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New Year

September 5, 2013

Dearest Birders,

Though we’re not religious here at Birds and Words, we do like to mark certain holidays and take the time to reflect, eat apples with honey, marvel at where life has taken us this past year, and welcome the new year with excitement.

It’s no secret: I love September. Not only is it my birthday month, but it’s also my favorite season. For some reason, summer agrees with me less and less every year. I call it meteorological incompatibility. And also a manifest lack of birds. But now it’s September and all is right in the world, even though most birds are in fall plumage, which means I can’t identify 99% of what I see, but I’m fairly used to that and it no longer fazes me.

Yesterday morning, I went for a walk in a sweater (!) and happened upon three downy woodpeckers pounding away next to a red-breasted nuthatch and a goldfinch. The fact that I could ID those three birds without even thinking twice made me so happy I ran all the way home, positively bursting at the thought of announcing this riveting news to my husband (to which he smiled and offered me a glass of water; I could barely breathe).

But I’m grateful for this past summer. I’m going to miss the the long days, warm summer evenings, extraordinary farm produce, the colossal peaches which made for the best cobbler I’ve ever tasted (yes, in the absence of pie-making talents, Birds and Words bakes peach cobblers with gusto), the opportunity to reread Proust and teach Swann’s Way to a group of incredibly inquisitive seniors, the day I spent engrossed in Meg Wolitzer’s Interestings from morning till night (until I was done! Would that I could read that book again for the first time!), the tremendous birdiness of Newfoundland, the hours spent learning Czerny studies (oh, we work on self-improvement in all categories, here at Birds and Words) in order to hopefully, one day, take on a Chopin etude, and the many many hours I spent sporting my fabulous (NEW!) Tilley Hat.

Meteorological frustration notwithstanding, this summer was a good one. And there is much to look forward for the new year. Wishing you all a happy, healthy, adventure-filled, sweet new year!



Newfoundland Birds

September 4, 2013

For those of you who had been awaiting my Newfoundland birdy news with bated breath, I’m happy to report that you can learn everything you need to know about Birds and Words’ adventures in Witless Bay Ecological Reserve over at the fabulous bird blog 10,000 Birds. I’m thrilled to have a guest post on their site! Enjoy!

And here’s a teaser: 260,000 pairs of ATLANTIC PUFFINS breed off the coast of Witless Bay. And I SAW THEM ALL!

Peeps! Peeps!

September 1, 2013

Oh Birders! There’s no better way to usher in September than to plunge into the simultaneously thrilling and frustrating morass of shorebird identification. Off we went to Townsend — a curious would-be town that never materialized, in Haldimand County, about an hour’s drive from Hamilton. In the 1970s, as a way to redirect some of the population from Toronto (and its suburbs), the provincial government of Ontario bought up thousands of acres of farmland near Hamilton, with the utopic (and earnest) hopes of building a “New Town” for the new millennium, which would house the thousands of employees of the rapidly developing industrial region in the area. They built wide roads, set up government buildings, a water tower, with the expectation that by 2001 Townsend would boast a population of 100,000. In the end, only 1,200 people moved to this New City of the Future, and all the plans for large factories for future technologies never materialized. Now the town stands abandoned (except for a small retirement community of 1500) feels like an eerie ghost-town.

Thankfully most stories have a happy ending: Townsend, the Dream City that never became a city, inadvertently became birding hub thanks to its fabulous sewage lagoon, which attracts migrating shorebirds in spectacular numbers. We didn’t see spectacular numbers of anything yesterday, since it wasn’t really a day that registers on the spectrum of the spectacular, but I did significantly improve my shorebird ID skills. (I hope. I think. We’ll see)

I immediately recognized a bird that looked Killdeer-ish, but with only one black neck stripe, and it turned out to be a Semipalmated Plover. It makes sense that the two share characteristics, since they’re both from the Charadrius genus. Funny — I’d always considered the Killdeer rather small, but next to the Semipalmated plover, it looked positively gargantuan (though not as monstrous as the mallard nearby). Size in birds is so difficult and so impossible to really understand when one sees a bird in isolation. And then I noticed dozens of similarly sized birds that all basically looked the same, but upon closer, more studied observation, all displayed subtle differences.

Semipalmated Plover!! Photo from here.

Semipalmated Plover!! Photo from here.

Looks a bit like this, right? Here's the Killdeer. Photo from here.

Looks a bit like this, right? Here’s the Killdeer. In real life the resemblance is even more striking. Trust me; they’re cousins. Photo from here.

Words like “slightly chunkier”, “darker stripes”, “brownish vs. greyish”, “greenish legs” wound their way around me, and I remembered why I have a love-hate thing going on with Shorebirds. Even under optimal lighting, I can barely distinguish greenish legs from yellowish legs from slightly darker legs. They all just look the same to me! And next to a Killdeer, nothing looks particularly chunky. Even my beloved Zeiss binoculars ended up being of little help here; with shorebirds, a scope is indispensable.

But then amidst the million peeps, we identified a Pectoral Sandpiper. (Forgive me, I’m using the word “we” rather liberally here. I did no identifying whatsoever.) Through the scope, I could see the bird’s brownish super-streaky feathers and did notice that it was significantly larger than the diminutive Semipalmated Plover and the even tinier Least Sandpiper walking about slightly hunched over, its bill hitting the water, furiously feeding on invertebrates or whatever the flavor of the day happened to be at Townsend Sewage Lagoon. (I do have to reiterate, birding a sewage lagoon — thrilling and productive as it is — does not rate high on the olfactory-experience scale. But so it goes)

Moving onwards through the catalog of Peeps, I encountered a Semipalmated Sandpiper, a Solitary Sandpiper who anxiously wiggled its entire body, the Spotted Sandpiper who performed the requisite tail-wagging dance for us, and a Stilt Sandpiper. There were also Yellowlegs, fanciful American Golden Plovers and Black Bellied Plovers and enough ducks in eclipse plumage to give me a slight headache.

On our way home, we stopped in Burlington and saw three Red-Necked Phalaropes bobbing nervously in the water, doing a spastic little dance as it swims on the edge of the shore. I’m pleased to say that Red-Necked Phalaropes are becoming an annual August sighting here at Birds and Words. Oh, and there were sod farms, a lonely wild turkey, and about a million starlings and cormorants.

In the end, a wonderful (and challenging) Tilley-hat clad morning full of peeps and other fine specimens. A perfect coda to a lovely summer.

Empidonax! Empidonax!

August 21, 2013

Sometimes extraordinary things happen. There’s no other way to say it. What should have been the most ordinary, verging on boring, birding outing turned into a moment of magic. While we were in Oshawa, overlooking an enormous marsh (conveniently named Second Marsh, though I have no idea where or if First Marsh exists) with approximately a million Cormorants fluttering about, punctuated by a few Great Blue Herons and a lone juvenile Bald Eagle, I succumbed to a few seconds of boredom and turned my attention away from the marsh and toward a tree. And suddenly I saw a small, brownish bird with whitish wingbars and a cream-colored breast, and immediately recognized it as a Flycatcher! We had just banded a few the day before, and the bird’s coloring was fresh in my mind — the bird reminds me of JCrew catalog clothing that accentuates the understated elegance of khaki shades mediated by white or off-white tones. Back in the days when I bought “teaching clothes”, I now realize I was dressing like a Traill’s Flycatcher. (Don’t worry, my hair looked quite a bit better than this toupee-like version below.) Who knew?

Photo from here.

Photo by Kelly Azar from here.

Since the bird didn’t sing for us, we weren’t able to determine whether it was an Alder or a Willow Flycatcher (they look identical and are only distinguishable by song), so we went with the banding station nomenclature (thanks Pyle!) and called it a Traill’s. (Thankfully the flycatcher didn’t emit a sound; I haven’t yet learned the calls and definitely wouldn’t have been able to tell the alder and willow apart!) Yep. That was my unexpected moment of glory on Saturday morning! I recognized an Empidonax, which would have seemed like a random drab brownish bird just a few months ago! The regal, authoritative sounding genus “Empidonax” actually means “king of gnats”, which shatters some, but not all, of its mystique. I suppose it’s better to be a king of gnats than a servant of gnats; if I’m going to be anywhere in the gnat hierarchy, King is where I’d rather be.

Anyhow, I digress. Cormorants aside, it turned into a fabulous morning. I also correctly ID’d the song of the Caspian tern, which isn’t overly difficult because it sounds like a cross between a dog barking and a squirrel screaming. A hideous sound for such a gorgeous bird. But thankfully extremely easy to remember: nothing else sounds quite so grating and downright ugly. Thanks, Caspian Tern. I’ve just added you to my “memorized bird song” list! Woohoo!

The morning also included a dozen Wild Turkeys hanging out in the middle of a country road, completely unintimidated by our presence, a grey-blue gnatcatcher (!!), a few cardinals, crows, hungry chickadees, a least sandpiper, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, a Stilt sandpiper, which I couldn’t get excited about properly because I had to rush off to get ready for a wedding and was already starting to fret about my upcoming evening toilette (here at Birds and Words, we don’t get out that often…). And I also saw my first fall warbler: a glowing Magnolia. I’m already excited about autumn!

An unexpectedly beautiful day. My Tilley hat got a workout, and I couldn’t be more grateful for these wonderful (humidity-free!) last days of summer.

The Joys of Being a Scribe

August 19, 2013

Beloved Birders! Some of you know that I’ve been volunteering at a bird banding research station in Tommy Thompson Park here in Toronto. I was there once a week to help with spring migration monitoring, and now fall season has started. Well, I’ll be honest with you — at this point my ability to “help” with migration monitoring is a bit of an exaggeration. I haven’t yet extracted a bird from a mist net or actually banded a bird, but in addition to observing extractions and going on regular net checks (ever 1/2 hour), I’ve become an expert scriber, which, to be honest, is a role I feel quite comfortable performing. For the record, the scriber (ME!) is the one who writes down the important (essential!) data about each bird as it’s banded: weight, sex, age, wing length, bander’s initials, band number, bird name and four-letter banding code, and any other miscellaneous information. I like to think of it as the perfect role for a writer: I observe, question, record, and compile. Very similar to the work that goes on at my desk every day.

After the birds are banded, I often get to let them go. At this point, I’m quite comfortable holding a bird in bander’s grip (basically holding the bird by placing its head between your index and middle finger; miraculously enough, the bird doesn’t struggle at all in this position even though it sometimes looks like the poor creature is gripped a little fiercely). Photographer’s grip (holding the bird’s legs securely to make it look like the bird’s ready for a photo session) still remains a challenge for me, but I’m getting there! What always stuns me is that when I let the bird go, it actually FLIES! ON ITS OWN! For some reason, I still find this truly miraculous.

Here’s a photo from Friday morning — and this pretty much explains why I keep coming back, week after week, no matter how early:

Belted Kingfisher. Photo by Charlotte English.

Belted Kingfishers at Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station. Photo by Charlotte England.

Here are the two glorious Belted Kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) “we” banded on Friday morning! Note the classic punk rock hairdos they sport so effortlessly, and the metallic sheen glistening on their plumage. I marvel at the raw confidence these Kingfishers exude: there’s no question — these birds know just how hot they are. Seeing them up close, and recording their data was a highlight of my summer!

But on the subject of helping: the banding station attracts some of the most knowledgeable and generous birders I’ve ever met. They entertain my naive questions and my myriad faux-pas with a smile and welcome me back week after week. My birding and ID skills have already improved immeasurably, and I so lucky to have the opportunity to learn from these devoted birders & researchers! Who knew that scribing could be such a serious thrill?

On Gulls and Newfoundland

August 15, 2013

Well-traveled Birders! I never thought I’d say this, but I seem to have fallen in love with Gulls. The whole love affair arrived completely unannounced (as these things are wont to do). It happened last week, on the east coast of Newfoundland, about 40 km south of St. John’s, while we sat on the deck of our B&B contemplating life, the universe, and various other ponderous questions:

View of part of the Witless Bay Ecological reserve from our B&B deck in Bauline East (a vibrant community of approx. 15 households), Newfoundland.

Partial view of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve from our B&B deck in Bauline East (a vibrant community of approx. 15 households), Newfoundland.

What the picture fails to capture is the cacophonous symphony of gull calls — a conglomeration of barks, moans, creaks and raspy wails, each with its own rhythmic pattern. Not a single person anywhere in our field of vision. Just us and the vociferous, pleading, slightly demonic sounding gulls. I was happy to recognize the Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) immediately by their light grey backs and black wingtips. Not a particularly exhilarating bird, but I had never heard them yelping with such vigor and in such great numbers. And then, an enormous-looking gull with a shiny black back swooped down toward the water, barely skimming its surface, to retrieve some fish for lunch, and then confidently glided toward its next destination. I couldn’t take my eyes off the largest of gull species, the Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), with its broad wingspan and the way the seabird glided through the sky, effortlessly carried along by the wind current, operating as if he owned the place. Even though there were dozens of Atlantic Puffins dipping in and out of the water, flying haphazardly just above its surface, flapping their wings like little propellers, the black backed gull held me in its thrall.

Great Black-backed Gull. Image by Michael Finn from here.

Great Black-backed Gull. Image by Michael Finn from here.

Watching the black-backed gull fly, I felt like I was rediscovering the Laridae, seeing the entire family for the first time. I mean, I don’t think I’m going to transform into a Gull fanatic or anything (nor do I think I have the skills to do so — in large numbers, gulls remain some of the more challenging birds to tell apart! They do all tend to blend into a homogenous whole), but I find them more fascinating than I ever believed was possible. I was both horrified and amazed to learn that the majestic black-backed gull whose flight pattern sent an electrical current through my spine every time I saw him — the confidence, the ease, the elemental power to withstand the elements, the fearless drive — is also a ruthless and violent predator to chicks as well as adult puffins, murres, grebes, herring gulls, and other many others!

One of the things I love most about birding are the surprises it offers. Just when I think I know myself, know my preferences, have a favorite bird (Indigo Bunting! Scarlet Tanager! Black and White Warbler! Wood Duck! Tree Swallow! Snowy Owl!), another, completely unexpected one comes and squeezes itself into my most “beloved bird” slot. Never did I imagine that a Gull would find its way to the top of my list of most memorable birds. The beauty of birding is that the list changes constantly, rearranges itself, and that I grow to love what I learn to look at most closely. Sometimes a bird has all the right ingredients to make me fall in love with it instantly (Scarlet Tanager, I’m thinking of you) — almost like it was designed with me in mind as its ideal viewer. But other times I fall for a bird on the second, third, or even tenth glance — in a curious confluence of timing, weather conditions, geographical coordinates and willingness to allow for heightened observation. Maybe I fell for the black-backed gull because I was finally ready to see it? It’s often like that with love.

Anyhow, gulls aside, Newfoundland was spectacular. It only rained (hard) two days out of seven, and we managed to hike a nice slice of the East Coast Trail in spite of soggy conditions.

Our lunch on the East Coast Trail.

Our lunch on the East Coast Trail. The raspberries were so delicious we forgot about the rain almost entirely.

I wore my Tilley hat every single day (rain notwithstanding), ate fabulous cod and lobster, stared at the ocean for hours on end, and am now overcome with longing for coastal living. I had meant to read a Newfoundland author while on vacation, but instead read Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, which thoroughly entranced me with it rhythms, its similes, its reflections on family, memory, place, longing and genealogy. Stay tuned for more Newfoundland pelagic goodness.

Hoopoe, Israel, and that Dickcissel again

July 29, 2013

Illuminating Birders! I’ve been blessed with a number of brilliant birding pals (and blog readers!), but this weekend, they outdid themselves. A while ago, I related my encounter with the wondrous Hoopoe (Upupa epops) at Donana national park in Spain. While marveling at its majestic and otherworldly crest, I innocently compared its spectacular physique to Queen Elizabeth I’s regal attire, but delved no further into Hoopoe-related lore. This weekend, Rick Wright pointed my attention to the fact that the Hoopoe is Israel’s national bird, and Meera Lee Sethi further noted that the bird also appears in the Tanakh. (In Deuteronomy 14:18, the hoopoe is listed among the birds that strictly forbidden since they are not kosher. Included in the vast list are also pelicans, owl, gull, storks, magpies, cormorants and herons, and bats, in case you were curious.)

And so, I did a little googling of my own. As it happens, Israel crowned the Hoopoe as its National Bird in May 2008, after a grueling six-month contest wherein it beat out nine other contenders (including a warbler and a goldfinch) with 35% of the popular vote. According to Dr. Uzi Paz, head of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, the Hoopoe “is not a songbird, but chirps when it wants to take over territory. There is no external difference between male and females.” Can you imagine? Even female hoopoes are allowed as exquisite a plumage as males! A bird that instinctively believes in equality between the sexes.

The LA Times’ Babylon & Beyond Blog had illuminating insight about the bird’s history: “The hoopoe, with its distinctive crest, is no newcomer to the land. It was mentioned in the Bible, its name is derived from Aramaic and it is said to have carried King Solomon’s invitation to the Queen of Sheba across the ancient lands. Appropriately, Ethiopian Jewry called it the Moses bird, hoping it would lead them to Zion.”

Amazingly, King Solomon and the Hoopoe had no problem communicating. Since King Solomon was the wisest man in the universe (such as it was), he ruled over everything, which included people and all the animals (and birds!) that existed. He even knew all their languages!

Not only is the hoopoe the national bird of the land of my ancestors, not only does it remind me of my favorite monarch, but its identity as a letter-carrier responsible for the crucial back and forth that went on between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba also might explain my curious fixation with the postal service. There are some days when everything miraculously comes together.

Photo from here.

Photo from here.

Would that I had King Solomon’s linguistic prowess to communicate with the Hoopoe! I have more than a few genealogical questions for this glam avian phenomenon. (If you look very closely at her facial features, you might notice a slight resemblance to me. But I’m willing to admit that could just be wishful thinking.) Hm… a trip to Israel might be in order soon.

And, in what will hopefully be my last mention of the Dickcissel for a while, I wrote about him over at Ontario Nature.

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