Tag Archives: warblers

Spring in These Parts

Beloved Birders,

It’s May, peak of spring migration, the month I’ve been looking forward to all year. And like anything I long for, there is also attendant anxiety: will I see more warblers than last year? Will I manage to see that Canada warbler that has eluded me for two years no? Will I properly savor the month of May without wishing it to go faster or slower — will I just let it be while knowing that I’m getting out as much as I can, binoculars in hand, looking up whenever possible, learning more bird songs, recognizing more field marks?

Of course May is all of that and more. I’ve been volunteering at the banding station when work has allowed (on average 1-2 times/weeks), and it’s been wonderful. The act of scribing only gets more riveting, as I’m slowly improving my ability to age and sex birds; I can now tell you which kinglet tail looks younger (most of the time). The knowledge doesn’t come in robust bursts — as I wish it would — largely because I’m not putting in the requisite hours (because…well, work, life, etc), but it’s trickling in slowly, relentlessly, and the accumulation of bits of knowing — birdy factoids, mainly — is a pleasure in itself.

Apart from all the magic of birds that May brings, it also ushers in some stunning fashion experiments and discoveries. As Lake Ontario water levels continue to rise, we’ve been forced to move into classier attire at the banding station, since knee-high boots no longer suffice:

Yours truly at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station. Photo taken by Hellen Fu, approximately 10 minutes after I had extracted a black-and-white warbler from a mist net, accompanied by the whooshing sound of a gigantic carp swimming by.  

I know not whether there could be a sexy way to sport hip waders, but I certainly haven’t figured it out yet. In any event, walking through thigh-high water is a far better leg workout than most of what I do on the elliptical machine. It should be recommended in all fitness regimens.

Sadly the photo doesn’t show the full splendor of my baseball hat: perhaps if you look very closely you can see the outlines of an embroidered Javelina. I bought this hat last December at the Chiricahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona and wearing it reminds me of the day I saw approximately 30,000 sandhill cranes and a flock of yellow-headed blackbirds in Whitewater Draw. And even if I hadn’t just extracted my favorite warbler from a mist net (every extraction is an EVENT), I’d still be smiling because when wearing a Javelina hat — container of so many memories — how could anything but a smile be possible?

I wonder about my fidelity to my favorite birds. I’ve seen dozens of birds more splendid than the Red-winged blackbird, but I’m still indebted to the redwing for being the bird that made me look twice. As my spark bird, it holds the top place, if somewhat unwarranted, in my hierarchy of favorite birds. Then there’s the black-and-white warbler — the bird trapped in a zebra outfit — which I also love best (yes, I have a favorite for every species) because it was the first warbler I recognized BY MYSELF. Now I know it by its behavior — the warbler that thinks it’s a nuthatch and often creeps, head-first, down a tree. I still swoon when I see it, even thought the Blackburnian, Hooded warbler, Prothonotary, and Northern Parula are, objectively, more spectacular. And yet, in the end, I’ll always choose the black-and-white. The warbler that made me want to see more, the one that made me recognize the potential in these tiny, fluttering migrants that boldly embark on the most perilous of journeys twice a year.

Anyhow all that to say that this spring has been extraordinary. I finally saw a Tennessee warbler in the hand, and marvelled at its elegant white eyestripe, and seeing the bird so close-up has finally cured me of years-worth of statements like, “Tennessee warblers are boring.” What a gift it is to be able to see birds this close, even if it does require hip waders and 4:15 am alarms. How wonderfully strange life is.

 

On Wanting and Not Wanting

Beloved Birders!

I’ll be entirely honest here: I didn’t want to go to Long Point yesterday. The weather was dismal: flurries, freezing fog and an attendant, constant drizzle, coupled with winds and eternally grey skies. What was the point of driving the two hours to see a bunch of swans and sandhill cranes in poor visibility when I had already seen Tundra swans a few weeks ago and had seen more cranes in Arizona than I could ever have imagined. Would it really be worth it?

You’ll also be happy know, beloved birders, that I kept these thoughts to myself.

Our first stop on Lakeshore Rd yielded a dozen or so gorgeous, if prehistoric-looking, Sandhill Cranes standing in a small ditch very close to the road. As soon as I saw their facial red patch, I was transfixed. Sure, I’d seen close to 30,000 of them in Whitewater Draw a few months ago, but cranes never get old, especially the way they parachute down from the sky, exhibiting the kind of celestial grace I can only ever aspire to in ballet class, when I see my own jumps in the mirror end in unsavory thuds.

Shortly thereafter we heard the bugling calls of the Tundra swans, a bit of cacophony on its own, but when you know it signals the advent of Spring, the sound becomes a sign of something larger, more majestic, and you delight in it, over and over and over again (and they are incessant).

These are the birds I had expected to see — Long Point never disappoints this time of year — but I still wondered if it was worth the drive.

And then we stopped at Lee Brown’s to scan the small pond and I saw a sight I couldn’t ever have imagined. Hundreds of American Wigeon — with their platinum mohawk-streak — both in and out of the water, waddling on the grass, in the company of Wood Ducks. We scanned for Eurasian widgeon, but it was not to be. In the water, I saw more Ring-necked Ducks than I’d ever seen before — I can now safely ID them because of the white patch on their side which looks like a sideways whale (thanks for the tip, Mary!). And there were Redheads and Northern Shovelers and Northern Pintail, which I loved all the more because I could ID them. And later we stopped in another place and picked up all three Merganser species, Scaup (lesser & greater though I couldn’t tell those apart have no fear — I”m not yet ready to change my brand to Intermediate Birder Extraordinaire) along with a bonus Bald Eagle.

On our drive back home we decided to make a quick stop at RBG in Hamilton/Burlington, where a particularly cooperative Ross’s Goose was reported. To be honest, I didn’t really want to stop there either because I’ve never been a Goose-Gal if you know what I mean. I love warblers and even raptors and woodpeckers and wrens and most things, but geese leave me cold, so I didn’t see what the possible big deal about a Ross’s goose could be. (And who was Ross anyhow? Ah, turns out he was Bernard R. Ross, a 19th Century budding naturalist who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Northwest Territories; he was ultimately responsible for considering the Ross’s goose as a distinct species and later donated all his specimens to the Smithsonian. More on Bernard R. Ross anon.)

Again, I kept my opinions to myself. Once we arrived at RBG, and I laid eyes on the stupendous, and utterly bizarre, diminutive Ross’s goose, for which there exists no other adequate descriptor than CUTIE, I understood. This is a goose like no other. A miniature Snow goose, a strange otherworldly creature amidst the gaggle of Canada Geese, he stands out, proudly and defiantly. There he was, grazing on a little hillside, with the Canada Geese who were almost twice his size. What was he really thinking that this sight could look remotely normal?  

(The fabulous photograph comes from here.) There was something fantastical and extravagant about this smallish goose walking proudly amidst giants.

I couldn’t have imagined a better way to end the day.

Oh but there WAS a better way to end the day: we finished off at Colonel Sam Smith park, where we picked up the King Eider (juvenile, sadly), a Red-necked grebe, long-tail ducks, and brought our waterfowl count to a record-breaking (for this beginner birder) 25 species.

Thank heavens I never listen to myself in earnest when I don’t WANT to do something. As with writing, there is no WANTING. One just does it, ploughs ahead, shows up, and the rewards are colossal (some of the time).

Staring at a Magnolia Warbler

Beloved Birders!

There’s a magnolia warbler staring at me from my wall. It’s March and the Mincing Mockingbird calendar pic couldn’t be more uplifting:

Magnolia Warbler by the Mincing Mockingbird. Image from here.

This means spring is actually coming, which, in truth, was confirmed to me two weeks ago when I saw my first Killdeer up on the mountain near Hamilton. But seeing the Maggie face to face like this is of another order of magnitude. Two months from now, I’ll be volunteering at the banding station again, will likely extract one from the net and hold it in my hand. That’s when I’ll know it’s actually spring.

That I measure the seasons now by the birds I know, sometimes even by the birds I hold in my hand, is something new. That I measure time by the months until my first pine warbler sighting, first robin, first snowy owl delights me. This year, of course, time and weather are performing peculiar acrobatics: one day it feels like spring, I shed my winter clothing and the next day there’s a dusting of snow on the ground. I feel I’m standing on uncertain ground most days, never exactly sure what to wear, either sweating or shivering. I’m not a creature who basks in uncertainty: I much prefer routine,

And yet the Magnolia warbler stares back at me every time I turn my head to the left, and I can’t help but smile knowing that the trees will soon be dotted with warblers (if you know where to look) and that soon I’ll awake to bird song.

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!

 

Warbler Party Etiquette

Beloved Birders!

Every so often, the stars align and you find yourself smack in the middle of the world’s best Warbler Party:

Photo by Charlotte England. Magnolia, Nashville, Parula, Black-throated Blue warblers.

Photo by Charlotte England. Magnolia, Nashville, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue warblers. I’ll let you figure out which warbler I’m holding.

Last Wednesday at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station (TTPBRS) in Toronto felt like a slow uneventful day until there was a rush of exquisite warblers, exquisite even in their fall plumage! So what’s the etiquette for a Warbler Party?

  1. Study your flashcards (or warbler app or field guide or whatever suits your learning style best). Peterson famously coined the phrase “confusing fall warblers” but have faith: not ALL fall warblers are confusing!
  2. Give yourself permission to get some of the IDs wrong. It’s ok — everyone has made mistakes IDing fall warblers. But do look closely at the bird’s plumage (and their feet!) when you have it in the hand — or if you’re scribing, look closely at what the bander is holding in her hand.
  3. Don’t dress up like a warbler. They’re flashy enough as it is. Wear whatever you’d usually wear in the woods. Yes, your pants will likely be tucked into your socks. Trust me, the warblers won’t mind. They’ll applaud your sensible fashion choice.
  4. Don’t try to talk like a warbler. It’s annoying to those around you. Including the birds.
  5. Always have a decent camera on hand. You won’t want to miss this photo opportunity.
  6. It’s ok to kiss the birds. They’re that cute.
  7. Enjoy every minute it; these parties don’t happen every day. Commit the moment to memory. Come home and tell your partner and your friends. You can bet they’ll be jealous.
  8. Tell people about the party, show them your photos, explain where the birds are flying to and how perilous their journey actually is. Remind yourself (and everyone around you) how privileged we are to have these birds in our midst, and how the work we have to do to ensure that they remain in our midst.
  9. Don’t forget to buy bird friendly coffee — it helps maintain the habitat that these birds desperately need.
  10. If you have cats, keep them indoors. Or walk them on a leash. Leashes are sexy!
  11. Support organizations like FLAP that spread awareness about the dangers migratory birds face in an urban environment — namely window collisions — and also help rescue and rehabilitate injured birds. The birds you see in the photo are the ones we’re losing.
  12. Holding a tiny 8-gram bird in your hand and feeling its heart beat is an emotional experience. You might find yourself speechless when faced with their fragility. Remember: these birds need us to protect them and fight on their behalf just as much as we need them.
  13. The cute photo of the warbler party is a reminder that things we hold dear are in fact imperiled. Visit a local migratory monitoring station, go on a bird walk, watch a youtube video, develop a crush on David Attenborough, do whatever it takes to learn more about birds or if bird-nerdy info isn’t your thing, consider donating to a conservation group.
  14. Squeal with joy! I dare you not to.

Medium-Sized Thrills and a Chicken Mystery

Beloved Birders!

You are no doubt wondering how I’m faring in the company of my new chicken painting, and the answer is absolutely splendidly. The chicken has brightened up my days — and you’ll be happy to know that she finds herself propped up next to a rather fierce print of a hawk by Sarah Kinsella Waite, another favorite artist from Vermont, so though chickens rarely flourish in isolation, mine is well taken care of; as long as the hawk doesn’t viciously attack and abscond with said chicken in his talons — as hawks are wont to do without notice — the two will happily coexist on my desk for years and years to come.

So, chickens aside, this weekend yielded some non-negligible birding thrills. The first was a full frontal view of a SORA — I kid you not. Beloved non-birder readers among you (and let it be known that I welcome and adore all types of readers, whether you’re birdy, non-birdy, or simply a really kindhearted relative of mine), seeing a Sora happens rarely. I’ve heard the call of a sora at least a half dozen times, but these creatures hang out in the reeds and cattails and camouflage perfectly with their surroundings. Imagine my total shock and awe when I finally saw a Sora and realized that it looks very much like a miniature chicken!

Sora

Sora (Porzana carolina). Photo from here. Isn’t there something chickenesque in the bird’s shape? The Sora is a rail — a member fo the Rallidae family — which has to be related to the Galliformes order. Oh no. I’ve gotten myself in a near-taxonomic mess. Please, beloved Bird Nerds, wherever you are, help me solve this mystery? Why does the Sora resemble my somewhat ridiculous Bantam chicken?

And as if seeing the Sora wasn’t enough to make me jump for joy, a VIRGINIA RAIL also leapt out of the cattails and into my field of vision! Two lifers within twenty seconds of each other! And would you believe that all of this took place just north-west of Stratford, in wetlands just outside Mitchell, while we were serenaded by the call of a BELTED KINGFISHER, which I could correctly ID (thanks, Larkwire)?

The whole thing was a bit much and I had to sit down for a while. And then we were on our way to some other wetland somewhere near aforementioned wetland (pardon the geographical ineptitude here; I passed out from the sora/virginia rail overstimulation and napped while we drove from wetland to wetland). As if the day weren’t already a banner day, I then saw a Wilson’s snipe (alas, I could only identify it as “OMG YOU GUYS THERE’S A FAT SHOREBIRD OUT THERE WITH THE LONGEST BILL EVER” — I do aim to be more eloquent and scientific than that, but sometimes that’s all I’ve got in me). And it turned out to be a Wilson’s snipe, and as far as I was concerned, I had just landed in heaven.

You see, this year I was robbed of the American Woodcock. Didn’t see a single one, though I did accidentally flush two of them at the banding station, but I tend not to count fly-by’s, and besides a woodcock has to be seen up-close-and personal to fully appreciate the spectacular accident of nature in all its glory. What other bird pouts so evocatively with eyes firmly planted WAY TOO HIGH on its head? I love the American woodcock. Anyhow, the Wilson’s snipe is a fantastic consolation prize for not getting a woodcock.

Wilson's snipe. Image from here.

Wilson’s snipe. Fabulous image by Terry Sohl from here.

American woodcock. Image from here.

American woodcock. Image from here. See how the Wilson’s snipe comes close to Woodcockian perfection, but not quite? There will be more — much more– on the American woodcock here and elsewhere. Stay tuned.

The following day, I stayed local and birded in High Park with the lovely folks at the TOC and we had warblers galore! Well, perhaps not galore, but enough to keep me happy: Wilson’s, northern parula, black-and-white, yellow-rumped, magnolia, American redstart, northern waterthrush, and I know I’m forgetting a few.

Beloved birders, I have a confession to make. There are days when I wonder why I keep this blog, what the purpose of it is, whether anybody out there is reading. But then every time I write a post I relive a birding adventure and it makes me inordinately happy. So perhaps that’s the only answer I can give: I keep this blog going for myself. To recap and relive.

The Bird I’m Looking At

Beloved birders,

My favorite question, when I meet other birders, is to ask them about their favorite bird. I know it’s an annoying question, but I’m always so curious! It’s also a question that I myself hate answering, because the answer changes almost every day.

My spark bird — the one that started this whole obsession — is the ubiquitous red-winged blackbird, whose shrill call and scarlet epaulets still thrill me every time I see it fly. The bird is common and reminds me of the necessity of admiring even the most habitual birds.

Another bird I can’t help but worship is the Northern Flicker, mainly for its cacophonous plumage patterns; the bird is a living fashion statement. And then there are the warblers: I adore the black-and-white warbler best because it’s the first one I remember seeing, but I also love the hooded warbler for his daring balaclava look. In fact, I think I love all the warblers — even in the fall! — for their unexpected bursts of color. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a blackburnian warbler’s fiery orange neck or the palm warbler’s unexpected rufous crown or the Canada warbler’s slightly gaudy necklace that the bird wears with nothing but pride. And then there’s the unexpected classy look of the black-throated blue warbler, that dispels all fashion advice I had once heard about never wearing navy blue and black together; the black-throated blue assures me that there could not be more faulty advice! I love the prothonotary warbler mainly for its lemony yellow that lights up everything in its midst, but I won’t tell a lie: I also love the prothonotary because I live in Southern Ontario and the bird happens to be endangered and rare in these parts, and seeing the warbler is always AN OCCASION.

I’m slowly starting to see the wisdom in not having in a favorite. Or rather, in admitting that my favorite bird is the one I’m looking at. This weekend I spent a few hours birding with my husband at Ashbridges bay. Since it was just us, we didn’t hit double-digit warbler numbers, but the birds I saw and ID’d on my own thrilled me to no end. I couldn’t take my eyes off the gorgeous Cape May warbler, with its orange-chestnut cheeks and bright yellow breast — almost like a make-up job gone terribly awry — and here the getup spelled nothing but elegance. Next up was the Nashville warbler, which I usually find borderline dull, but yesterday I finally saw the red in its crown. And the Yellow-rumped warblers — common as they are this time of year — made me smile. My husband spotted the bird that turned out to be the Blackburnian and we watched it show off its shimmering colors for us. And even the drab-ish warbling vireo grabbed my attention, with its carefully etched white eye-stripe, and its insistent call.

Warbling vireo. Not the flashiest of warblers, that's for sure, but what a thrill to know its song and recognize it by sound.

Warbling vireo. Not the flashiest of warblers, that’s for sure, but what a thrill to know its song and recognize it by sound. Check out that impressive eyebrow action, too. Image from here

There weren’t large numbers this weekend, but it didn’t matter. I’ll have time to see the other warblers. I think this migration season I’m going to take it a bit slower. After all, it’s all about the bird I’m looking at.

 

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!

Again, for a day

It’s spring here in Toronto. The snow has been gone for weeks now, and what amazes me is how faraway winter now feels. As if I’ve forgotten how to be in winter now that spring has arrived. My boots feel enormous, my parka unwieldy, my scarves and hats unwittingly crowd me; it’s over, the weather patterns tell me. And I consent. My body has fully committed to spring.

And then my bird group decides to drive three hours north of the city, to spend the day in Algonquin park, in Boreal forest heartland, and suddenly we’re navigating snow squalls and it’s winter all over again, and I have to re-acclimatize to this season that I’ve almost entirely forgotten existed. This season that just was, a mere two weeks ago, and now feels like a distant memory. How we are all creatures of weather, it turns out.

We walked snow-covered paths, sometimes falling inwards, knee-deep, in search of a Boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus) and found not one but two! The boreal resembles the ubiquitous Black-capped chickadee, but has a browner head and greyer face and its song feels more drawn out. Put differently, the Black-capped chickadee sings a Boreal chickadee song in double time with more staccato to it.

Here's the Boreal Chickadee. Photo by Daniel Arndt from here.

Here’s the Boreal Chickadee. Photo by Daniel Arndt from here

We continued along the paths desperate for a displaying Spruce grouse. The grouse must have laughed as he no doubt saw us meandering through the woods, freezing slightly, walking single file, positioning one foot cautiously inside the footstep in front of us, and then the next, so as not to collapse into snow. He must have chuckled as we searched for him so earnestly, in silence, so convinced we were that we’d find him.

It was not to be. But to reward us for our diligence, we got a Grey Jay unexpectedly, since most of them are nesting this time of year. And a beaver (in lieu of a moose) also brightened up the day. I’ve never seen Common redpolls with as brilliant a sliver of red–almost as if they had donned red Cardinals baseball caps. Illuminated by the sun, they looked radiant. We also got a merlin, lots of Turkey vultures, Hairy and Downy woodpeckers, a somewhat athletic red-breasted nuthatch, and a glistening, iridescent common grackle.

The morning began with spring, turned rapidly to winter for the better part of a day — I was underdressed, wore the wrong boots, forgot my long underwear — before reverting back to vernal climes. Strange, disorienting climactic shifts, but it felt invigorating to re-experience winter for a day. In all honesty, now that I’ve moved on to anticipating warblers, I didn’t realized how much I missed winter!

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!