Tag Archives: Snowy owl

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!



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!

An Ookpik in an Ookpik

Dearest Birders!

You may have missed the big news around here, but Birds and Words got a new winter coat. Believe it or not, this is actually tremendously birdy information, just bear with me. While out on one of my (many) outings to find the Painted Bunting, I ran into a woman wearing a gorgeous, yet sporty red knee-length coat that I instantly began to covet. It turned out the brand was a Montreal-based company called OOKPIK. And once I learned that Ookpik is the Inuktitut word for Snowy Owl, I knew there was no turning back. Oh yes, you read that correctly: I based my winter coat decision solely on avian criteria. As luck would have it, the coat also turned out to be both warm and semi-stylish, which helps, but it’s quite possible I might have bought anything from a company called Ookpik.

And on Saturday it finally happened: I saw an Ookpik in an Ookpik! Truth be told, I saw three Snowy Owls. In fact, it ended up only being a five-species day (Snowies were preceded by a million Red-Tailed Hawks, our most common Buteo, which I finally learned to ID by the black belly band, a few crows (not anywhere near a murder) and a delightful Northern Shrike, affectionately known as the “butcher bird”, given its predilection for impaling its prey on thorns), but even so I couldn’t have been happier.

The wonder bird! Photo from here.

The majestic, miraculous, magnificent wonder-bird! Photo from here

I’m not sure what it is about Snowies. It might be their regal stature, their fierce yellow eyes, and this time I even noticed a hint of black bangs on the juvenile specimen. Magical feels like an understatement. Or maybe it’s the allure of the Arctic — yet another indicator that I’m a child of Northern climes. Whatever it is, I’m entirely smitten. My fearless leader found our first snowy sitting atop a barn, displaying its dramatic head rotations. I could have sworn the snowy winked at me, but I was in a bit of a trance, so my narrative may not be 100% reliable. I found the second snowy in a most improbable location: he was resting atop a pine tree, treating the upper branches as if it were an ottoman. The top of the pine tree cradled the bulky owl, and I stared (and yelped etc) in disbelief; I could have watched that bird for hours. The third and final Snowy was hanging out on an irrigation structure in the middle of the fields, likely on the lookout for rodents of all and every persuasion.

It was a glorious day. My snow tires got a workout and I can finally say that seeing an Ookpik in an Ookpik is quite possibly the best thing ever.

This Place

Devoted Birders!

I’ve been thinking a lot about how birding has changed me in unexpected ways. I’ve fallen in love with Southern Ontario and its parks, rivers, wetlands, sewage lagoons, beaches (who knew Ontario had beaches?!), fossils, woodlands. Of course, I harbour no illusions about this landscape of mine: it’s not remarkable in any way, there’s nothing sublime in it whatsoever, but now that I know many birding hotspots, and as I get to know the local species, along with their predictable, but sometimes peculiar, comings and going, the province has started to really feel like home. I’ve lived in Ontario on and off since 1987 (with a seventeen-year interlude, mind you), and the province has always inspired a feeling wanderlust in me, a take-me-anywhere-but-here mentality. Strangely, now that I’m birding that feeling has abated. I used to find the familiar both boring and altogether too easy; now, with every season, I’m starting to see the nuance of familiarity. I relish the return of Snowy owls and breathe a sigh of relief when I see them back in familiar terrain. This may well be age (middle age?) but I marvel most consistently at the everydayness of this familiar landscape and the fact that I’m learning more and more about its geography.

All that to say that although I love traveling and fantasize about northern light and landscapes pretty much constantly and imagine packing my bags and heading back for Whitehorse or the Lofoten Islands, I am, inadvertently, becoming a child of this place, of this altogether plain, mountain-less, ocean-less, sublime-less, and yet utterly magical place. And it’s very likely the birds’ fault.

Yesterday, minus 20 (give or take) degrees Celsius, winds beating our faces, we set out. In spite of the weather, or perhaps because of the weather. Either way, it’s winter and I’ve come to love the freezing temperatures. A welcome jolt to the system, this cold. We visited with the local Peregrine falcon who nests on the lift bridge between Hamilton and Burlington, we communed with the hundreds of Long tail ducks, I finally grasped the difference between a Canvasback duck and a Redhead by seeing them side-by-side. There were also coots, trumpeter swans, bufflehead, greater and lesser scaup, common mergansers — all usual suspects for January. And just when the day started to feel a little too uneventful we stopped by the Bronte Harbor and saw our first Snowy owl of the year. I gave out a little yelp and said what I say every single weekend I’m out in the field (except that awful day last fall when we stared at 400 house sparrows for hours in a freezing car, desperately in search of the eurasian tree sparrow and came home with NOTHING), “oh my goodness, people! this is the best day ever!” And that’s how birding works.

It really does transform a day and a place into the best thing ever.