Tag Archives: fashion

What it takes to see a Northern Shrike

Beloved birders,

I think today’s torrential downpour was nature’s “payback” for last weekend’s birdy bonanza. Actually, today is the rare day when I should have just stayed home and believed the forecast, which called for nonstop rain all morning. But you see, last time I bailed on birds because of a poor weather forecast which never materialized, my group went and got 80+ Bohemian Waxwings. I have no reason to complain, since I spent part of the day playing with my extraordinary nephew, but still — 80 bohemian waxwings! That’s birding — can’t have it all!

So this morning I decided to venture out in spite of the rain because — who knows — it might just be another magical birding day, weather notwithstanding.

Well, it wasn’t. We started off in Milton, where we waited for a Harris’ Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula). He popped out a few times, but I missed him every time, and then once we were all sufficiently soaked and frozen, we opted to take a break for coffee and donuts. Back we came to find the Harris’ Sparrow who seemed to have other plans, and we had to content ourselves with fantastic looks at Common Grackles, House Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos. By the time a Black-capped Chickadee flew over, I nearly jumped for joy! That said, the Grackles were in tip-top shape, the metallic blueish-purple on their heads positively gleaming — it was the only patch of color I saw all morning. Always good to be reminded of the fantastic beauty of our commonest birds.

Once we were soaked for the second time this morning, we decided to head for Saltfleet to look for Snipe and a Shrike. By this point in the morning it was pouring intensely, visibility on the highway was at an all-time low, and I gripped the steering wheel until I could see my white knuckles, wondering why I hadn’t just turned back and gone home. But then Mozart’s Piano concerto 21, K. 467 came on the radio, and before I knew it I was singing along, happy to be out, driving in a wild downpour in search of a Northern Shrike. In fact, I even managed to compliment myself on how well I was driving in dismal conditions. For those of you who know me, you know how much I *loathe* driving fast in the rain. But here I was, zipping along cautiously while doing the worst possible Mozart-Karaoke, no longer wishing I had stayed home.

By the time we saw found the Northern Shrike posing for us on a fence post, I was on to Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano concerto and even though my coat was now drenched for the third time, I smiled and considered the day a success. I love the shrike’s black eye mask — like he’s wearing a slick pair of Ray-Ban shades. When we later saw the possible Wilson’s Snipe, which I couldn’t really distinguish from a pile of grassy dirt, I was humming along to a Schubert sonata, no longer noticing that I couldn’t feel my toes and feeling totally content that today might turn out to be a one-bird day.

Gorgeous Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor), otherwise known as the Butcher Bird. Photo from here.

Was it a great day? Definitely not. Do I regret going out? Definitely not. The perfect Shrike sighting proved to be worth all the frozen extremities and the fact that I smelled like a wet sheep by the time I came home (Icelandic sweater + rain = worst wardrobe choice imaginable). And you know what else? I’m no longer afraid of driving through torrential rain, so how’s that for an unexpected bonus. And besides — how often do I get to karaoke to my favorite piano concerti?

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.)

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.

A Chicken, a Flicker, Roger Tory Peterson & Me

Beloved Birders,

I must left you all hanging yesterday when I told you that I bought a painting of a chicken, and forgot to share it with you. Hope you didn’t lose sleep over it. In any event, here is the Chicken, painted by the lovely Dawn Stofer of Denman Island. You’ll be happy to know that when I purchased said bantam chicken, I was very appropriately clad in my chicken T-shirt purchased at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. Serendipity? Or maybe the chicken stars were aligned that day. In any event, here is the masterpiece which makes me very very happy:

Bantam series 18, by Dawn Stofer

Bantam series 18, by Dawn Stofer. Embarrassingly terrible photography by yours truly. 

Chickens aside, I just learned that today is the birthday of Roger Tory Peterson, bird god extraordinaire. He would have been 108 today. I think of the great RTP every time I see a Northern Flicker because I know that was his favorite bird, and it happens to be mine too (or one of my 20 favorites). I’m enamored of the way the flicker wears his cacophonous polka-dotted & striped plumage with confidence; would that I had such assurance in my choice of dress. Seriously — a woodpecker trapped in a fashionista’s body.

But what I marvel at most is that Peterson — the man who had traveled the world and seen the most exotic species imaginable — still loved the common, ubiquitous flicker best. It’s the loveliest way of reminding me that the greatest, most exciting natural world is the one right outside our window and that there’s never an excuse not to pay attention. Thanks for the reminder, RTP, and happiest of birthdays. You enriched the world of birds (and, by extension, my world, too) immeasurably.

The Bird I’m Looking At

Beloved birders,

My favorite question, when I meet other birders, is to ask them about their favorite bird. I know it’s an annoying question, but I’m always so curious! It’s also a question that I myself hate answering, because the answer changes almost every day.

My spark bird — the one that started this whole obsession — is the ubiquitous red-winged blackbird, whose shrill call and scarlet epaulets still thrill me every time I see it fly. The bird is common and reminds me of the necessity of admiring even the most habitual birds.

Another bird I can’t help but worship is the Northern Flicker, mainly for its cacophonous plumage patterns; the bird is a living fashion statement. And then there are the warblers: I adore the black-and-white warbler best because it’s the first one I remember seeing, but I also love the hooded warbler for his daring balaclava look. In fact, I think I love all the warblers — even in the fall! — for their unexpected bursts of color. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a blackburnian warbler’s fiery orange neck or the palm warbler’s unexpected rufous crown or the Canada warbler’s slightly gaudy necklace that the bird wears with nothing but pride. And then there’s the unexpected classy look of the black-throated blue warbler, that dispels all fashion advice I had once heard about never wearing navy blue and black together; the black-throated blue assures me that there could not be more faulty advice! I love the prothonotary warbler mainly for its lemony yellow that lights up everything in its midst, but I won’t tell a lie: I also love the prothonotary because I live in Southern Ontario and the bird happens to be endangered and rare in these parts, and seeing the warbler is always AN OCCASION.

I’m slowly starting to see the wisdom in not having in a favorite. Or rather, in admitting that my favorite bird is the one I’m looking at. This weekend I spent a few hours birding with my husband at Ashbridges bay. Since it was just us, we didn’t hit double-digit warbler numbers, but the birds I saw and ID’d on my own thrilled me to no end. I couldn’t take my eyes off the gorgeous Cape May warbler, with its orange-chestnut cheeks and bright yellow breast — almost like a make-up job gone terribly awry — and here the getup spelled nothing but elegance. Next up was the Nashville warbler, which I usually find borderline dull, but yesterday I finally saw the red in its crown. And the Yellow-rumped warblers — common as they are this time of year — made me smile. My husband spotted the bird that turned out to be the Blackburnian and we watched it show off its shimmering colors for us. And even the drab-ish warbling vireo grabbed my attention, with its carefully etched white eye-stripe, and its insistent call.

Warbling vireo. Not the flashiest of warblers, that's for sure, but what a thrill to know its song and recognize it by sound.

Warbling vireo. Not the flashiest of warblers, that’s for sure, but what a thrill to know its song and recognize it by sound. Check out that impressive eyebrow action, too. Image from here

There weren’t large numbers this weekend, but it didn’t matter. I’ll have time to see the other warblers. I think this migration season I’m going to take it a bit slower. After all, it’s all about the bird I’m looking at.

 

Again, for a day

It’s spring here in Toronto. The snow has been gone for weeks now, and what amazes me is how faraway winter now feels. As if I’ve forgotten how to be in winter now that spring has arrived. My boots feel enormous, my parka unwieldy, my scarves and hats unwittingly crowd me; it’s over, the weather patterns tell me. And I consent. My body has fully committed to spring.

And then my bird group decides to drive three hours north of the city, to spend the day in Algonquin park, in Boreal forest heartland, and suddenly we’re navigating snow squalls and it’s winter all over again, and I have to re-acclimatize to this season that I’ve almost entirely forgotten existed. This season that just was, a mere two weeks ago, and now feels like a distant memory. How we are all creatures of weather, it turns out.

We walked snow-covered paths, sometimes falling inwards, knee-deep, in search of a Boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus) and found not one but two! The boreal resembles the ubiquitous Black-capped chickadee, but has a browner head and greyer face and its song feels more drawn out. Put differently, the Black-capped chickadee sings a Boreal chickadee song in double time with more staccato to it.

Here's the Boreal Chickadee. Photo by Daniel Arndt from here.

Here’s the Boreal Chickadee. Photo by Daniel Arndt from here

We continued along the paths desperate for a displaying Spruce grouse. The grouse must have laughed as he no doubt saw us meandering through the woods, freezing slightly, walking single file, positioning one foot cautiously inside the footstep in front of us, and then the next, so as not to collapse into snow. He must have chuckled as we searched for him so earnestly, in silence, so convinced we were that we’d find him.

It was not to be. But to reward us for our diligence, we got a Grey Jay unexpectedly, since most of them are nesting this time of year. And a beaver (in lieu of a moose) also brightened up the day. I’ve never seen Common redpolls with as brilliant a sliver of red–almost as if they had donned red Cardinals baseball caps. Illuminated by the sun, they looked radiant. We also got a merlin, lots of Turkey vultures, Hairy and Downy woodpeckers, a somewhat athletic red-breasted nuthatch, and a glistening, iridescent common grackle.

The morning began with spring, turned rapidly to winter for the better part of a day — I was underdressed, wore the wrong boots, forgot my long underwear — before reverting back to vernal climes. Strange, disorienting climactic shifts, but it felt invigorating to re-experience winter for a day. In all honesty, now that I’ve moved on to anticipating warblers, I didn’t realized how much I missed winter!