Tag Archives: Varied Thrush

Happy New Year!

Dearest Birders,

We’ve been ambushed by the flu for the last couple of weeks here at Birds and Words, which had me thinking all sorts of grim thoughts accompanied by a slight fever and an aching body. And under the influence of this mind-numbing flu that somehow engulfed everything, I began to forget how much of this year really was truly wonderful (in fact, just about everything save the last two weeks).

So a recap: 2014 turned into my birdiest year ever. I spent nearly every Saturday out in the field with my amazing, patient, wise birding group (well every Saturday until September hit, whereupon a tidal wave of lecture prep had me hiding out in my home-office for days at a time; by November sanity demanded that I spend Saturdays outside again, and never one to argue with Sanity, I obeyed. It worked; life improved. See previous posts about my difficulties with November).

I extracted my first bird from a mist net at the banding station, nearly died of fright, but did it anyhow. The bird in question was a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), one of my all-time favourites, and he was so confused and annoyed by said extraction that he proceeded to barf up berries all over my hand. And in spite of that, I found the experience nothing short of miraculous.

I completed my first Birdathon and wrote about it for Maisonneuve, one of my favourite Canadian publications. And I recently found out that Reader’s Digest bought the article, so come March or April every single doctor’s office in Canada may well have patients itching to complete a birdathon of their own. (Nothing wrong with wishful thinking.) 18 hours, 229 species including an extraordinary lifer: a Yellow-headed Blackbird.

I received valuable life lessons from an Acorn Woodpecker in Sedona, when I was so frustrated by my inability to find a Red-faced warbler that I nearly threw my binoculars into the recycling bin. A few seconds before quitting birding entirely and tossing my bins, the Acorn woodpecker busily tapped out a rhythm in front of me over and over again. He was so persistent I couldn’t ignore him, and the more I looked the more mesmerized I became and… to make a long story short, it turned out it wasn’t yet time for me to quit birding after all. I assume it never will be.

I saw my first Great Grey Owl, my first electric blue Mountain Bluebird, watched my husband feed Sandhill cranes at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary near Vancouver, marvelled at the Black terns flying low over Tiny Marsh near Barrie, fell in love with Canvasback ducks, found the dreamiest Red-headed woodpecker, and narrowly missed my first Pileated Woodpecker.

I also made countess mistakes, called out misidentifications, lamented the almost-seen birds, the just-flew birds, the “was here yesterday” birds and the “came just after you left” birds.

There was also a glorious CBC (Christmas Bird Count), one fall morning a week spent at the banding station a depressing morning of staring at hundreds of House sparrows trying to detect the lone Eurasian tree sparrow and failing miserably, and a remarkable Varied thrush and a miraculous Spotted towhee who’d lost his way and somehow found himself in Southern Ontario instead of California. And there were countless other sightings. And deep gratitude: for the birds who never fail to teach me something new just by being, for the ability and sustained desire to see them, for the urban parks and paths and trails that sustain me, and finally, for the people I bird with — they enrich my life by being my partners-in-looking.

It’s been a wonderful year and I can’t wait to see what 2015 will bring. Thanks for reading, and wishing you all a happy, healthy, adventure-filled New Year!


It’s a Western Year in the East

Dearest Birders! You wouldn’t believe it — another Western vagrant as ended up within driving distance of Toronto. This time it was a Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius), a not-so-distant cousin of the American Robin. A gorgeous, brilliantly hued albeit silent, female beauty of a bird. Not quite as striking as her male counterpart, but still thrilling nonetheless.

Varied Thrush. Photo from here.

Varied Thrush. Photo from here.

What brings this bird from the Cascade mountains to suburban Guelph, Ontario? How did she lose her way? She looked OK, all things considered, and we watched her nibble on berries in -21 degree Celsius weather yesterday morning. I’ll admit that she was a bit fidgety, so perhaps she was a tad anxious what with the distance between Ontario and Oregon.

So far, of the three lifers I’ve seen this year, two have been West Coast visitors. The Spotted Towhee and now, the Varied Thrush. Should this kind of behavior continue, I’ll start to believe that I’m living on the west coast and perhaps our frigid winter will once again become bearable? Perhaps the birds are playing mind games with me, lest I get too settled in my ways. In any event, the Varied Thrush was a thrill. As we were leaving, a flock of Cedar Waxwings graced the trees behind us, as a Dark-eyed Junco perfected his trilling vocal patterns. Northern Cardinals, Red-breasted Nuthatches, rabid chickadees, and a Downy Woodpecker serenaded us as we traversed the arboretum in Guelph.  Actually, I’ll be honest: we were busy ambling through the arboretum, freezing whatever was left of our toes while the birds feasted on abundant bird seed and paid very little attention to us. In fact, they paid absolutely no attention to us. We were out and about, on a quest, and, well, the birds are just busy living.

Birding is humbling in every sense of the term. Not only do the birds rule the terrain — even though we arrive armed with cars and GPS’s and Ipods and Twitter and Ebird and whathaveyou — but they remind us how utterly irrelevant we are. We set out in search of a particular bird, with the intention of marvelling at it, but more often than not, the bird has its own agenda. How often we forget that the bird’s agenda — survival, procreation — is so vastly different from ours, and that they care so little — let’s be honest, they’re oblivious — to our compulsion to list, to count, and to record our sightings.

There’s also a danger in getting excited about vagrants. These Western vagrants are blown off course, in unfamiliar terrain, far from their known food sources. It’s great to see them here, but also a bit terrifying. What if they don’t make it through the harsh winter? What if they’re not able to rejoin their kin? What if this — our prized sighting — is actually the end of the road for them?

And so the day was tinged with something bitter sweet. A brilliant sighting, a gorgeous new bird to add to my mental collection, and also a bird in a certain amount of danger. Why is it that we so reluctantly think of the latter?

Our day ended with lovely, familiar ducks — Hooded mergansers, American Coot, Black ducks, Mallards, Common Goldeneye — and even though there was nothing out of the ordinary about them (though the Hoodie is easily the best coiffed specimen in Ontario this time of year) I found myself so thrilled to see these ducks and know that they were in no danger of falling victim to our harsh winter, or our unknown terrain. These were at home.