Beloved Birdy Readers! Exciting news here at Birds and Words. This blog is moving to an exciting new home. You can now read the blog in its new incarnation over at http://coyot.es/birdsandwords/
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I will no longer be updating this site, so please look for me at my new home.
Beloved birders! In my rush of overthinking the meaning of biding and life, or the way the two overlap for me these days, or whatever it was I couldn’t stop pondering in my slightly frantic previous post, I think I might have neglected to dwell sufficiently on the inherent awesomeness of the Harlequin Duck! Not only is the duck an aesthetic thing of wonder, but its Latin binomial only makes the whole experience even more pleasurable. How often do you meet a bird called Histrionicus histrionicus?
In fact, the Harlequin duck happens to be the only species in the Histrionicus genus. For the record, the name comes from the Latin word for actor: histrio (3rd declension, masculine, for those who are curious). I suppose one could have called the Histrionicus histrionicus the Player Duck, but Harlequin is much more evocative — in honor of Arlecchino (Harlequin), a stock character — the nimble, clown-like, comic servant — from the Commedia dell’Arte.
In any event, they are spectacular, almost as if costumed and ready to perform. The spectacle I witnessed on Saturday was a solo show where the duck glided along the water, confidently, with a slight hint of superiority. In the company of Scaup, Gadwalls, Mallards, and even an American Widgeon, the Histrionicus histrionicus knows exactly whom the folks with binoculars are admiring. He’s seen himself in the mirror, I have no doubt. He knows that he resembles a hand-painted porcelain masterpiece, almost too lovely to be true. Second only to the transcendent Wood Duck (though the Harlequin sure wins the most evocative-sounding-Latin-binomial race), the Harlequin duck is otherwordly.
Definitely worth the two-year wait. And after the magnificent duck, I went to hear the (almost) equally radiant and fabulous Meg Wolitzer read at IFOA. She read from The Interestings (by far the best novel I’ve read this year) and talked about writing with great warmth, wit, charm, and the entire day was a delight. So if you haven’t read The Interestings, do it now! A novel about talent (and what happens to it over time), friendship, envy, and how humans crave feeling noticed and special. What struck me about the novel was the compassion and warmth (and humor!!) with which she wrote her characters. If Histrionicus histrionicus were an adjective — or better yet, a superlative, I’d use it to describe Wolitzer’s novel. A remarkable feat of a book.
I’ve discovered a birding paradox. Most of the time, I head out in search of a particular bird, fail to find it, but encounter a bird in its stead that is even better than the one I’d been chasing. It’s a moment of recognizing the beauty in what I wasn’t looking for, or — as is most often the case with this somewhat birder — the beauty in what I didn’t even KNOW existed. I find what I knew not I was looking for, and I fall momentarily in love with the bird. It’s how I fell in love with the Red-winged Blackbird, which turned out to be infinitely more exquisite than anything I ever could have possibly imagined. It literally exceeded and inadvertently broadened the horizon of my expectations.
I fell in love with birds partly because I didn’t know the were out there. I mean, I knew birds existed in the abstract, the way I also know that fossils exist and computer programmers write code and engineers build bridges. But it was an existence that had absolutely no overlap with my day-to-day and my imagined landscape. When I finally did point my binoculars (badly, with trepidation, nervously) at the Red-winged Blackbird (before I could even register it as an Agelaius phoeniceus), it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I felt like I was seeing birds, nature, The Universe for the first time. The enormity of my spark bird experience — and, poor readers, why I keep rewinding to my initial Red-winged Blackbird sighting — was just that: I suddenly saw the world anew. Or rather, I saw a new world — one that had been within my reach all these years (35!) but which I had never bothered to notice.
What a spectacular failure of the imagination. That there was a day three years ago when I didn’t know that birds exist, when I couldn’t have known, because I couldn’t imagine them. Now that former world of mine feels diminished; when I see photos of myself three years ago, it’s not without a hint of sadness, because I know that the ME in those photos is a self without any notion of a world with birds. A self I can’t quite relate to anymore.
And then this weekend, something strange happened. I finally saw a (male!) Harlequin Duck. I’m so used to thinking of the Harlequin as that bird with whom I just can’t seem to connect; our schedules just aren’t in synch. Usually when I appear, the duck absconds; once I leave, it resurfaces. You’ve been there; you know what I’m talking about.
On Saturday, after a two-hour rain-filled walk around Humber Bay Park (East) with the CCFEW group, where we saw mainly Red Breasted Mergansers, a few delightfully coiffed Hooded, a battalion of Ruddy Ducks (not sure why they weren’t displaying their usually erect tails), a few lone Bufflehead, Long-tailed Ducks and other usual November waterfowl suspects, about six of us decided to venture onwards and find the Harlequin Duck. A cup of bird friendly coffee later, we finally caught up with him at Cliff Lumdsen Park, and for the first few minutes, I couldn’t believe it was actually happening! Here I was, in the presence of a duck I’ve been trying to track down for the past two years!
I stared and tried my best to take in his regal appearance. And I’m ashamed to say that my first thought was “oh, but it isn’t as glorious as the Wood Duck!”
How could that possibly be? The bird I’d been chasing for two years appears before my eyes, and instead of relishing the sight, basking in the the moment’s perfect synchronicity of events, all I could think was that the Harlequin hadn’t quite lived up to my expectations. Why is that? Had I accidentally transformed the Harlequin duck into something utterly ineffable?
The moment of distress only lasted a few seconds — I immediately forced myself back into Total Admiration mode, and soon enough I really did feel like the duck was as spectacular as I had hoped it would be. But it did get me thinking about the danger in setting up expectations.
Ah well. No answers. Just a spectacular Harlequin Duck and the realization that it’s great to find what you’re looking for, but it’s just as important to take the time see it for what it is, in addition to what you hoped it would be.
It’s not that I look for similarities between birding and living. It’s just that birding has simply become a part of living.
Well, dearest birders, I could regale you with tales about my latest twitching instinct, which took me as far as Fort Erie last weekend, in search of the Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), which had been hanging around with cormorants and shuttling back and forth between the Ontario and Buffalo sides. This particular female booby made headlines everywhere, including the illustrious Fort Erie Times, since this was a first sighting for Ontario. The spectacle attracted birders from far and wide, because Boobies (is that really the correct plural?) usually spend their time in tropical waters, around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, but the fair province of Ontario is about as far from their radar as it gets!
I’ll spare you the details of the day (though they did include a delicious breakfast at the Cafe by the Bridge in Fort Erie, which was a lucky find since all we had seen prior to said restaurant were boarded up Chinese-Canadian cuisine establishments, a club called The Max, and another called He’s Not Here, neither of which felt safe to enter at 11:30 am), but suffice it to say that the Brown Booby appeared on the scene 40 minutes after we left. So it goes… In lieu of our bird of the day, we did see enough female White-winged Scoters (Melanitta fusca) for me to finally be able to ID them. And Cormorants galore. I managed to correctly (and quickly) ID a long-tailed duck, which means that last fall and winter’s efforts weren’t for naught.
And then, in other news not at all relating to the almost-seen Brown Booby, I came across this passage in Chekhov’s devastating story “In the Ravine,” and felt like I had gained a whole new understanding of the Chekhovian landscape:
The sun went to sleep, covering itself with purple and gold brocade, and long clouds, crimson and lilac, watched over its rest, stretching across the sky. Somewhere far away, God knows where, a bittern gave a mournful, muted cry, like a crow locked in a barn. the cry of this mysterious bird was heard every spring, but no one knew what it looked like or where it lived. up by the hospital, in the bushes just by the pond, beyond the village, and in the surrounding fields, nightingales were pouring out their song. The cuckoo was counting out someone’s years and kept losing count and starting over again. in the pond angry, straining frogs called to each other, and one could even make out the words: “you’re such a one! You’re such a one!” How noisy it was! it seemed that all these creatures were calling and singing on purpose so that no one would sleep on that spring evening, so that all, even the angry frogs, might value and enjoy every minute: for life is given only once! (Trans: Pevear and Volokhonsky)
And maybe it’s because I’ve seen an American Bittern (though not Chekhov’s Eurasian Bittern, but still) — and because I know this bird’s undercover ways, the way it prefers to remain deeply ensconced in reeds — and because I’ve heard its spring-time booming call, maybe for that reason, I found myself reading Chekhov differently. This time, I could hear the noise, the vibrant avian cacophony of this natural landscape, and hearing it swell with life rendered the contrast with the protagonist’s numbness after the story’s unspeakable crime all the more devastating.
Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev — all great bird-lovers (and hunters, but such were the ways in those days). Now that I’m a little more familiar with avian taxonomy, I’m starting to read my favorite authors anew. I’m noticing more. Hearing more. Seeing more. Images resonate differently; natural frequencies hum.
Booby or no Booby, it’s impossible to rewind three years and go back to that time in my life without birds.
One of the most incredible things that happened to me at Hog Island bird camp is that I got to taste one of Sue (aka: Seabird Sue) Schubel’s ingenious Cream Puffins! (True confession: I ate devoured four cream puffins. You would have too, trust me!) You can read all about my adventures — birdy and culinary — over at the ABA blog, right here. I’m thrilled to be there. Enjoy!
Oh Birders, even wondrous things must come to an end. September was Birthday Month, here at Birds and Words, and we did our best to celebrate at full capacity. It also helped that David Sibley chose the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) as my Birthday Bird (sure beats the Canada Goose from a few years back — he must have (telepathically) registered my sincere horror):
The actual Birth Day included some early morning scribing at the Tommy Thompson Bird Research Station, where I held a (MALE!) Black-throated Blue Warbler in my little hands for the first time ever! I would post photographic evidence, but my hair was doing awful things that particular morning, and I’ll spare you the devastating sight. Suffice it to say that the Black-throated Blue looked a whole lot more charming and sophisticated than I did! I also saw my first Brown Creeper up close and marveled at the disproportionate length of the miniscule bird’s bill! I don’t feel so badly about never being able to spot that bird in the field — it’s miniscule! and quick! and camouflages perfectly with tree-bark. Good thing I held it in my hand, or I might never even believe they existed! It’s always been an elusive “huh? where? what are you talking about?” kind of bird for me.
After a morning of diligent scribing, I had brunch with my parents, went for a walk along the boardwalk in the Beaches, and finished off the perfect day by watching ENOUGH SAID, Nicole Holofcener’s masterpiece of a movie in spite of the fact that there are no birds involved. The movie made me realize how rarely viewers are treated to brilliant screenplays! The movie is hilarious, and also strikes a raw nerve — especially about how prone we often are to self-sabotage, whether it be out of fear, helplessness, denial. I especially loved that all of the characters were flawed (deeply!) and yet loveable anyhow. So very much like life.
And there was a nice party, a new novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, a new Marimekko bag, Richard Crossley’s guide to Raptors (like sparrows, I’m belatedly realizing that a hawk isn’t just a hawk!), a new teapot, and a trip to bird watching camp on Hog Island, Maine, with Scott Weidensaul (among other fabulous & knowledgeable birders). I’ll be writing about the whole experience shortly. But for those of you wondering about bird camp — it exceeded my expectations! (And don’t get me started on the food — I ate so much I felt vaguely ill every evening, and it was so completely worth it!) I fell in love with Northern Flickers all over again (and learned to distinguish them from hawks! oops!), stood face-to-face with a juvenile Yellow-Crowned Night Heron, watched a Virginia Rail shimmy past me near a swamp, saw my first Surf Scoter, which looked so much like a puffin I thought they were related, caught a glimpse of a Parasitic Jaeger (such a rarity that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology lacks an info page devoted to the bird!). AND THE WARBLERS! Just over 20 species in total.
I had been terrified of fall warblers, because my memory from last year was that they all seemed uniformly greenish-brown and impossible to distinguish. Well, it turns out reality isn’t quite so grim! Most of my favorites — Black and white, Northern Parula, Magnolia, Yellow-rumped, Wilson’s — are still completely recognizable, even in fall plumage! (The Vireos, on the other hand, remain a different story. Greyish-greyish-greenish-white. Thanks a lot, Vireos!)
And that’s it, folks! We’ve aged a year, here at Birds and Words, but the Birthday month was a success. Birdy, wordy, full of great food, and generally lovely. It even included some fabulous craft beer (Monhegan Island Brewery), hearing Janet Cardiff’s 40-part Motet at the Cloisters, an Edmund de Waal show at the Gagosian, a Le Corbusier exhibit at MOMA, a walk on the High Line, and getting to meet my cousin’s new baby.
And now, Hello October!
I’ve been working hard on honing my meteorological theories. So far the wisdom I’ve amassed boils down to this: some days the meteorological gods smile upon you, and other days they shake their heads in mild disgust and mock you (often mercilessly). I have little scientific data to support my theory, but plenty of personal experience, most of which speaks to the latter part of my meteorological aphorism.
Yesterday proved to be a miracle of a day: the forecast screamed solid rain form morning to late afternoon, but we decided to thwart nature’s plans and headed west to two of my favorite and most underrated parks on the shores of Lake Erie in Southern Ontario. By the time we reached Selkirk Provincial Park at 8am, the sky had darkened slightly, as if it couldn’t decide whether or not to commit to the promised downpour. A thin stripe of peachy pink rose above the horizon, enveloped by the darkening, already fall-colored lake water and the greyish sky. We interpreted the sky as an offering: a few hours of calm before the storm. And in we went.
Closed for the season, Selkirk greeted us with deserted, slightly eerie calm. We heard Eastern Wood Pewees (Contopus virens), whose rather high-pitched whistly call that reminded me of gym class. Dozens of Chickadees joined in the fun, but they didn’t seem to announce flocks of warblers the way they often do. We did catch a glimpse of a female Black-throated Blue and a Chesnut Sided warbler, some sort of vireo and an Olive-sided Flycatcher, who looked an awful lot like a pewee, but sports more of a flashy white bib on its chest. We walked along the boardwalk through a swampy area where we tried to find birds, but saw elephantine dragon flies instead and heard nothing but the screeching of cicadas. A few gulls overhead, a few Turkey Vultures, and numerous corpulent snails doing their thing.
We then headed for the late John Miles’ abandoned bird banding trailer, which still stands in a wooded area of the park. The windows are no longer, the tires have flattened, the screens are punctured, but a chrome tea kettle still stands on the banding counter, along with remnants of banding equipment, the remains of a few dusty manuals, parts of a sofa likely used as a makeshift bed, pens, and other debris. I wonder how many people camping in the park know that they are in close proximity of a ghost of a banding station.
Rock Point Provincial Park lacked the melancholy of Selkirk. The park is fully operational until (Canadian) Thanksgiving and has a vibrant banding station (which we didn’t visit due to clouding skies that imposed a most natural curfew on our visit). We walked along the limestone shore and admired the fabulous fossils embedded in the rocks, while honing our shorebird ID skills.
I’m happy to report that I had no difficulty distinguishing the Semipalmated Plover from the Killdeer this time and also swiftly found the miniscule Least Sandpipers. Severe difficulty arose when I couldn’t tell the Semipalmated Sandpipers from the Sanderlings. Thankfully at one point the they congregated together, and I saw a size differential and noticed that the gregarious Sanderlings were a fair bit chunkier. Legend has it we also saw a Baird’s Sandpiper tucked into the bunch, but I’m not even sure I was looking at the right bird.
Oh, shorebirds. I’m pretty sure I’ll grow to love you one day, but right now I’m a bit overwhelmed by your speed and your indistinguishable physiognomies. But I’m full of admiration for your intrepid yearly migratory voyages from the high arctic to South America.
As we climbed up the sand dunes towards our car, I felt a few drops of rain. And by the time we reached our dining destination, the sky no longer displayed ambivalence about unveiling a colossal downpour. But brunch at Flyer’s Cafe in Dunville made up for the horrid weather.