Tag Archives: Scoter

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.

Winter Birding

Beloved birders!

There’s no better way to deal with winter than to embrace it full-on. And by embrace, I mean go on an 8 km walk looking for waterfowl and owls in Tommy Thompson park with the good people of the Ontario Field Naturalists. Had I checked the weather report, I might not have gone on the outing — -10 celsius, plus wind. I put my woollens to work (basically, two layers of everything) and set out before reading the weather forecast.

And…the weather was bracing. I met up with over 20 other intrepid, fabulously winterized birders and off we went. Highlights of the day included a gorgeous Northern Pintail duck, an American Widgeon, a King Eider (sadly not in gorgeous adult male breeding plumage, but what can you do), White-winged Scoters, and a Mockingbird that struck me as deeply confused because he was IN the water, pretending to be a duck. Birds are weird creatures. There seems to be no other way to say it.

The greatest peril of the day wasn’t freezing my extremities, as I had feared. Oh no, it was trying to bite into a rock-hard, frozen granola bar and nearly breaking my tooth in the process. But near-injuries aside, the day was a success. Three species of mergansers, a gorgeous Red-tail hawk, and the other usual winter suspects. The numbers weren’t spectacular, but it felt so good to be out in the semi-wilds of Toronto, binoculars in hand.

The beautiful, sunny winter day wasn’t without a tinge of sadness: I learned from my friend Anne-Marie that Don Barnett, fabulous birder, and the person who introduced me to the Christmas Bird Count, passed away. I didn’t know Don well, but I have fond memories of his encouragement, exemplary generosity and empathy back when I was a total novice who still couldn’t tell a Chickadee from a nuthatch.

(In other news, it appears that Anton Chekhov traveled back to Moscow from Sakhalin Island by way of Ceylon, where he acquired a mongoose with whom he lived for two years before donating the animal to the Moscow Zoo. This sheds light on a whole different side of Chekhov. The Chekhov-Mongoose terrain seems rich and positively bursting with potential meaning.)

Transformations and a Great Gray Owl

Dearest Birders! If someone had told me, oh about five years ago, that I would be the person who would delight in standing outside with binoculars glued to my eyes, staring into a tree until I had the leaves or pine needles memorized only to realize that the long-awaited bird had other plans than to fly into my line of vision, I might have laughed out loud. And by “laughed” I mean I would have considered the idea preposterous. Impossible. Grotesque. So not me.

And yet, somehow it has become me. The most curious thing about birding — and believe me, I find almost everything about birding utterly curious — is what it has taught me about myself. I have become that person I didn’t know had the potential to exist. That person who sets her alarm early every Saturday morning, who wanders out of the house in the dark, who drives hundreds of kilometers in search or an elusive bird, who considers it a glorious day when a Long Eared Owl graces my field of vision for a fleeting glimpse. It’s a transformation that crept up on me, unplanned, unimaginable. Which, in and of itself, is a curious thing to happen for someone who is so obsessed with planning her life, with orchestrating its every turn. Or, at the very least, trying to. Is that what birding is teaching me? To loosen up a little? To allow for the fact that the unplanned is often better than anything I possibly could have envisioned?

In any event, that fleeting glimpse — the almost-seen, almost-enjoyed, almost-experienced — has become a staple of my birding days. I set out expecting to see one thing and somehow it doesn’t happen. I’m thinking of that (non) Long-Eared Owl day back in November, where we walked through muddy fields for what felt like hours and ultimately saw nothing. But then, a half-hour later, we stood on the shores of Lake Ontario, inhaling the extraordinary sight of three Scoter species IN ONE DAY. In one place! White-winged Scoter, glorious Surf Scoter and the severe Black Scoter all captured in one gulp — without even having to move my binoculars! The failed glimpse of the Owl unexpectedly delivered us straight into Scoter-paradise.

And then there are the equally wondrous days when things just work out, for no particular reason, as if they’re scripted. Today we headed out to Brooklin (note the spelling!), Ontario in search of a Great Gray Owl and…I saw him! (Actually, it may well have been a “her” given the bird’s tremendous size)

Photo from here.

Photo from here.

Here is the majestic Strix Nebulosa, a life bird for me. The one I saw had piercingly bright yellow eyes, and they gray circular stripes around the eyes looked like they’d been purposely coiffed, as if the bird has just stepped out of the poshest hair salon. I couldn’t even have imagined a hairdo so complex and textured — one that goes against all the laws of fashion that forbid layering patterns. And yet it works. The bird sat atop a branch, posing for us, showing off its regal, slightly cacophonous plumage, and for the first time I seriously regretted not having a camera (or, let’s face it, any photographic talent whatsoever). Strix nebulosa was perfect. In fact, the bird was even better than I’d imagined. And the whole time I watched it (through my sexy Zeiss binoculars, through the scope, I couldn’t get enough of this creature), I kept wishing there were a way to capture this first sighting just a little longer, to prolong the magic of locking eyes with this Great Gray, to encapsulate this moment in time and prevent it from ossifying into something altogether ordinary (oh, just another Great Gray, as I fear I might say some 10 years from now).

I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect day. But a tiny part of me feels bereft; how I wish I could once again be the person I was this morning, on the cusp of seeing my first Great Gray Owl. So it goes.