Tag Archives: humility

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.

 

Superb Owl

Beloved Birders!

Today, Kenn Kaufman posted this image on Twitter:

I think it’s apt. Though I have no intention of watching Superbowl, I’m always up for a Superb Owl, but this year I did it a day early. Yesterday, I went out to Tommy Thompson Park and spent some quality time with my two favorite Toronto Snowy Owls. One waited for me on the pier of the marina, and the other was a few kilometres further down the peninsula. Seeing these owls every weekend this winter is as close as I’ve ever come to having pets. Seriously! When they whip their heads around, I keep thinking they want to tell me something, and I’m starting to take the winks personally.

In any event, seeing the Snowies is, by far, the highlight of my week and I’ll be sad when they head back north this spring. But by then the warblers will be back, and I’ll hear the sounds of Killdeer, and my beloved Red-winged Blackbirds will flaunt their guttural conk-a-ree song, and by that point I’m sad to say that I will have long forgotten about the Snowy Owl…

However, in non-superb owl news, I went out and saw a bunch of Robins, a few chickadees, a gorgeous red-tailed hawk, blue jays, a downy woodpecker and a couple song sparrows. Not exactly thrilling, but entirely comforting. After all, I can’t expect to have an owl sighting every day…or maybe that’s something I should aspire to? Why not make every day a Superb Owl day?

Interview with the Afternoon Birder

Beloved Birders!

You may already be a fan of The Afternoon Birder through Laura’s stunning photographs and also through her recent decision make 2018 her Big Year of Birding Reading. I’ve been following Laura since she started her fantastic blog a year and a half ago and have loved living vicariously through her (intrepid) birding travels. A self-proclaimed Bohemian Waxwing whisperer, I’ve become fascinated by her uncanny ability to attract hundreds of my favorite nemesis birds wherever she goes. What can I say – she’s just that cool. Laura joined me for this conversation via email from her current home in Fernie, BC. All photos in the interview by Laura. Please visit her blog to see more of her work.

I’ll be honest with you. Bohemian Waxwings are my nemesis bird. I saw a flock about six years ago, but that was before I really started birding seriously and I had no idea what I was looking at. Now that I am desperate to see one, they’re nowhere to be found. Every time I get on Twitter, I seem to see another one of your awesome photos or videos of you surrounded by Bohemian Waxwings! How do you do it?

No whispering skills required in Fernie. I see large flocks of 100-500 individuals almost every day here. They are abundant at the moment! In Ottawa (where I’m from), they are more difficult to see. I use eBird to search for recent sightings and I get out in the field as much as I can. The more you head out birding, the higher your chances will be (if they are in your area).

How did you become interested in birds?

My Mum is an avid bird-watcher so I grew up with it. Our family would often take walks in nature and my Mum would point out the birds she saw. Over time I was able to identify birds myself. Birding was always a big part of my childhood, I can’t really remember a time without it!

What do you love most about birds?

I love the variety of species, behaviors and habits and that you are never done learning. Birding is always a challenge and, even for experts, there are always new things to discover.

About birding?

I also like that birding gets you outside and exploring places you normally wouldn’t go. It also keeps you in the moment and in tune with the natural world.

You speak openly about the challenges of living with a chronic medical condition on your blog. How has birding helped you cope with life changes?

Birding has been a godsend for me since being diagnosed with a dizziness condition. I don’t know what I would be doing without it! It’s the perfect activity because you can do as little or as much as you want. If I’m having a bad day, I can enjoy watching birds on my feeder or I can edit my photographs. On a better day I can get outdoors and have a purpose. It keeps me occupied, challenged and gets me out into nature.

I also enjoy the social aspect of birding. Having a chronic medical condition can be isolating, but I’ve met so many great people from birding. Everyone I’ve met has been very understanding of my limitations and it’s great to get out in the field with people for a couple of hours to break up my day.

Osprey, photographed on Sanibel Island, Florida
“I like this photograph because it represents the beauty of Florida wildlife photography. The sun is always shining and many bird species allow you get much closer than in other places.This particular individual was hanging around a fishing pier, no doubt looking for a handout. It was perched up on a post so I took the shot from below as it gave me a curious glance. I love that you can see the details in its eyes.”

You’re a birder and a photographer. How does one influence/enhance the other?

I consider myself a birder first and a photographer second, but it’s a tough balance between the two. I only took up photography three and a half years ago when I was diagnosed with a dizziness condition and had to give up my career. I saw my Mum’s superzoom camera on a shelf, I picked it up and started taking photographs of the birds in the backyard. I was amazed by the quality this little camera could achieve. Since then, photography has become a passion of mine, but I never forget my birding roots.

When I head out in the field, I tend to focus on either photography or birding. It can be difficult to focus on both at the same time. If I’m with a group or birders and the goal is to see as many species as possible, there isn’t time to frame the perfect shot. I still enjoy the rush of trying to get a photograph under pressure, but it is a different style of photography. I also think that being a good birder helps make you a better photographer. Knowing the species and how to find them is half the battle with photography!

When I want to focus purely on photography, I tend to go out on my own or with one other person. If you find a cooperative bird to photograph, you stay in one spot (sometimes for ages) to get as many great photos as possible. I think a positive thing that photography brings to the table is it forces you to slow down and enjoy the bird in front of you. You notice these small details that often get lost when you’re birding.

I have a somewhat personal question for you. My partner isn’t a birder; actually a bird guide in Arizona affectionately labeled him a S.O.B. (spouse of a birder), and sometimes it’s a challenge to convince him that birds are worth waking up at 5am. Or rather, I’ve had to perfect my creative, covert manipulation tactics. Have you been able to convert your partner to birding?

I haven’t fully converted him to birding and I don’t think I ever will! We met before I became dizzy and in those days I wasn’t very interested in birding. Nowadays birding is my favourite activity so it’s a been a big transition for us. Luckily my partner is very understanding and he doesn’t hate birding so I will take that as a win! He will come out with me in the field and he likes certain species, like birds of prey and jays. He also takes pride in trying to spot a bird before me! One time when I was away, he borrowed my camera and got a great photograph of a Fox Sparrow that I had been trying (and failing) to photograph. I had to hear about how great a photographer he was for weeks after.

I can totally relate. My husband still won’t let me live down the time he spotted a Snowy Owl before I did! Every time he sees movement in a tree and I don’t, he assures me it was probably a rare bird sighting that I missed because I wasn’t paying attention! How do you manage making travel fun & inspiring for you, birdwise, while also leaving room for other activities that might be more his-cup-of-tea?

Trips are a challenge, but we try to find a balance. Last year we did a ski trip to Whistler and we agreed to do 3 days of birding in Vancouver beforehand. I knew by the end of the 3 days he would have had enough, but in Whistler I didn’t expect him to do any birding. It was a great compromise.  

Who are some of the birding mentors/influences in your life?

First and foremost my Mum is the biggest birding mentor and influence in my life. Without her, I probably would never have started birding. She bought me my first field guide and taught me the vast majority of what I know about birds.

A second birding mentor in my life is friend and professional guide Jon Ruddy of Eastern Ontario Birding. Jon goes miles above and beyond what is expected of a bird guide. When I wanted to work on my shorebird ID skills last fall, he sent me literature to read, shorebird ID quizzes and helped me identify individuals I was struggling with. His knowledge, expertise and willingness to help made it so much easier to raise my birding skills to the next level.

Young Hooded Merganser photographed at Mud Lake in Ottawa
“Both Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks breed in this location and on this particular day I was lucky enough to catch a brand new batch of ducklings come to shore. These species are cavity nesters so the ducklings seem to appear from nowhere! What is even more interesting is this Hooded Merganser was being raised by a Wood Duck mother. Hoodies will lay their eggs in Wood Duck’s nest cavities, leaving the Wood Ducks to raise their young. It’s fascinating to watch the group together because Hoodies are diving ducks and Wood Ducks are dabblers. The Hooded Merganser babies are still able to learn to dive, even though they are being raised by a dabbling Wood Duck.”

How do you go about improving your birding skills?

My mom often sends me texts saying “you have 10 seconds to identify the species in this photograph”. Seriously!

I love it! Now that’s true birdy nerdiness!

In 2017, I set myself a goal of improving my shorebird ID skills. This post goes into the details https://theafternoonbirder.com/north-american-shorebird-id/, but basically I decided to focus my efforts on shorebirds. I studied field guides, I got help from an expert and I went out in the field as much as possible. The strategy worked and I feel much more confident about this group now.

Do you use apps? Take classes? 

I’ve never taken a course – my skills are self-taught and learned from my Mum and professional guides. I use field guides and apps to help – I like Merlin and The Warbler Guide. I also monitor eBird closely for recent sightings and if I see something interesting, then I will do a specific trip to that location to try and find it. Otherwise, I will just head out and see what I see. After you’ve been birding for awhile, you figure out where the birding “hotspots” are in your area. I normally start with these!

Eastern Bluebird in a snow squall photographed in Ottawa 
“This is one of my favourite photographs! A unique combination of events came together to make this moment happen. Eastern Bluebirds don’t usually show up in Ottawa until later in the spring, but a pair was reported at the beginning of March. I set off to the location with low expectations of seeing them. It was quite a large area and I wandered around for over an hour without seeing them. It then started snowing and I figured I had no chance, but then some movement caught my eye up ahead on the trail. Even with my naked eye I could see the brilliant blue of what could only be an Eastern Bluebird! It was an amazing sight on an otherwise colourless winter’s day.”

What was the idea behind your decision to start a Big Year of Bird Reading? I’m so excited that it’s getting lots of press on social media and a lot of people seem to be reading along! You’ve started a trend!

I read Noah Stryker’s Birding Without Borders at the end of 2017. It was the first non field guide book about birding that I’ve read and I loved it! At the start of 2018 I decided to read Ken Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway and part-way through it I had the idea to set myself a challenge of reading 12 books about birding during the year. I wrote a blog post about it and it has been so well received by people! I’m thrilled that so many are joining in on the challenge. People have started commenting on the post after they’ve read a book with their thoughts. I love the idea that the post will become a great resource for anyone looking to discover books about birding.

I’ve now finished Kingbird Highway and I really enjoyed it. I’ve been to a few of the places that Kenn visits on his big year so it was really great being able to picture exactly where he was. I also found it was easier to connect with this book than Birding Without Borders because I am much more familiar with North American birds. I think reading this type of book is great for learning – you pick up tips about birding by following along on other people’s adventures. Kenn is so descriptive about the species and places he visits – I learned so much!

OK I have to ask, since you’ve been reading Kaufmann and Stryker, whose epic trips revolve around listing: to list or not to list? Where on the spectrum do you fall?

I’m not a lister, but I do record my sightings on eBird. I like to bird for the pleasure of birding rather than to do so competitively. I also don’t have the energy to chase every rare bird that shows up.  Saying that, someone recently told me that I’m in the top 5 for the East Kootenay region for number of species seen in 2018. I might have to up my game!

What’s next for you?

I plan to continue blogging and building up my readership. I also recently moved to Fernie, British Columbia, from Ottawa, which means a whole different set of birds to learn and see. In terms of upcoming travel plans, I’m going to the UK in May and getting the opportunity to bird with Dominic Couzens (author of numerous bird books and professional bird guide). I’m also going to Newfoundland in the spring where I hope to see Puffins and other nesting seabirds.

Good luck Laura! Can’t wait to hear about your travels and….see your photos!

Hairy Duet

Beloved Birders!

I snuck out to a nearby park to see my first bird of the year — largely because I didn’t want bird #1 to be a House Sparrow — and saw…..an American Robin! So this might be the year of the Turdus migratorius, awful as that sounds. But turdus means thrush, and not that’s not at all a bad way to begin. After bemoaning the fact that my year began in such an ordinary way, I happened upon a duet of Hairy Woodpeckers, hammering away at a complicated syncopated rhythm that would have made my drummer brother-in-law proud. So perhaps not that ordinary after all. And soon the Hairys were joined by a Downy, and a fly-over Red-tailed Hawk and a few Song and American Tree Sparrows. I heard nuthatches and goldfinches and Black-capped Chickadees. Reluctantly, I had to tear myself away from the woodpeckers as they worked through their technically sophisticated drumming passage in order to get to my grandmother’s 87th birthday on time.

The day before, on New Year’s Eve, I treated myself to a three hour walk in my favorite Toronto park, Ashbridges Bay, and came across two intrepid kayakers as they positioned their boats on the frozen shore of Lake Ontario, hop inside and shimmy their way into the water. I couldn’t take my eyes of them, and shivered in their stead. I marvelled at their fearlessness. So cold, and yet here they were, paddling, one stroke after another.

It dawned on me that I had spent so much of 2017 afraid — both for our planet, my beloved birds, and sundry other things. I want 2018 to be a different kind of year. I have great admiration for those kayakers who set out on their journey in spite of the cold, who put their boat in the water simply because they wanted to, who weren’t questioning is this the right thing to do? Am I doing it right? will this get me to where I want to be? what if I fail? what if I’m too old for this? What if nobody cares? No, the kayakers asked no such questions: they just jumped right in and did it. I’m going to borrow some of their fearless spirit and optimism this year.

But 2017 wasn’t all fear and gloom — I had fantastic moments, exciting publications, lectures that I’m really proud of, amazing visits with friends and family, and the year was bookended by two phenomenal films: “Toni Erdmann” and Agnes Varda’s luminous “Faces Places.” In early December, we traveled to Curacao for a week and I saw a Crested Caracara and Magnificent Frigatebirds and Venezuelan Troupials galore. The day after our return, during our Christmas Bird Count, I was welcomed home by a Harlequin Duck. On the penultimate day of 2017 I scanned a raft of hundreds of Scaup and managed to find the lone Scoter. Of course I misidentified him initially as a Black Scoter, but upon coming home and opening my field guide, I corrected myself: it was a White-winged. And the fact that I had found him myself, misidentified him and then correctly re-identified him made the White-winged Scoter my favorite bird of the year.

And the very best part of 2017? My binoculars got their best workout yet — I managed to get out at least three times/week, even if some of the outings were no longer than an hour. Carl Zeiss would be proud.

Happy New Year, beloved birders. And thanks for reading.

And Sometimes…Things Work Out

Beloved Birders,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In memory of Peter Vickery

Beloved Birders,

Four years ago this September, I had the pleasure of traveling to Hog Island, on the coast of Maine, to attend the storied bird camp, whose original instructors included Roger Tory Peterson and Alan Cruickshank. I attended a fall migration session, which included two days on Monhegan Island. I was a new birder at the time, entirely out of my element, couldn’t really distinguish a Yellow warbler from a Common Yellowthroat and had barely figured out how to point my binoculars.

But once we got to Monhegan, I birded with Peter Vickery, Maine birder extraordinaire. He quickly ascertained that I needed help identifying most species, including the very basic ones, but he refused to accept my whiny complaint that fall warblers were “so hard.” Instead, Peter spent a good hour pointing out all the warblers that looked virtually identical in spring and fall — Black-and-white, Parula, Black-throated green, Black-throated blue, Canada, Ovenbird, etc — making sure I got great looks at every one of them. In his opinion, Roger Tory Peterson had done birding a great disservice by famously referring to those “confusing fall warblers.” “Pay attention to the birds you already know and learn them well — you’ll quickly see that you already know more than you think. Build your base from what you know. Master all the common birds” — those were Peter Vickery’s wise suggestions, and I took them to heart.

I started paying attention to the nuthatches on my morning walks, stopped confusing them with chickadees; I learned to appreciate the House finch for what it was rather than constantly assume it was a Purple finch or a rare species; I learned to identify a Brown creeper by behavior alone.

Peter was encouraging, but also no-nonsense when it came to birding. We walked for four hours straight, stopping only for water. To him, birding was the best thing in the world, but it was also work, because if you’re not out there paying close attention, there is no possible way you can identify birds well and eventually grow to perceive nuance.

Last summer I returned to Maine to volunteer with Project Puffin, and I meant to send Peter an email, but then got busy. Yesterday, I thought of Peter again, and wanted to convey how his fierce attention to detail is starting to rub off on me, because you see, I managed to correctly ID both a Tennessee warbler and a female Black-throated blue at the banding station. Upon googling Peter Vickery, I learned that he had passed away two months ago, from cancer, at the age of 67. What a gift it was to spend those two days in his company.

This morning I birded in my local park and did it Peter Vickery-style: I marvelled at the common birds around me, and was stunned to see that I recognized the resident Belted Kingfisher and Hairy woodpecker, paused to take in the unmistakable song of the Red-eyed vireo and the two-part rhythm of the Yellow warbler, and watched the fiery orange of the Baltimore Orioles illuminate the trees like Christmas lights.

Thank you, Peter Vickery. You shaped my way of seeing.

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.

 

From a Ross’ Goose to a Cardamom Bun

Beloved Birders,

My good friend Kerry Clare believes that all roads and life decisions and quandaries basically lead to cake. She’s as terrific a writer (check out her wonderful novel Mitzi Bytes) as she is a font of wisdom. And so immediately after seeing my first Ross’ Goose (lifer! happy dance!), I decided to test Kerry’s adage and I embarked on another milestone — the baking of Cardamom Buns (vetebullar), which I first tasted in Stockholm in 2012. The experience felt not unlike falling in love; in other words, I nearly screamed to the Cardamom bun, “Where have you been all my life?”

For those of you who have never tasted a Cardamom bun — I simultaneously pity and envy you. Pity because you have no idea what you’re missing, and envy because there’s nothing I’d like more than to rewind time and taste a cardamom bun for the very first time. Kind of how I’d love to go back and see my first Snowy owl, and read that last page of Anne of the Island where Anne and Gilbert finally kiss.

Imagine a cinnamon bun with the added touch of celestial cardamom. The only problem is that once you’ve tasted heavenly manna, it’s pretty hard to muster up the confidence to try to concoct some yourself. What if I botched the recipe? What if I couldn’t knead the dough properly? What if my rolling pin and I just weren’t destined to find mutual happiness and a rhythm that could produce a smooth and even layer of dough?

But for whatever reason, Kerry’s life-philosophy about cake coupled with my monumental Ross’ Goose sighting gave me the gumption to try my luck with flour, yeast, and a rolling pin. (It’s also geographically inconvenient for me to procure a decent cardamom bun in Toronto. My North York neighbourhood privileges bubble tea over the Swedish pastry niche.)

So off I went, buoyed by the extraordinarily proud gait of the Ross’s goose, who paraded with his head high amidst gargantuan Canada Geese — almost like a little Napoleon. Would that we all had his confidence. I used the recipe from  FIKA: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Breakwhich was expertly reviewed by my friend Teri Vlassopoulos a few years back, and which I bought strictly for the nostalgia it brought back about my first 2012 cardamum-bum-encounter.

And so I spent close to three hours manhandling dough and a rolling pin and the result turned out better than I could have imagined. Not yet perfect, but so good that I will be making them again, and again and again, and not just as an accompaniment to the sighting of a life bird.

Photo taken by yours truly. Pardon the disastrously messy dirty stove. Note that one cardamom bun is already half eaten. The others were consumed (largely by yours ever so truly) within the next 30 or so hours.

And so maybe Kerry is correct in her life-affirming assumption that all roads — even and especially a Ross’ Goose — actually lead to cake, in one form or another.

On Wanting and Not Wanting

Beloved Birders!

I’ll be entirely honest here: I didn’t want to go to Long Point yesterday. The weather was dismal: flurries, freezing fog and an attendant, constant drizzle, coupled with winds and eternally grey skies. What was the point of driving the two hours to see a bunch of swans and sandhill cranes in poor visibility when I had already seen Tundra swans a few weeks ago and had seen more cranes in Arizona than I could ever have imagined. Would it really be worth it?

You’ll also be happy know, beloved birders, that I kept these thoughts to myself.

Our first stop on Lakeshore Rd yielded a dozen or so gorgeous, if prehistoric-looking, Sandhill Cranes standing in a small ditch very close to the road. As soon as I saw their facial red patch, I was transfixed. Sure, I’d seen close to 30,000 of them in Whitewater Draw a few months ago, but cranes never get old, especially the way they parachute down from the sky, exhibiting the kind of celestial grace I can only ever aspire to in ballet class, when I see my own jumps in the mirror end in unsavory thuds.

Shortly thereafter we heard the bugling calls of the Tundra swans, a bit of cacophony on its own, but when you know it signals the advent of Spring, the sound becomes a sign of something larger, more majestic, and you delight in it, over and over and over again (and they are incessant).

These are the birds I had expected to see — Long Point never disappoints this time of year — but I still wondered if it was worth the drive.

And then we stopped at Lee Brown’s to scan the small pond and I saw a sight I couldn’t ever have imagined. Hundreds of American Wigeon — with their platinum mohawk-streak — both in and out of the water, waddling on the grass, in the company of Wood Ducks. We scanned for Eurasian widgeon, but it was not to be. In the water, I saw more Ring-necked Ducks than I’d ever seen before — I can now safely ID them because of the white patch on their side which looks like a sideways whale (thanks for the tip, Mary!). And there were Redheads and Northern Shovelers and Northern Pintail, which I loved all the more because I could ID them. And later we stopped in another place and picked up all three Merganser species, Scaup (lesser & greater though I couldn’t tell those apart have no fear — I”m not yet ready to change my brand to Intermediate Birder Extraordinaire) along with a bonus Bald Eagle.

On our drive back home we decided to make a quick stop at RBG in Hamilton/Burlington, where a particularly cooperative Ross’s Goose was reported. To be honest, I didn’t really want to stop there either because I’ve never been a Goose-Gal if you know what I mean. I love warblers and even raptors and woodpeckers and wrens and most things, but geese leave me cold, so I didn’t see what the possible big deal about a Ross’s goose could be. (And who was Ross anyhow? Ah, turns out he was Bernard R. Ross, a 19th Century budding naturalist who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Northwest Territories; he was ultimately responsible for considering the Ross’s goose as a distinct species and later donated all his specimens to the Smithsonian. More on Bernard R. Ross anon.)

Again, I kept my opinions to myself. Once we arrived at RBG, and I laid eyes on the stupendous, and utterly bizarre, diminutive Ross’s goose, for which there exists no other adequate descriptor than CUTIE, I understood. This is a goose like no other. A miniature Snow goose, a strange otherworldly creature amidst the gaggle of Canada Geese, he stands out, proudly and defiantly. There he was, grazing on a little hillside, with the Canada Geese who were almost twice his size. What was he really thinking that this sight could look remotely normal?  

(The fabulous photograph comes from here.) There was something fantastical and extravagant about this smallish goose walking proudly amidst giants.

I couldn’t have imagined a better way to end the day.

Oh but there WAS a better way to end the day: we finished off at Colonel Sam Smith park, where we picked up the King Eider (juvenile, sadly), a Red-necked grebe, long-tail ducks, and brought our waterfowl count to a record-breaking (for this beginner birder) 25 species.

Thank heavens I never listen to myself in earnest when I don’t WANT to do something. As with writing, there is no WANTING. One just does it, ploughs ahead, shows up, and the rewards are colossal (some of the time).

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.