Tag Archives: ducks

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.

 

The Perfect No-Shrike Day

Beloved birders!

Some days just work, even when you wake up and the weather network says -11 degrees Celsius, and you put on an extra sweater and head out anyway. On your way you notice that it’s 6:45 am and it’s light out, and for a minute you fear you’ve read the time wrong, but no. It seems that the light has snuck back, miraculously.

Before you know it you’re standing in Lasalle Marina, staring at a Wood duck, wondering how nature created such a thing. It dawns on you that you first saw a wood duck in this very place three (or was it four?) years ago. You’ve seen other wood ducks since, and they’re all marvellous, but the Lasalle Marina wood ducks hold a special place in your heart. There’s something about site fidelity — not just the birds’ but your own as well; you’re an incorrigible creature of habit. Waterfowl abounds here: canvasback, redheads, common goldeneye, red-breasted mergansers, and a lone American coot. You even see a pair of overexcited mallards engaging in some early spring canoodling. Your feet are freezing, but you know there’s a Carolina wren singing somewhere in the thickets and you won’t stop until you see it. It turns out the repeated triplets — some say it sounds like teakettle or Germany — are sung by a stunning pair of cinnamon-colored beauties with light polka dots on the wings with a gorgeous cream-colored eye-stripe. They spent their time ducking in and out of the thickets, hopping from branch to branch. Nearby, a brown creeper makes his way up a tree-trunk, and by this point you can no longer feel your feet.

You cash in your free coffee win at Tim Horton’s (you could have won a Honda civic, but you already have a car, so what would you do with two when your husband can’t even drive? A free coffee turns out to be better than a car), eat a few timbits and off you go to Hamilton/Burlington, where you catch a glimpse of an Eastern screech owl in a cemetery, and then head up the mountain where you’re rewarded with gorgeous views of an American kestrel, killdeer, a northern mockingbird and a completely unexpected northern flicker. There were other highlights of the day, including a Peregrine falcon hanging out in its usual place on the lift bridge, a white-winged scoter, a yellow-rumped warbler and a possible eastern meadowlark.

Mind you, the day wasn’t all perfect: we saw numerous leaf-birds and branch-birds and twig-birds. At one point someone mistook the meadowlark for a rough-legged hawk. The northern shrike we chased all morning had other plans today and was nowhere to be found. And yet even in its imperfection — warts and all — there’s nowhere else I would have rather been instead.

And throughout the day, the most comforting soundtrack accompanied us: the song of a red-winged blackbird. It’s my spark bird — this raspy yelp (I think it’s an anapest) that has now become synonymous with spring.

On Finding the Duck

Beloved Birders!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Birding

Beloved birders!

There’s no better way to deal with winter than to embrace it full-on. And by embrace, I mean go on an 8 km walk looking for waterfowl and owls in Tommy Thompson park with the good people of the Ontario Field Naturalists. Had I checked the weather report, I might not have gone on the outing — -10 celsius, plus wind. I put my woollens to work (basically, two layers of everything) and set out before reading the weather forecast.

And…the weather was bracing. I met up with over 20 other intrepid, fabulously winterized birders and off we went. Highlights of the day included a gorgeous Northern Pintail duck, an American Widgeon, a King Eider (sadly not in gorgeous adult male breeding plumage, but what can you do), White-winged Scoters, and a Mockingbird that struck me as deeply confused because he was IN the water, pretending to be a duck. Birds are weird creatures. There seems to be no other way to say it.

The greatest peril of the day wasn’t freezing my extremities, as I had feared. Oh no, it was trying to bite into a rock-hard, frozen granola bar and nearly breaking my tooth in the process. But near-injuries aside, the day was a success. Three species of mergansers, a gorgeous Red-tail hawk, and the other usual winter suspects. The numbers weren’t spectacular, but it felt so good to be out in the semi-wilds of Toronto, binoculars in hand.

The beautiful, sunny winter day wasn’t without a tinge of sadness: I learned from my friend Anne-Marie that Don Barnett, fabulous birder, and the person who introduced me to the Christmas Bird Count, passed away. I didn’t know Don well, but I have fond memories of his encouragement, exemplary generosity and empathy back when I was a total novice who still couldn’t tell a Chickadee from a nuthatch.

(In other news, it appears that Anton Chekhov traveled back to Moscow from Sakhalin Island by way of Ceylon, where he acquired a mongoose with whom he lived for two years before donating the animal to the Moscow Zoo. This sheds light on a whole different side of Chekhov. The Chekhov-Mongoose terrain seems rich and positively bursting with potential meaning.)

Naked Birding

Beloved Birders!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mug Chasing

In addition to chasing birds, I’m always out looking for the perfect cup of coffee. I seem to have found a favorite at Birds and Beans café, and that’s the Nicaraguan Wood Thrush coffee blend. Armed with the coffee, I started chasing the perfect mug.

Earlier this summer, I had tea at my good friend Kerry Clare’s house and had the good fortune to drink out of a mug made by Diane Sullivan and decided right then and there that any morning coffee experience would be incomplete without a Diane Sullivan mug of my own. The stars finally aligned one weekend in September (which also happened to coincide with my birthday month—surprise!) when Sullivan exhibited her work at the Cabbagetown Craft show. So off I went in search of the mug I had held at Kerry’s house, and found a different but equally formidable mug of my own. The shape is perfect, the stencil reminds me of William Morris designs, and the size suits my daily dose of coffee consumption. My Nicaraguan Woodthrush morning coffee has found the ideal home.

My new mug by Diane Sullivan. It's empty because I drank my coffee too quickly. Wouldn't you if you were drinking out of this beauty?

My new mug by Diane Sullivan. It’s empty because I drank my coffee too quickly. Wouldn’t you if you were drinking out of this beauty?

I used to think that a mug was a mug was a mug – kind of how I had once erroneously assumed that all ducks were identical-looking creatures. How impoverished that former life of mine now seems! There is nothing wrong with buying mugs from Target, but I now think there’s something deeply amiss with the person who not only has generic made-in-China mugs but also walks by a congregation of ducks without giving them a second’s thought and operates under the assumption that they’re just ducks.

It’s hard for me to imagine my life when I hadn’t paused to consider the difference between a Bufflehead and a Mallard, or a Harlequin (Histrionicus histrionicus!) and a Wood duck! I suppose that’s what life is all about, really: the pleasure of learning to see the detail of things. And it’s a good reminder to me not to judge other hobbies or interests that I find dumbfounding: even powerlifting competitions have their share of fascinating moments, stylistic quirks, technical variations. And I say this having just sat through a 7-hour powerlifting competition in Oakville, where Mr. Birds and Words won a silver medal and lifted insane weights. His 255 deadlift would have seemed massive to me even if it had been in pounds, but the fact that the weight was in kilograms made it all the more superhuman. I’ll admit that the day might have been a colossal disaster and might have caused a rift in our marriage had I not been in the presence of the perfect latte (purchased at Kerr Street Café) and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth (purchased in the amazing Archetype Books), whose meticulous prose not only saved me from stultifying boredom, but also reminded me to pay attention to every single detail.

Thank you Diane Sullivan for elevating my morning coffee experience to new heights, and thanks to Kerry Clare for setting the ideal-mug-chase in motion in the first place.

Now if only I could find an American Woodcock…

American woodcock. My chase continues.

American woodcock. My chase for the ideal bird continues.

Happiness

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.

Pondering the Nature of Things

Sometimes the pursuit of birds is easier than one would imagine. Last week, for instance, we started off the morning by finding the illustrious and oftentimes elusive Histrionicus histrionics –otherwise known as the Harlequin duck — within minutes of arriving at Gairloch Gardens in Oakville. We spent about ten minutes marvelling at his plumage that looks as if was hand painted by a gifted stylist, and watched him swim further and further away from us, out into the depths of Lake Ontario, as if saying “that’s enough of a beautiful spectacle for now! Too many great looks at a Harlequin could render one smug! Usually you have to work much harder to find this kind of beauty!” And off he went.

We too departed soon after, though a group of Common Goldeneyes regaled us with a fabulous courtship display which involved some exquisite backward neck-stretching moves. And off we went in search of our next target bird.

Within an hour we managed to find the Neotropic Cormorant amidst about 500 Double crested cormorants. The fetching Neotropic variety is slightly smaller than the others and has white on its bill rather than the more common yellow on the double-crested. Needless to say I wouldn’t have been able to find this one on my own, but I was in the company of birdy geniuses who immediately detected a species whose size merited a second look. Meanwhile, I was busy watching the cormorants flying over the water with bits of supplies in their bill, heading toward the trees for nest-building rituals.

A few minutes later we saw our first tree swallows of the year and decided that spring had really begun in earnest. And then we decided to head to Burlington’s LaSalle Marina to see if the resident owl would put in an appearance for us. It seemed he had other plans that morning–an errand, no doubt–but instead, we caught a couple of ring-billed gulls putting on a different kind of show for us. Reproduction in birds is a curious process, often over before one even realizes what is going on, but the gulls seemed to engage in quite a process. The male mounted the female and, in a somewhat regal posture, began his courtship display which included flapping his wings in a mad frenzy and emitting guttural creaking vocalizations.

Here they are. Copulating Ring-billed gulls. Just in case you were curious. Image from here.

Here they are. Copulating Ring-billed gulls. Just in case you were curious. Image from here. Many more available on the Internet. This seems to be a favourite photo-essay topic among nature photographers. Evocative indeed.

This went on for some time before the male dis-mounted, and without another sound the gulls parted ways nonchalantly, as if nothing had ever happened and as if the two of them were total strangers. So very odd, and yet so very…dare I say human?


Small Confession

Dearest birders,

I have a small confession to make. We’ve had a long and hard winter and I’ve loved every minute of it, particularly the birding. The other day a friend innocently asked whether winter birding was better than spring birding. Her question didn’t come from sheer ignorance but rather in response to my overblown, outsized enthusiasm for birding in freezing conditions. I started laughing because of course here in southern Ontario nothing compares to the delights of spring birding, neither in terms of quantity or quality. Spring is where things are at: warblers, thrushes, sparrows, raptors, an embarrassment of riches, really.

Don’t get me wrong. Birding has skewed my internal calendar: I now live for the month of May. But it’s with a tinge of anxiety that I approach this high season because I know how short lived it is, and I also know how daunting things get when the sky alights with birds, when I’m faced with so many songs at once that all I start to hear is warbling cacophony. I’ll be honest here: spring birding intimidates me. Every year it reminds me that I haven’t quite done enough homework when I fail to ID songs of even the most common of warblers. Among many other things, Spring is all about (re)learning humility, about accepting where I’m at and working from that place, about not giving up, about (re)learning patience, about process. Although I look forward to May-madness, much of spring birding hovers around frustration–that’s the downside of sensory overload.

And here’s where winter birding enters the equation: For me, winter birding revolves around pure pleasure. The stakes are lower, I’m thrilled if I see anything, and the number of species is reduced to something more or less manageable. I’m a little ashamed of my disproportionate love of winter birding because I think my adoration might be a byproduct of my ego. I don’t feel (as much) like a bumbling beginner in the winter. I’m at the point where I can easily identify over a dozen waterfowl species, and where I can even go out by myself and actually find birds. I (almost) feel like a bona fide birder. I suppose rather than feel ashamed about it, I’ll continue to embrace it, and relish every Snowy owl sighting that’s left of 2015. (Here, by the way, is my panegyric to Winter birding, published on Ontario Nature’s blog.)

And now just might be the time to start listening to those warbler song cd’s! Maybe I am ready for spring after all!

My First Twitch

Beloved birders! I had a feeling I would one day wake up and decide to chase after a bird, but I had no idea the day would be today. There’s been a Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) in Oakville, Ontario for the past 6 weeks or so and I’ve been to see it twice, and missed it both times after standing in freezing climes for over an hour. I was pretty calm about the whole thing and just assumed that I’d see the Painted Bunting one day in its natural habitat — either in Florida or Texas or somewhere in between. But then this morning I woke up, the sun was shining (for those of you not in Southwestern Ontario, “sun shining” are two words that have not graced us that often this winter/fall; it’s been remarkably grey out here), I picked up my binoculars and decided to drive out to Oakville on a whim. I had a feeling today might be the day.

I travelled by way of Kipling Spit, where I walked for an hour and attempted to find the Harlequin Duck (in vain), but watched a Red-breasted merganser for about twenty minutes, marvelling at the duck’s phenomenal hair, and utterly amazed that this duck, which only a few years ago had seemed so mysterious to me, was now entirely familiar. What continues to surprise me the ease with which our eyes and brains grow accustomed, and the constant effort it takes to remind ourselves that the familiar is worthy of a second look and that it remains spectacular. To marvel at the things we see daily — that might be the single most important lesson birding continues to teach me. The exotic so often lies right there, buried deep in the familiar.

After a bracing 90 minute walk (it’s minus 8 degrees Celsius), I hopped in the car and drove out to Oakville. I was in no hurry to get there, partly because I feared the two scenarios that had already happened: I had stood in the freezing cold, waiting for the bunting, hoping, staring, and seeing absolutely nothing apart from a dozen ravenous chickadees.

I got to the Painted Bunting’s stomping ground only to learn from a group of photographers that the bird had been seen ten minutes prior. By this point it was getting so cold that I nearly hopped back in my car and abandoned the quest, assuming it just wasn’t meant to be. But I waited around, awestruck by a faraway scarlet Northern Cardinal that seemed to light up the bare trees around him. And then I caught up with a White-breasted nuthatch and followed him with my binoculars for a few minutes. At that point there was commotion because of a coyote down below, in the mini-ravine, and a few photographers departed in search of said coyote. And before I knew it forty minutes had gone by, a few more people had assembled (one birder said this was his 14th attempt to find the bunting!), and suddenly, out of nowhere, the Painted Bunting appeared in the brambles, hopped about from branch to branch, and flew down to the ground, where he fed happily on seeds, looking entirely otherworldly:

Painted Bunting in Oakville. Photo by Philip Waggett.

Painted Bunting in Oakville. Photo by Philip Waggett.

The bird was more magnificent than I had even imagined. Blue head, sparkly orange breast, lime-green back — it’s the kind of bird I might have drawn as a child only to be told by my parents that the bird wasn’t entirely “realistic”. How utterly magical this avian world is! And how perfect, this insistent first impulse of mine to twitch.