Tag Archives: outdoors

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?

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!

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.

World Octopus Day!

Beloved Birders,

It turns out that it’s World Octopus day, and how cool is that? It’s also Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, and here at Birds and Words we recently celebrated a birthday, so there are all sorts of things to be grateful for, but let’s backtrack a week:

We spent last weekend in Ithaca, NY, because I figured there was no better place in the world for a bird nerd to spend her birthday than Sapsucker Woods & the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I still can’t believe my husband agreed to this trip — I did promise him fantastic waterfalls and gorges and farmers markets, so really, what’s not to love about the Finger Lakes?

And then last weekend, after a somewhat tedious drive through torrential downpours, after a bizarre apple harvest market, after a delicious dinner at the famed Moosewood Restaurant, after a night in an AirBnB that turned out to have an overly vivacious budgie next door, we woke up and drive straight to a bird walk at Sapsucker Woods — the woods I’ve been reading about for about 6 years now, the woods I see every time I google something on AllAboutBirds.org (which is just about every day), and suddenly there we were and I was so happy I just about kissed the ground!

I could tell you that it felt great, even in the wind and drizzle. But really, it reminded me the time I saw the Colosseum in Rome for the first time and it was both larger and smaller than what I had imagined, and stood in awe, trying to memorize every detail of the place. I kept repeating “I can’t believe I’m actually here!” to my husband, which must have been really annoying, but his tolerance for my misplaced enthusiasm is inordinately high.

Our bird list for the morning wasn’t great, but I did see a Tufted Titmouse and I did correctly ID an Eastern Phoebe and a Swainson’s Thrush, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and a Common Yellowthroat, so I was feeling pretty good. And after the bird walk, we bought t-shirts and a requisite stuffed Audubon singing bird for my nephew at the gift shop, walked around the lab, and sadly missed the tour because nobody had signed up to lead the tour that day! This last fact upset me for about 10 seconds, and then I realized it was none other than the perfect omen: we would just have to return to Ithaca next year for a tour of the lab, my husband said, before I even suggested such a wild, extravagant notion.

After Sapsucker Woods, we headed straight to the exquisite farmers market, where I bought an owl t-shirt designed by Silk Oak, and we shared a plate of Tibetan dumplings, and from there we set out for a day of Gorge-hopping. As all the t-shirts say, “Ithaca is Gorges.” And it is. We hiked Robert Treman State Park, Cascadilla Falls, Ithaca Gorge, and after that trifecta we found ourself gorged-out and opted for prolonged grocery trip to my beloved Wegmans, which has everything my heart desires and much much more. The next day we couldn’t resist another trip to the farmers market (how much raw honey does a person need, you may be wondering, and the answer is A LOT), and from there we drove up to Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, which didn’t disappoint. The ducks were returning, the weather was perfect, and I saw a lone Snow Goose in the mix, which was oddly wonderful, though mostly just odd. I introduced my husband to the sheer cuteness of a Semipalmated Plover and tried to get him to appreciate the Green-winged Teal, but by that point his attention was elsewhere and it was clearly time to go, but not before running into a congregation of 30+ Great Egrets, which renewed my husband’s faith in avian awesomeness. In fact he was quite mesmerized by the Egrets and in the end I was the one rushing us out of there; my slightly manipulative plan was to have him leave Montezuma with the memory of wanting more…and with great hopes for another future birding vacation! I’m 70% sure it worked. (I just read a great article on how to travel with a non-birding spouse and am happy to report that I accomplished most of what the author suggests. In any event, we’re still happily married!)

On our way back to Ithaca from Montezuma, we stopped in Taughannock Falls State Park, and indeed, the falls were spectacular — the highest waterfall between Niagara Falls and the Rockies. We ended the evening with dessert from Moosewood and a walk around the Cornell Botanical Gardens and Arboretum.

Beloved birders, can I just say how hard it was to return home after a weekend in paradise? Nothing looked as beautiful, nothing tasted as good, nothing compared to Ithaca. A rough return.

And then yesterday, I decided to pop my fold-up bike in my car and drove off to Tommy Thompson park and cycled down to the Lighthouse and sat on a rock on the shores of Lake Ontario. The water sparkled, I saw Scaup, although I couldn’t tell you whether they were Lesser or Greater, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, and when I looked out on to the lake, it felt as vast as an ocean, and although this might not be Ithaca, it’s home and I realized I’m more than happy with that as well.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. And happiest World Octopus Day to all of you.

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher I did not see

Beloved Birders!

I dipped on the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Actually, even worse than that: I saw the announcement of a Scissor-tailed fly in Marie Curtis Park on Sunday, but I was too exhausted to go and just assumed that the bird would stick around another day. Assumptions are dangerous. Once I was well-rested, and ready to hop in the car and brave traffic and a torrential downpour, the flycatcher had other plans and was likely on his way back to Oklahoma.

But these things happen. I had just come back from an epic family vacation trip to Prince Edward Island. We did it all: Charlottettown Farmers Market (BEST!), Greenwich Beach (PARABOLIC SAND DUNES!), Panmure Island (PEI’s first wooden lighthouse! best beach ever!), Brackley Beach (awesome), lobster (and more lobster), fresh eggs (god I miss those eggs), Orwell Corner Historic Village (who doesn’t love a one-room school house and a blacksmith who makes you a decorative hook?). The trip wasn’t a birdy one, and there was a gorgeous little toddler in tow (my nephew), so mornings were harried, afternoons were nap-filled, and evenings were early. But it was still heavenly and I miss the quiet and the sunsets and the endless ocean. I also miss the umpteen Yellow warblers in our backyard and the placid Bald Eagle who perched on a rock by our beach every morning and the Osprey nest on our way to said beach and the fields and haystacks.

Was I upset about the flycatcher? A little, but to be honest, it’s not the first time I’ve missed out on that particular bird. I know he’ll be back, or perhaps I’ll see him somewhere else…Am I getting blasé? I hope not. But I’ve been reading Yiddish lately, and there’s this concept of “bashert” — what is meant to be. It’s usually used for a partner, a predestined soulmate, that kind of thing, but here I’m willing to use it for the flycatcher. It just wasn’t “bashert”, and one can’t really fight destiny, right?

Can you tell it’s summer, beloved birders? My mind is pulled in a million directions at once. From Yiddish to sand dunes to flycatchers to a gorgeous Georgia O’Keefe exhibit I just saw at the AGO. Things were hectic pre-PEI, and it was such a treat to relax and think of little other than what beach I would visit that day and what we would cook for dinner.

And for those following my writing beyond Birds and Words: I have a story out in The Walrus and a short essay coming out soon in Orion (I will keep you posted when it’s out).


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.