Tag Archives: kestrel

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.

The Best Worst Birding Day

Beloved Birders!

For those of you not following Toronto weather, the unimaginable happened on Saturday. The sun shone brightly all day and it was one of those perfect winter days, so bright I had to wear my sunglasses. After our endless stream of nonstop greyness, this was the day I’d been waiting for all winter. Actually, it was the day that reminded me how much I love winter when it cooperates with my one requirement: LIGHT.

I put on layers upon layers of woollens and headed out to Tommy Thompson Park. I didn’t think I’d make it very far because the main path had morphed into a skating rink, but once I got my footing and found patches of snow to walk on, I didn’t want to turn back. I searched for Snowy Owls on along the marina and didn’t find any. All the ducks I had seen a few weeks ago had migrated further down the peninsula because everything had frozen over. I walked for over an hour and saw nothing but a few gulls flying overhead. In fact, it took me an hour and a half until I saw my first Black-capped Chickadee! I wondered if this would be another one-bird day for me, but then I did see a few Common Goldeneyes, Bufflehead, Long-tail Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, White-winged Scoters, Greater Scaup — and they all positively glistened in the sun. I detected the greenish purplish hues on the Bufflehead, which one can only see in blazing sunlight. Even the Greater Scaup, which usually look dirty to me, seemed crisp. The Common Goldeneye was the showstopper yesterday, the sun hitting its dark head at such an angle that it looked like a majestic malachite. I kept eyeing the white spot on its cheek, to make sure it wasn’t elongated and that I wasn’t actually looking at a Barrow’s Goldeneye! Funny, a year ago, I wouldn’t have even thought to look. Even the common birds are now acquiring so much more nuance to me.

Let’s just say that the beauty of the day was disproportionate to the quality of birding. Apart from the 10 species of waterfowl, the chickadee and an American Tree Sparrow, I saw nothing. I know there are Northern Saw-whet Owls in the park and Common Redpolls, Northern Shrike, but none of them made an appearance for me. Every time I uttered a sigh of disappointment, I looked back out at the lake and couldn’t get enough of its blueness. This was a day unlike any we’ve had in the past, and it was also the rare occasion when my wardrobe choices were perfectly calibrated to suit the weather.

And just as I was leaving the park, thinking that in spite of the brilliant sunlight and perfect wintry landscape I probably didn’t have a blog post in me, because really, who wants to hear me wax lyrical about how much I love mid-winter light and about how I’ve been inhabiting a sad sea of greyness for the past two months, at that very second I saw a bird fly toward a lamppost in a decidedly non-pigeon kind of way. And knowing that it was exactly the size of a pigeon, I identified the American Kestrel even before I laid eyes on him. And there he sat, immersed in thought, surveying the area around him, while I got phenomenal looks at this wonder of a bird whose bright orange back with black stripes contrasts sharply with its deep blue-jeans-colored wings and black polka-dotted pale breast. How did nature come up with that one?

And suddenly the best worst birding day transformed into the best day. Period. To end the day by staring at a technicolor Kestrel is nothing short of magic.

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.

Healing Properties of November

It’s official, dearest Birders. The only way to get through November is to embrace its shortened days, dearth of light, early winter onset fully, put on those rain pants over pants over long underwear, zip up that parka over sweater over cardigan over thermal shirt over t-shirt and get thee to the nearest park, binoculars in hand. The effects are properly regenerative.

This past Saturday we headed out to Hamilton in search of the likely confused or disoriented Wilson’s Phalarope (why he is still in Ontario in mid-November is either a grave error or a colossal mystery). I’ve seen a Red phalarope before, but the Wilson’s turned out to be a lifer in spite of the less than hospitable weather. The lake was frozen over save a patch of water, and that’s exactly where we found him, swimming frenetically in what resembled a jig-like posture as if he couldn’t tell whether to dance or swim and attempted a mix of the two, next to a Pectoral Sandpiper. He put on a ten-minute show for us before disappearing behind a conglomeration of cattails. It’s rare that a target bird appears as if on cue, and I found the experience almost disorienting. Sometimes it feels more rewarding to work for the sighting, even if one misses it in the end. But I embraced the opportunity to see a Wilson’s phalarope. I never tire of these polyandric birds with reverse sexual dimorphism. Sounds racy and progressive even by bird standards!

We saw Cedar waxwings, American robins, Chickadees, Red-bellied woodpeckers, Downies, Blue jays, Golden crowned Kinglets, American goldfinches, and then, when I thought my ID skills could get no more impressive, I saw something swoop down into an open field and called out SNOW BUNTING! For some reason I had been craving a snow bunting all morning in my fierce desire to embrace winter… Well, that sure put me in my place. Birding has a way of doing that to you — just when you get overly confident, the universe corrects itself and humbles you. In the end the bird turned out to be an American kestrel (!), but lest I feel completely defeated, I was congratulated on my sighting and ability to detect the bird’s pointy white wings.

The first real winter day would have been incomplete without an owl sighting, and we happened upon a magnificent Eastern Screech owl (grey morph) taking in the midwinter sun. Here he is, terrifically peaceful. Note the fetching winter sunbathing pose. (photo by Lyle J.)


It turned out to be a spectacular day. But really, how could it not? Winter sun, binoculars, birds — beware November! I know how to thwart your depressive ways.

And in case you missed my piece about competing in my first Birdathon, here it is, sans paywall, in Maisonneuve Magazine. If you’re looking for a fantastic birdy read, I would definitely urge you to pick up Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense. Here’s my exuberant review of the phenomenal book on the ABA website.

Onwards with November!