Tag Archives: outdoors

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

Beloved Birders,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Begins With an American Woodcock

Beloved Birders!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Forward

Beloved Birders,

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye Winter!

Beloved Birders!

I’m going to say the unthinkable: I’m sad to say goodbye to winter. Thankfully, I live in Southwestern Ontario, where winter takes a while to make a pronounced departure (there’s a lot of hemming and hawing, red herrings, faux-departures), so I don’t have to shed a tear just yet. That said, I’m super excited about spring, but also daunted by May Madness and already somewhat stressed about the fact that I can’t be in ten different places at once in May, chasing every single warbler that comes my way. May is challenging. I keep having to remind myself, in May, to take pleasure in what I’m looking at rather than stress about everything else that I’m not seeing. Oh, the perils of birding. It really is an emotional business.

But let’s recap winter, since it’s been one of my all-time best. I managed to get a lifer — the Tufted Duck that hung around Mississauga through the holidays and then when I finally had a chance to venture out it proceeded to elude me five times in a row. I finally got it mid-February, by accident, after I had stopped looking for it. Instead, I ventured out to LaSalle Marina in Burlington where I loaded up on waterfowl sightings and bald eagles galore, and from there drove up to see the rufous-phased Eastern Screech Owl nearby and met a friendly photographer who told me to sprint over to Windermere Basin in Hamilton because Mr. Tuftie was hanging out close to shore and easily visible sans scope! So off I went and indeed, he was in perfect binocular view. I’m not sure whether the best part was that I got the Tufted Duck or whether it happened when I least expected it. Either way, it was spectacular (and also confirmed that the only thing currently standing between me and the purchase of a scope is my physical fortitude, so I have begun a weight training regimen in earnest, to make sure that once I purchase said scope, I’ll actually be able to carry it! Tiniest of confessions: when powerlifter/Mr. Birds and Words saw me doing my 3-pound dumbbell exercises diligently, he laughed and said my scope purchase might be a long way off! Oh ye of little faith…).

Lifer aside, I have seen Snowy Owls every single weekend since late December. I’ve walked the length of Tommy Thompson park so many times that the owls I’ve encountered there feel like my personal pets. The only waterfowl I’m missing from my list are Surf and Black Scoter, but hopefully it isn’t too late to get those somewhere nearby. I even saw a surprise Northern Saw-whet Owl when I ran into a friend on the spit. Late one afternoon in February, I managed to catch sight of six Short-eared Owl coming in to roost. I also got the elusive Northern Shrike in Humber Bay park, and came face to face with coyotes twice — and didn’t die of fright, though I must admit I came close — in my quest to find birds. I’ve also seen five species of Goose — Canada, Cackling, Greater-white fronted, Snow and (darling) Ross’ — and that number could have been six had I driven up to see the lone Barnacle hovering around Schomberg, but I saw him five years ago in Stockholm, back when I didn’t know anything at all and couldn’t even tell if I was looking at a duck or a goose and needed my pal Rick Wright to identify him for me, and will likely see him again this summer in Europe, so I opted to be satisfied with the current state of affairs. I also managed to see flocks of majestic Tundra Swans flying overhead on a day with clear skies.

Winter birding is more meditative than spring birding. Not only are the sightings fewer in number, the temperatures sometimes daunting, but the rewards are enormous. And now, the Red-winged Blackbirds are singing everywhere, the Northern Cardinals are getting feisty, and it’s time for something altogether different.

In other, somewhat but not altogether less birdy news, I reread Jane Eyre, and did you know that the book Jane reads in chapter 1 is none other than Bewick’s History of British Birds? Needless to say, I was even more smitten this time round. To think — one of my favorite literary heroines was a BIRDER! I’ve now developed even more respect for Jane!

Interview with Drummers Who Love Birds (aka: Danny Miles)

Beloved Birders,

I met Danny Miles on my favorite day of the year, the Christmas Bird Count, which fell on December 17 2017. Our four-person team, led by Justin Peter, spent nine hours counting what turned out to be a colossal number of Mallards, House Sparrows, Rock pigeons, and other assorted waterfowl, including a resplendent Harlequin Duck. While I froze my fingers scribing our numbers, Danny took photographs of every species we saw. What are the chances that a rock star – the drummer of the famed band July Talk – and a classical music nerd would end up on a CBC team together? Well, therein lies the beauty of birding. You never know who you’ll meet or where exactly you’ll end up. After perusing Danny’s awesome bird photography blog and his Instagram feed, and becoming insanely jealous that he managed to see his first 2018 Snowy Owl before I did, I asked if he’d be up for an interview. We chatted over email, and he introduced me to the creepiest bird song I’ve ever heard (Google the Brazilian Great Potoo if you’re curious) and introduced me to the work of a few other fabulous bird photographers. All the bird photos in this post have been taken by Danny Miles and are used with permission.

You said that 2018 started for you with a Snowy Owl sighting. Has it been auspicious?

It is still a very exciting moment for me. I have really been focusing a lot on music so far this year. I haven’t had much time to get out birding. Once my drum parts are written and recorded I will have more time for more adventures.

Danny Miles’ first bird of 2018. Snowy Owl photographed in Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto.

How did you get into birding?

I realized I was into birding while on tour with July Talk. I was always interested in nature. I do a lot of walking and hiking while I’m on tour, it helps me clear my head and it keeps me sane. I was in Florida on a day off and I was on a long walk. There were two Sandhill Cranes on a front lawn and I stood and watched them for about half an hour. I was so fascinated by these two birds. After that I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I had caught the birding bug I suppose. Later, on that same tour while in Montreal I bought my first field guide and went out to see what birds I could find and ever since I have been hooked.

Do you have a favorite bird?

California Condor. I have never seen one before but they are at the top of my list. Favourites I have photographed are the Eastern Screech Owl and the Snowy Owl. A more common favourite is the Red-tailed Hawk. I see them all the time and I love them.

Red-tailed Hawk

How did you like your first Christmas Bird Count experience?

It was very educational for me. I was out with people who know much more about birds than I do so I absorbed as much knowledge as I could. I found it hard to get any good pictures because I didn’t want to scare the birds away. It was definitely the most intense bird outing I have ever had. We were out for about 9 hours and it was freezing, but I had a great time and my team was amazing.

We sure were. I just found out that our team actually tied for the Christmas Bird Count trophy this year! I’ll be honest with you — during the CBC, I was kind of jealous that you got to experience a Harlequin Duck sighting for the FIRST TIME! What did it feel like to see a Harlequin duck? 

It was pretty amazing, I had never seen one before. We couldn’t get too close because it was out in the lake but I could see it well with my camera. It was also impressive how many birders had heard it was there and were showing up from all over to see it. There is definitely strong communication in the bird community.

Do birds get more exciting for you as you get to know them or are you nostalgic for that first sighting? 

The first time you see a bird you have been hoping to see for a long time is very exciting and you likely won’t forget that moment (like when I saw my first Snowy Owl). But it is true that I do have a growing appreciation for birds once I learn more. This is especially true with sparrows, for example, where the more you learn the more you start to recognize the differences between them.

What do you think of the nerdy bird lingo like CBC and Warbler Neck?

I love it, both terms are pretty new to me and I’m just learning all the lingo. It takes time to learn it all and trust me there is just as nerdy lingo in music. I think it shows your experience and commitment to something in a way.

You’ve been taking photographs of birds for a few years now. What makes a good bird photo? Any favourite birds you like to photograph?

I think it is very important to get the eyes in focus and it’s not always easy when they move so much and fly away. The framing of the photo is also very important to me. I want my pictures to look good in a frame as a print where I find a lot of bird photography doesn’t take that into account. It’s just my approach to bird photography. I want it to be more artistic I guess. Cedar Waxwings seem to make beautiful subjects.

Any nemesis birds you hope to get but keep missing?

I haven’t got an Osprey photo I am proud of yet and they are one of my favourite birds. I dream of getting a diving Osprey photo.

Eastern-screech Owl, seen and photographed in Toronto.

Do you have any birding mentors?

Justin Peter, Jack Breakfast. I also just got this coffee table book called the Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw and it is so amazing. She does all the art as well as the writing. The pictures are some of my favourite drawings around. It is a bird anatomy book but it’s so artistic. She draws bird skeletons or birds without feathers, creepy and cool. I also follow a lot of incredible bird photographers on social media like Harry Collins. 

Do you use apps to help you find birds in the field? 

I use the Peterson Bird app while I’m in the field. Actually my dentist recommended it.  I also use field guides. I have a few for the different parts of the world like UK/Europe and North America.

You’re also a drummer. I’m often struck by the musicality of birds (especially the song of a Wood Thrush), but recently I heard a duet of Hairy Woodpeckers and I actually thought of you because their syncopated rhythm would likely have made any drummer proud. Are there any connections for you between birding and music?

There is. Listening is incredibly important for both music and birding. For music you need to listen to your other band members to make sure you are a tight unit and with birding listening for bird calls is obviously extremely important to locate birds. Also some birds are very rhythmic. Woodpeckers being the main one around the Toronto area.

When Danny Miles isn’t birding or photographing birds he’s rocking out with July Talk.

Were your bandmates surprised by your new birding identity? Have you converted any of them to birding?

Yeah, at first I presented it like a bit of a joke, like “I’m thinking of getting into birding so by the time I’m 60 I will be the best birder in the world.” I do think they were weirded out but they understood it helped keep me sane on the road. I wouldn’t say they are converted but they are definitely more aware of the nature around them.

What inspired you to start your blog, drummerswholovebirds.com?

I wanted to share some of my experiences out in the field while getting the pictures. Sometimes it is so incredible. I also like having the memory written down and maybe it gives people a look at the kind of personality the animal in the picture has.

Would you say that birding changed your life?

In a big way. I feel like I am better known for my bird photography now then my drumming, haha. It’s crazy, sometimes while walking across a street in Toronto or something someone yells “Hey, Drummers Who Love Birds.” They don’t even mention that I am the July Talk drummer. It’s pretty funny.

I’ve found that birding opens the most unexpected doors and has introduced me to some of the most surprising and delightful people. Have you had any surprises? What interesting connections have you made through birding?

Getty Lee of Rush is into birding and we have a mutual friend who introduced him to my photography, which was super cool. He commented on my photo. I also was introduced to another musician/birder/writer/artist Jack Breakfast. I have bought his art and his bird book. He is a really interesting guy. I have yet to meet Getty or Jack in person but I hope to someday soon. The Vice Documentary I did introduced me to the shykids guys who are amazing people and of course my birding mentor Justin Peter, who is the vice president of the Toronto Ornithology Club and also appears in the doc. I also met Wendy McGrath who is a writer because of my photography and we are now collaborating on a poetry book. I did some charity stuff with Toronto Wildlife Centre who are amazing people and WWF Canada posted my picture of the Snowy Owl on national bird day, which was so flattering. So yeah I have definitely been introduced to amazing people because of birding.

What’s next for you, birdwise and otherwise?

I am working on the poetry book with Wendy McGrath. I’m not sure when that will come out but we are probably about half way done looking for a publisher at the moment. I am always taking photos and selling prints on my website drummerswholovebirds.com. I may also do some art fairs this year and try selling prints that way. A gallery show would be pretty cool to do. July Talk is writing a new record and I have a couple other music projects I am currently working on.

Danny Miles, in his other element.

And, speaking of July Talk, if someone wants to get to know your music where should they start?

I think as a band we are most proud of the album Touch. CBC (not Christmas Bird Count, but Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) did a great live recording of us when Touch came out.

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?

Now it’s really 2018!

Beloved BIrders!

2018 now has my official blessing to begin. Yesterday I opted for some solo birding, largely on account of scheduling issues and an unexpectedly late night on Friday watching the phenomenal Seana McKenna perform Lear. So off I went to Tommy Thompson Park in search of a Snowy Owl. The test was twofold: first, I wondered if I would survive a 2.5 hour walk on an icy path in -12 degree weather, and second, I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to find the owl on my own. You see, I’m not exactly talented at seeing white on white or playing Where’s Waldo with a bird that often eludes me because it looks like little more than a dirty lump on a greyish background.

But then I remembered those kayakers I saw exactly two weeks ago, the guys who seemed to be afraid of absolutely nothing, and I decided it was time to give my layers of woollens a workout. The day turned out to be so sunny that I almost forgot about the freezing temperatures, and the path had a dusting of snow on it which made it almost non-slippery. I’ll admit that for the first hour or so, I wondered what I was doing out there braving the elements, and my bird count amounted to three long-tailed ducks, five gadwall and two gargantuan mute swans. But then as soon as I questioned the point of the outing, I stared out at the glistening water and the sky so bright it could have been midsummer. I scanned every rock on the shoreline, got excited by a few oddly shaped greyish mounds only to realize they were rocks or, rather embarrassingly, logs, but there seemed to be nary an owl in sight.

I’m not sure when I got it into my head that I needed to see a Snowy Owl to mark the official start of the year, but poor Mr. Birds and Words can attest to the fact that for two weeks straight all I talked about were owls. I didn’t want to accept that my year began with something as ordinary as an American Robin. I craved the monumental, raptorial, fierce, menacing, and gallant. And I wasn’t ready to give up.

The first Snowy I saw sat nonchalantly on the edge of a pier in the marina, mostly with its back to me, but occasionally regaling me with a slick turn of its head. I was inordinately pleased, because I’d accomplished my mission, but I can’t say I was entirely satisfied. You see, this owl was shown to me by a friendly couple I saw with binoculars. As I was starting at the five lonely gadwall by the shore, out of sheer desperation, I started scanning for people walking along the path and eventually pointed my binoculars straight at a couple pointing their binoculars and gesticulating wildly toward the marina. So I abandoned the gadwall and ran through the reeds toward the couple, nearly slipped on the ice, and nonchalantly asked them if they’d seen anything exciting. In response, they pointed to the Snowy and I responded with shrieks of joy.

But I still wanted more. I decided I’d give myself another hour, and kept walking further along the shore, scanning everything, including trees and posts and even high up in the sky because you never know from whence a Snowy might descend. I might have been getting a little delirious at this point. I passed the frozen pond where I had seen the Fork-tailed Flycatcher during a heatwave back in September, and the adjacent pond where I’d seen the Tricolored Heron on a sweltering day in July, and then I turned toward the shore again and put my binoculars up just for kicks, because a snowy couldn’t possibly be that easy to see, it couldn’t possibly be right in front of me, surely that must be yet another rock that I’m looking at. And there it was. Majestic and regal and staring right at me. I stood there watching the owl bounce about, hopping from rock to rock, acting as if she owned the entire beach. I stood there until I very nearly froze. And then I looked some more. My very first solo Snowy Owl sighting.

I finally felt that the year had begun.

 

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.

What 18 hours can bring

Beloved Birders,

There are days when the stars align in the strangest, most perfect and unexpected combination. On Saturday night, I headed over to the banding station at Tommy Thompson Park for the season’s last hurrah — an all-night owl night, where we band Northern Saw-whet Owls, but given my half-workday on Sunday, I could only manage the early shift, much to my chagrin. We got the cutest little saw-whet owl early in the evening — before I had the chance to nearly overdose on sour keys and salt-and-vinegar chips — and I squealed with delight as we banded the bird, weighed it, sexed and aged it, and then paused for glamor shots with the celebrity bird. I hadn’t seen a saw-whet in a few years, so this was a serious thrill.

And then, a half-hour before I left the station, at 11:25pm, we did a net check, found another owl that nearly escaped (I played a pivotal role in holding the net tight while my friend Denise performed a masterful, lightning quick extraction), quickly called it an enormous female saw-whet and then took another look because the owl was so big and feisty and it turned out to be an EASTERN SCREECH OWL (grey morph)! I had to scream that last bit because Easter screeches have never flown into our nets before! This turned out to be a station first, and a very big deal indeed. A lengthy photo shoot followed after I scribed the data and we marvelled at the owl’s plumage and how expertly he camouflaged with the Master Bander’s camo jacket. No wonder those sweet creatures are so hard to see in the trees! They really blend in perfectly.

After getting a good night’s rest, we headed off to Humber Bay Park (after a requisite stop at the inimitable Birds and Beans cafe) where I happily greeted old friends: Redhead, Bufflehead, Long-tailed duck, Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, and my all-time fave, the resplendent Hooded Merganser, with a crest that rivals my rhinestone headband in allure. We went out with friends who told me they found ducks boring because they all look the same! Ah….I remember the day when I too felt this way. When the world seemed monochrome and all ducks were one. That feels like a lifetime ago… So as we walked, I stopped to point out all the beauties, encouraged (forced) them to see them through my binoculars (thanks Zeiss!) and by the end of the walk they came away with some new favorites.

And then just as we were leaving, I saw a juvenile Cooper’s hawk sitting in a tree, calmly awaiting her next victim. To be honest, I’m not sure what made me happier — seeing the bird or being able to correctly identify it. Either way, it was a perfect end to the birdiest 18 hours.

 

In Praise of the Usual Suspects

Beloved Birders,

One of the most exciting parts of going out birding, for me, is just that: going out birding. I love the break in my routine that birding brings. I love getting in my car, driving somewhere and not knowing exactly what I’m going to see, but knowing that it will be unlike anything I see at home, and that, in and of itself, will bring me inordinate pleasure. I’d never go as far as to call myself outdoorsy (my attempts at sleeping in a tent in Maine during the summer of 2016 ended badly; sometimes I delude myself that I have outdoorsy proclivities by purchasing yet another woollen item from Ibex), but I do so love being outside, staring out at the lake, getting my hands modestly dirty. In all honesty, an urban bird banding station might be as close as I come to claiming the outdoors as my own. It’s the walking that I adore above all else, the act of taking one step after another, without ever really knowing what I’m going to see next. Finding the unexpected in the utterly regular.

Yesterday, we did just that. Most of the birds we saw were regulars, my beloved Brown Creeper dutifully making his way up a tree, a couple Red-breasted Nuthatches playing either a rather intense game of tag or hide-and-seek, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker showing off his fabulous red neck. And then, out of the blue, on an overgrown boardwalk in Selkirk Provincial Park, we saw a Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris), which wasn’t a lifer, but I managed to get the better looks at the bird than I ever imagined. Wrens are notoriously twitchy, quick-footed, shy and furtive, and rarely give you great looks. And this little guy must have been in a pensive mood or maybe he was just lost because he stood on the boardwalk for a good minute or so, walking back and forth, letting me get a close-up look at every stripe and polka dot on his back.

Image from here. Now imagine this little cutie standing right at my feet.

As the name suggests, Marsh Wrens usually hang out in marshes and they’re usually obscured by the cattails and grasses in the area. They’ve only ever been semi-visible to me, usually hiding low in the grasses or balancing on a cattail that happens to be hidden behind another cattail. At one point I knew the bird’s song, but after a while I figured I’d never see it, so I focused on the Carolina and Winter Wren’s songs instead. Now that I have the bird’s unmistakable black-and-white striped back pattern imprinted in my mind I’m going to resurrect the song in my repertory.

Seeing that marsh wren up close made my day, which was already pretty excellent. Sometimes I worry that when a day starts out with an exciting bird that things will only go downhill from there. But it turned out I needn’t have worried. The Hudsonian Godwit I saw early in the morning turned out to be a fantastic omen, and the perfect reminder that for me, the biggest pleasure of birding lies in getting to know the usual suspects and in seeing them over and over and over again. I certainly love chasing the rarities, but getting to know the local birds has made me feel of this place in a way I never imagined possible. The biggest surprise of all of this is that somehow birding has curbed my nomadic tendencies and has made Southern Ontario feel like home.