (FOY = first of the year) Yellow-rumped Warbler, followed (or immediately preceded) by the Pine Warbler, and shortly thereafter the battalion of Black-and-white, Yellow, Magnolia, Nashville, American Redstart, Black-throated-blue, Black-throated Green, and with Blackpoll warblers rounding out the season later in May. It all happens so quickly — over a period of 6-8 weeks over two dozen colorful songbirds transform Toronto into a hotbed of birdy activity. I sleep less in April and May than other months of the year, largely because I’m desperate to get as many hours of birding in as humanly possible. Because these weeks sustain me for the rest of the year.

Next week the bird banding station opens, and though early April starts off slowly, things will move into high gear by the middle of the month. And along with the warblers come the swallows and sparrows and thrushes and soon the rattle of the Belted Kingfisher will accompany me on my walks in the local park and for about two months I’ll be the happiest sleep-deprived person in the city.

It’ll be sad to see the ducks depart, and I’m still hoping for a Surf Scoter before I bid them all adieu, but in the event that I don’t see one, it won’t be the end of the world. I’ve already pulled out my Warbler Guide and have started reconnecting with Larkwire and trying to memorize as many birdsongs as I can. It’s an uphill battle, there will be ample misidentifications, embarrassing mistakes made in the field, but I’m excited about that part of the learning process as well.

It’s spring! The days are longer, the birds are heading northbound, and somehow the geographical stars have aligned, for once in my life, and put me in the centre of it all (well, that’s a slight exaggeration; I suppose if I lived in Leamington, at the edge of Point Pelee, I’d technically be in the epicentre of it all, but I’m trying to shed my perfectionist skin these days, so I don’t think epicentre is exactly what I’m after, either). Could I have really asked for anything better?