Tag Archives: Snowy owl

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.

 

Ruffling Feathers

Beloved birders,

Here’s an indication of my mood:

Print by Kathryn Lancashire, 2017. Check out her artwork. She paints the best birds!

I had the good fortune of meeting the awesome artist/designer Kathryn Lancashire on Twitter, and bought her most recent print a few weeks ago when she announced that all proceeds would go to Planned Parenthood. I love everything about this print, from the pussy hat to the bird to the message. Indeed — now is the time to ruffle some feathers.

I am utterly afraid for this world, and our natural habitats in particular. News tends to make me physically ill, so I’m doing the only thing I know how to do: having difficult conversations, supporting organizations I care about who are doing meaningful work. I’m also spending as much time as I can doing the things I care about — namely, birding and immersing myself in art that I find thought-provoking, beautiful, hilarious, and, yes, difficult.

This morning we headed north of the city and saw FIVE snowy owls. Two of those I managed to spot on my own. Interspersed with the owls were numerous flocks of snow buntings, little white-winged wonders. A little further afield we saw rough-legged hawks, both dark and light morphs, and further still I noticed a flock of something or other which was most likely BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS, but none of us could say that with 100% certainty. I like getting full frontal views of my favorite birds, so I guess I will keep looking. And that’s how it always is with birding: you see the bird you want to see when you’re meant to see it. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

A few weeks ago, I thought I was meant to go to Amherst Island with the Toronto Ornithological Club to see a gazillion owls, but my body seemed to have other plans in store for me, which included a stomach bug and lots of nastiness, the details of which I will spare you. The owls didn’t happen because the body simply did what it had to do. How primitive life feels, sometimes. How utterly basic. But then once all is functioning once again, how miraculous it feels to be upright and energetic.

Last week I spent a day in Algonquin Park and mistook an American Goldfinch for a resplendent Evening grosbeak, and then mistook an Evening Grosbeak for an American Goldfinch about thirty minutes later. At least I’m consistently wrong about most birds I identify. But then again, five years ago I didn’t seem to know that either one existed, so there’s that. So healthy to be humbled, time and time again.

And yet, I did have an astonishing moment out birding this morning: we saw a woodpecker and my bird guru/guide immediately identified it as Downy, which is logical enough. But I took a closer look for some reason and noticed that the bill seemed to be thicker, in fact almost as long as the head is wide, and I ventured to disagree with the ID. “Uh… I think it’s a Hairy,” I said not-so-tentatively. And the guru looked again and indeed, it was a Hairy. Go figure. Who knew that identifying a (largely ubiquitous) Hairy Woodpecker would feel like something verging no the marvellous.

And so here we are in 2017. Ruffling feathers. In the best possible ways.

Hello Mincing Mockingbird (Bring on 2017!)

Beloved Birders,

For those of you following me on Twitter, you might know that I had a momentary, yet profound crisis in November when I realized that the Sibley wall calendar did NOT have a 2017 iteration. I’ve lived with the Sibley calendar since 2010, roughly when my birdy nerdy ways began, and couldn’t really imagine how I’d cope without one. In my mind, David Sibley can do no wrong (except for that minor misstep when he chose the CANADA GOOSE as the September bird, and my birthday month began on the wrong note), and his calendar has become a critical part of my home-office decor. I searched for a replacement for the Sibley and eventually settled upon an Audubon calendar, but let’s face it, it wasn’t SIBLEY.

Yesterday, I went to my mailbox to find the most amazing gift: a MINCING MOCKINGBIRD wall-calendar by Matt Adrian, whose bird art blows me away. Check out this majestic Snowy:

Matt Adrian's Snowy Owl. From the Mincing Mockingbird wall calendar.

Matt Adrian’s Snowy Owl. From the Mincing Mockingbird wall calendar.

Now imagine a calendar with 12 such glorious images. And that’s what I received from a friend in NJ when I was least expecting it. In a way, the gift summarizes 2016: unexpected gifts in the midst of, well, all sorts of, world politics which started resembling a dystopian world more and more.

But in the midst of everything, there were extraordinary highlights:

  • A trip to Israel, where I met my wonderful relatives and their 45+ feline creatures and realized that my marriage can be summed up by the phrase “the steppe buzzard and the little bee-eater.”
  • A pair of hand-knit socks, made from wool called BLUE TIT, no less, from an amazing new acquaintance on Twitter
  • an introductory ballet class, where I move in fantastically clunky ways, but every so often I sense a glimmer of grace
  • an ornithology class (I’m four chapters in and currently learning the difference between pennaceous and plumulaceous feathers) which saved me on election night since I had the luxury of choosing theropod dinosaurs over the alarming and depressing results trickling in on my computer screen
  • an owl-shaped soap-on-a-rope
  • an unexpected warbler party at the banding station; watching my friends band a Snowy owl in the wild
  • multiple bird-chases that yielded a Gray Kingbird, a Lark Sparrow, among other highlights
  • wearing my binoculars more than ever before
  • seeing my first Pileated woodpecker and discovering the unexpected loss of no longer having a nemesis bird
  • watching my nephew learn to walk, “talk,” and grow 12+ teeth
  • driving the backroads in Southeastern Arizona and developing a rather keen fondness for taxidermy

It wasn’t all rosy: there were losses, from which I’m still reeling, painful rejections, spectacular failures of all and every persuasion, but that is pure evidence of living, putting myself out there, again and again.

This world is a truly strange and wonderful place, forever surprising, often devastating, and endlessly fascinating. And though I’m a little sad to retire my Sibley calendar, I’m entirely ready for the Mincing Mockingbird. Bring on 2017!

 

Speechless

Beloved Birders,

The great French writer Stendhal once wrote about traveling to Florence and feeling overwhelmed by all the art and architecture surrounding him, and ultimately being unable to process it all. In the end, he became physically ill — including dizzy spells, palpitations of the heart, etc — as a result of the aesthetic overload he experienced while exploring the city and encountering “celestial sensations”. Psychiatrists have later called this experience the Stendhal syndrome or the Florence syndrome or even “hyperkulturemia”.

Well, birders, rural Barrie Ontario doesn’t come close to visiting Florence, but I could relate to Stendhal yesterday when I saw TWELVE SNOWY OWLS during a day spent driving the back roads of Simcoe County with two talented and generous bird handers.

Here's a female Snowy on a post. Miraculously, this photo was taken by me. Hence the questionable quality, but there I was snapping pictures like a breathless maniac.

Here’s a female Snowy on a post. Miraculously, this photo was taken by me. Hence the questionable quality, but there I was snapping pictures like a breathless maniac.

The day started out slowly, with the requisite hour-long traffic jam getting out of Toronto, but once we were on the back roads about an hour north of the city we were alone with the elements. And the owls. We were out owl banding and though we only caught one bird, I spent the day breathless, staring out the window, surveying fields, hydro posts, looking for large whitish blobs anywhere I could find them. I sat in the back with the traps and the faint stench of hamsters and mice which ended up smelling like fine perfume by the end of the day, so altered was my state of mind.

I had once seen six snowy owls in one day and had considered that the apex of good fortune and perfection. Yesterday’s count of 12 left me positively speechless. It wasn’t so much the number that impressed me but the fact that while we drove the snowy back roads, I was singularly occupied by the task of observing my surroundings.

If someone had told me, five years ago (or even one, for that matter) that I would be able to sit still for eight hours and simply look out the window for white blobs against a mostly white background, and that I could do this without pulling my hair out and dying of boredom, I would have laughed out loud.

But you see I’ve spent most of the winter working pretty hard and wishing I were elsewhere, dreaming of some other elusive place, and it’s a frustrating place to inhabit, this wanting something OTHER. And yesterday, for the first time all winter, I found myself happy exactly where I was, looking intently for white on white, eyes growing feeble in the mid-day light. Birds are so much a master class in learning how to see and how to be present. The actual banding part of the day was slow, but I didn’t care. Had we caught nothing, I would have still been thrilled. My friends kept asking me if I was ok, if I wasn’t disappointed, and I kept telling them that the act of looking gave me the greatest pleasure of all.

And then we caught a snowy and the adrenaline kicked in. We set up a trap for a gorgeous male who was eyeing us from a hydro pole, but just as we threw down the hamster trap he absconded in a different direction. We were about to move the trap, when suddenly an enormous female appeared out of nowhere and swooped down toward the poor little rodent. Charlotte extracted her from the trap  masterfully — in a matter of seconds — and suddenly there we were in the car with a 5.5 pound SNOWY OWL! I didn’t hold her, but I kept petting her head and mumbling absurdities about how she is the cutest thing in the world after my baby nephew and at that minute I felt exactly like poor Stendhal in Italy. ‘t was freezing, but I took off my coat from the adrenaline rush and realizing that in a matter of minutes this would all turn into a surreal memory. And then after she was banded, we were outside, measuring her wing, weighing her (2515 grams!), photographing her, feeling my fingers slowly growing numb, wondering what I was doing outside in just a hoodie with no coat, and then before I knew it she was off.

Here is the extraordinary beauty.

Here is the extraordinary beauty. She was actually remarkably cooperative.

Check out her wing! The gentleman in the back wearing a sharp fur hat and shades was a Conservation Officer who stopped us as we were banding the bird to see my friend's permit. Once he saw the Snowy he stuck around and couldn't stop taking photos of her.

Check out her wing! The gentleman in the back wearing a sharp fur hat and shades was a Conservation Officer who stopped us as we were banding the bird to see my friend’s permit. Once he saw the Snowy he stuck around and couldn’t stop taking photos of her. The picture kind of looks like something out of a Russian mobster movie. But no, this is southern Ontario. 

I never thought I’d have the chance to get that close to a Snowy. Bubo scandiacus. And just like that, the whole thing feels like a dream…

First Birds

Beloved birders,

I posted a new year’s greeting a few days ago, but if I’m really honest, the new year actually began yesterday with my first bird sightings of 2016. There were common mergansers and Bonaparte gulls and common goldeneye (which I misidentified as bufflehead — a bit too hasty and a bit overly confident in my desire to ID quickly), a few gorgeous horned larks running amok in the fields. I was happy just to be out, looking, observing the world on a cold Saturday morning that did not feel nearly cold enough for this time of year. We were an hour north of Toronto and the creeks hadn’t yet frozen over, patches of grass still poked through snow. It felt more like late March than January, only without the beginnings of frenetic bird activity.

And then, just as I was feeling depressed about the climate and the destabilizing warmth of the winter we’re having, we happened upon a female Snowy Owl sitting atop a little post. We hopped out of the car and watched her flaunt her fabulous neck-rotations for about twenty minutes. She posed agreeably for the folks taking photos, and suddenly everything felt right in the world and I no felt depressed about matters meteorological and climatological and simply marvelled. And isn’t that the place of true be inning — the act of marvelling at the beauty of nature that just is. Happy new year, again. May it be a year of seeing deeply, with greater attention and — I’ll just go ahead and say it — awe.

Photo by Corey Cameron.

Photo by Corey Cameron.

November Trifecta

Dearest Birders,

Usually November tends to score pretty high on the blah-ness scale for me: dwindling light, onset of cold, but without the colour-frenzy of October, too early to embrace December festivities and much too early to justify a holiday card-writing extravaganza, onslaught of work, and often, to make matters worse, a dearth of fantastic birds.

Not sure what’s happening this year, but so far (and we’re well into the final week), it’s been anything but blah. Weather gods are acting utterly peculiar and we’ve had some of our most gorgeous indian summer days in mid-November! Light is, indeed, dwindling, but this year it’s not affecting me much as usual. Maybe it’s because I’m waking up earlier and catching the sunrise on my daily morning walks, and somehow that bolsters me for the day. Maybe it’s that I’ve had the honour of teaching two wonderful classes to remarkable audiences at the Royal Conservatory and Glendon College (Living and Learning in Retirement) that have offered intellectual stimulation and good cheer; more than anything, they remind me that aging isn’t just about mourning one’s youth (which, alas, we seem to do a fair bit of, here at Birds and Words headquarters), but it’s also about taking (and making) the time  to explore this strange world of ours with boundless curiosity. And that is something I’m more than happy to look forward to.

And the birds! Saturday began somewhat inauspiciously: not only were we headed to Niagara for a morning of gull watching (for those of you who have never been on a gull outing, it’s like playing Where’s Waldo for hours on end while shivering and succumbing to gale-winds and never actually finding waldo in the end because it turns out he had other plans that day), but I was convinced that I had just lost my wallet. The gulls did, indeed, turn out to be underwhelming, but the winds were nonexistent, and we ended up finding three Tufted titmice instead of the lone Kittiwake. I hadn’t seen a Tufted titmouse since I held one in my hand in October 2012 at Ruthven banding station. In a sense, the tufted titmouse is the bird that started it all. I had been afraid to hold him, but the enthusiastic volunteers at the banding station talked me off the cliff, put him in my hand and quickly snapped a photo. In the picture, I’m hovering somewhere between unbelievable joy and total terror.

It seems I’ve trained my memory to be as good a revisionist historian as it can. When I replay the moment in my mind, I craft an expansive narrative around my three seconds with a Tufted titmouse in my hand: I pinpoint those seconds as the turning point, the moment I decided I would volunteer in a banding station, the moment I wanted birds to be a regular part of my life, the moment where I knew that my calendar now gravitated around two poles–Spring and Fall migration.

After reconnecting with the titmice, we found red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, a brown creeper, white-breasted nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos. We left the Niagara region after a couple hours and headed back to Oakville where real magic awaited us. At the beach in Bronte Harbor, we saw a Red Phalarope bobbing about in the water, no more than two feet from shore! Seeing that lifer would have been enough for me — I didn’t even need binoculars, he was that close! — but we were alerted to cave swallows flying around, about 50 meters behind us! And there they were, three of them, choreographing elaborate nose-dives, just grazing the water, and flying up again. A few times they narrowly missed out heads! The cave swallows are on their way south to Texas or Mexico, but for the past three years, it seems that Oakville has become a reliable stop on their southward migratory route! And if that wasn’t enough — TWO LIFERS — we also saw a Snowy owl on the rocks in Bronte Marina.

Who would have thought that the red phalarope, cave swallow and a snowy owl trifecta could be seen in the same place? And when we returned to our parked cars, it turned out that my wallet wasn’t lost after all; it had slid under my seat. Who knew all of this excitement was possible in November?

And for those of you following my birdy interior decorating, we have a new acquisition in our living room. There’s no turning back now. I am officially one of those birders!

New Birds of America poster acquisition from PopchartLab.

Close-up of our new Birds of America poster acquisition from PopchartLab. Even Mr. Birds and Words is a (reluctant) fan. 

It turns out all sorts of magical things are possible in November!

Small Confession

Dearest birders,

I have a small confession to make. We’ve had a long and hard winter and I’ve loved every minute of it, particularly the birding. The other day a friend innocently asked whether winter birding was better than spring birding. Her question didn’t come from sheer ignorance but rather in response to my overblown, outsized enthusiasm for birding in freezing conditions. I started laughing because of course here in southern Ontario nothing compares to the delights of spring birding, neither in terms of quantity or quality. Spring is where things are at: warblers, thrushes, sparrows, raptors, an embarrassment of riches, really.

Don’t get me wrong. Birding has skewed my internal calendar: I now live for the month of May. But it’s with a tinge of anxiety that I approach this high season because I know how short lived it is, and I also know how daunting things get when the sky alights with birds, when I’m faced with so many songs at once that all I start to hear is warbling cacophony. I’ll be honest here: spring birding intimidates me. Every year it reminds me that I haven’t quite done enough homework when I fail to ID songs of even the most common of warblers. Among many other things, Spring is all about (re)learning humility, about accepting where I’m at and working from that place, about not giving up, about (re)learning patience, about process. Although I look forward to May-madness, much of spring birding hovers around frustration–that’s the downside of sensory overload.

And here’s where winter birding enters the equation: For me, winter birding revolves around pure pleasure. The stakes are lower, I’m thrilled if I see anything, and the number of species is reduced to something more or less manageable. I’m a little ashamed of my disproportionate love of winter birding because I think my adoration might be a byproduct of my ego. I don’t feel (as much) like a bumbling beginner in the winter. I’m at the point where I can easily identify over a dozen waterfowl species, and where I can even go out by myself and actually find birds. I (almost) feel like a bona fide birder. I suppose rather than feel ashamed about it, I’ll continue to embrace it, and relish every Snowy owl sighting that’s left of 2015. (Here, by the way, is my panegyric to Winter birding, published on Ontario Nature’s blog.)

And now just might be the time to start listening to those warbler song cd’s! Maybe I am ready for spring after all!