July 24, 2014

Gallery Birds: Christi Belcourt

This Saturday the Art Gallery of Ontario is opening a new exhibition called Before and After the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes. The show contains both historical and contemporary works by a wide spectrum of Anishinaabe artists. Familiar names like Norval Morriseau, Arthur Shilling, and Robert Houle command their share of the space, but luckily so do some younger contemporary artists like Christi Belcourt.

July 15, 2014

In the Pines

A soundtrack for this blog post
I'm not generally a fan of using audio playback of birdsongs out in the field. I'll just lead with that.
I don't like to aggravate breeding birds who migrate thousands of miles to find a nice habitat where they'll try to establish their territory, defend it, attract a mate and then work hard to raise their young before flying back south. That seems like a lot of work to me and I respect hard work. That said, sometimes annoying a bird can be fun.

July 13, 2014

Mainly on the Carden Plain

A Black-billed Cuckoo sits quietly in the early-morning light
I've been a neglectful blogger. We're now cruising into mid-July and I haven't done much writing here and I haven't done much birdwatching out there. Now the birds are getting quiet for the summer and I feel like I missed so many opportunities to get out there during the migration and breeding seasons. But life gets in the way of birds and blogs sometimes. The important thing is to make the most of the opportunities you do get, which is what I did back on June 21st -- Mark's and my second-annual trip to the Carden Plain.

(As always, you can click on the pics to enlarge)

June 20, 2014

Gallery Birds: A Game of...Game?

Generally speaking, pre-Nineteenth century art isn't my thing. Finding myself trapped in an encyclopedic art museum, working my way through those earlier European galleries with my art-loving wife, can get a little....well, it's like how she feels when she comes birdwatching with me. Lately though I've been finding some interest in it by combining our interests and doing a little birdwatching in the four hundred-year old painting galleries.

Still Life with Grapes and Game, Frans Snyders, c. 1630

There is no shortage of still lifes in European painting, including many with game birds, from the Sixteenth century on up to the Nineteenth (still lifes have continued after that, but with birds...not so typically). While I don't get as much of a kick out of looking at dead birds as I do live ones, I did find this helped hold my interest in the early going of our recent tour of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

May 23, 2014

Hi..I'm in Delaware.

Don't even think about going that way
I mentioned in an earlier post that I wasn't going to Point Pelee this year for spring migration. But there's a bit more to the story. First of all, the reason. Quick version: some friends got married in Maryland on May 3rd and my wife was a bridesmaid in the wedding. What I want to know is, who gets married during bird migration?!??!!
I mean really.
Okay, the wedding was lovely. I had a great time and my wife and I planned a mini road trip afterwards. And because she's such a beautiful and thoughtful and loving person, even though she doesn't get this bizarre obsession any more than I do and has pretty much no interest in birds herself, my wife insisted that we include a stop somewhere that I could see some birds. And so I found Bombay Hook.

Just like Pelee, Red-winged Blackbirds everywhere
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge sits on the western shore of Delaware Bay a short drive from Delaware's charming capital of Dover.
After reading lists and studying the birds I might find there, the first thing I had to know about  Bombay Hook was what is up with the name. And it took very little to learn that it's a bastardization of the name given to the area by the Dutch settlers (who purchased the land from the Kahansink people). The Dutch called it Boompjes Hoeck, meaning "Little-tree Point" and, well, Americans being Americans it's now called Bombay Hook.

Almost 16,000 acres of largely tidal salt marshes (and a number of fresh water impoundments) means hundreds of thousands of birds flock here every year including quite a few species I've never seen and don't get much of a chance to see up north -- mainly a lot of shorebirds.
See the highlights after the jump and click on any image to enlarge.

April 27, 2014

You Mess with the Nonsense,You Get the Horneds

Possibly the worst title yet—ed.

The weekends have been busy for me lately so, with the Easter long weekend helping me out, last Monday was the first time in a while that other obligations didn't trump the totally normal urge to get up at 6am and put on long underwear in April to go look for birds.

Look at those horns!
I went down to Col. Sam Smith Park, one of my favourite bird spots in Toronto, where although I only spent two short hours, I got to see dozens of Red-necked Grebes in the lake, walk among twenty or thirty Tree Swallows eating breakfast gnats and setting up in nesting boxes, a small handful of Barn Swallows, and the highlight: my first ever looks at breeding-plumage Horned Grebes.

See more photos after the jump and click on any photo to enlarge.

April 23, 2014

The Nonsense is in the Details:
A Sparrow Mystery

American Tree Sparrow beak
A couple of months ago, one of my favourite bird bloggers, Rick Wright, wrote a nice article about trying to put words to those features and qualities of a bird, outside of the classic field marks, that allow those almost-unconscious IDs that experts make the instant they see a bird.

I am not one of those expertsyetand I still need to resort to counting off those field marks (sometimes my lips even move) to ensure I've got a correct ID. Some would probably say that looking so intently for these details is holding me back from experiencing the bird more holistically and thus attaining that expert skill level, but I'm sure I'll get there eventually. I've still got the training wheels on my bike, so to speak; I look for those small details so that I'll know them, inside and out, and eventually I'll be able to see them without even looking. And hopefully by then I will have a feel for those un-named qualities too. But for me, right now, it's still all about looking at those minute details.

April 16, 2014

Looking Back: More Memories of Pelee

The Tip
Some folks checking out the gull action at The Tip

I probably could have used an editor on my last post; that was a lot of photos for one entry. For this wistful look back at Point Pelee 2013, I'll keep the writing short and the photos a little shorter than the first time around.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Year two kicked off with a bang as a former nemesis (Rose-breasted Grosbeak) turned close encounter

April 14, 2014

Looking Back: Memories of Point Pelee

Southernmost point in Canada
One of my favourite signs of spring
It's April and we are well into spring migration. The Red-winged Blackbirds, Eastern Phoebes, Tree Swallows, and Robins have all been arriving in greater numbers over the past few weeks, as are some of the early warblers. It's the time of year that makes people like me antsy as we go about our daily lives. When I'm walking to work on a beautiful sunny morning, I feel a greater temptation than usual to just keep going past the door and head over to High Park or one of the parks on Lake Ontario. It also gets me thinking about Pelee.

It's only been a tradition for two years, but already this time of year has a sort of Pavlovian effect on me -- April hits and I start thinking about Pelee. On the first week of May last year and the year before, I have joined my birding buddy Mark for a week of camping down near Point Pelee National Park (he's been going for seven years). It's an intense week of waking up at 5am and looking for birds all day until dark. Food is simple, showers are infrequent, but the birds are great.

This year I am unfortunately not going to make it down there and, honestly, it kind of hurts. For now I am consoling myself by looking at photos from the previous two years. Click through to see a collection of highlights from my first Pelee trip in 2012 (as always, you can click on any image to enlarge):

April 08, 2014

Rephrasing: A Second Helping of Pie

Eurasian Magpies
Two Eurasian Pies (Pica pica) outside The Prado, Madrid

When I was researching my last amateur etymology piece (on the Pied-billed Grebe), I read a lot of things about the word “pie”. Most of it didn’t really pertain to our core subject of birds so, as interesting as it was, I left it out. But who doesn’t love having more than one kind of pie? In addition to being the original word for Magpie, there are two other definitions of pie: the kind we eat and a second antiquated word meaning to mix something up. Interestingly, many etymologists suggest that all three definitions are connected.

The word pie in the English language was first used to refer to the bird, starting around the mid-13th century. It's believed that it was around a century later that pie, the delicious pastry which was originally filled with a variety of mixed or minced meats, took its name from the way Magpies are known for collecting random objects to decorate their nests. Our third usage of pie arose about two hundred years later and appears to have been used mainly in the old printing days; after a printing job, the printer’s blocks would be all mixed up or pied before being sorted into their proper boxes. And when you go back to the Latin word for Magpie, Pica, you are easily brought back to the world of typesetting with pica as a modern typographic unit of measure, although this seems to be coincidental here.

So our beloved apple and pumpkin pies (fruit was introduced as a pie filling around the beginning of the 17th century), not to mention rhubarb and blueberry, may all have been named after a bird. I even read somewhere, thought it's a little far-fetched for me, that the blackbirds from the classic nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence, are an allusion to the humble magpie.
Red-winged Blackbird
(Not related to the pie-filling blackbirds of Europe, but look at him sing)

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing
Wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before the king?

April 06, 2014

Gallery Birds: Sara Angelucci and the Passenger Pigeon

Preface: Some time ago, a friend sent me a link about a museum employee 'birding' The Met. I thought it was interesting and all, but I didn’t seriously think I’d want to do anything like that myself. But now I have a blog. And I have to fill it with interesting and original(ish) things. So here we are.
A new series about me 'birding' the art world.

Aviary (Female Passenger Pigeon/extinct) and Aviary (Male Passenger Pigeon/extinct), Sarah Angelucci, 2013
The story of the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction at the hands of hunters one hundred years ago has been told numerous times -- I certainly don’t need to do it again. You can find a fantastic summary of it here (and I also recommend Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker article about how some scientists want to Jurrasic Park the Passenger Pigeon)

The Passenger Pigeon Hunt, A. Plamandon, 1853
At the AGO right now there is a great bird-related art moment to be seen. On one wall of a gallery in the Canadian Historical wing is Antoine-Sébastien Plamandon’s The Passenger Pigeon Hunt (right) which in the artist's bland, academic style depicts three boys celebrating the rewards of a successful pigeon hunt. Plamandon may not have been the most skilled painter, but he certainly captures the zeitgeist of the pigeon hunting era through the pride in the boys' faces and the cloud of Passenger Pigeons fading to infinity in the sky.

Directly facing off against Plamandon’s work, on the opposite wall, are two works (pictured above) from recent artist-in-residence Sarah Angelucci’s Aviary series: Aviary (Female Passenger Pigeon/extinct) and Aviary (Male Passenger Pigeon/extinct). Angelucci’s brilliant take on Victorian cartes-de-visite combines traditional portraits of long-dead people with the avifaunal victims of the era’s attitudes. In the artist’s own words:
“The same colonial enterprise that drove the Victorians to expand their rule to a quarter of the world’s land and a fifth of its population, spurred a sense of callous entitlement over its creatures, hunted for sport and captured for the pleasure of entertainments. With an increasing desire for imported goods, there came too an avid demand for exotic birds, to be held in aviaries, or preserved by taxidermists.”
To see more of Angelucci’s work and the Aviary series I’ve included a few more images after the jump, but please visit her site here: http://www.sara-angelucci.ca/

April 04, 2014

Rephrasing: The Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe
Cute, in spite of distant-cropped photo 

I have long thought that the most awkwardly-named bird in North America has to be the Pied-billed Grebe. Pied. -billed. Grebe. It just doesn't roll off the tongue to me. The bird could have been called the Carolina Grebe and we'd be done, but somehow we got stuck with Pied-billed. The first time I saw it in my guide, I was sure I had read it wrong (and many people do get it wrong). It just feels so odd to me with the double ‘-ed’ adjectives and, to be totally honest, I'm not even sure I really knew what information this name was trying to convey the first time I saw it. Whatever my reasons, they made me want to look into how such a cute little bird ended up with such a strange name, so I dove into the etymological pond of this bird’s English name and it's actually fairly interesting. This may end up being a little convoluted (particularly with all the related information I came across), but I will take a stab at bringing some concision to it all.

March 30, 2014

True Grit

American Goldfinches

There was another bird-related occurrence from that last weekend I visited my folks. And now that my excitement over those Purple Finches has subsided a little (don't take that to mean it has completely subsided, strangely enough, it hasn't), I'm finally ready to look into it.

I saw the above sight early on that Sunday morning: a flock of American Goldfinches clinging to the brick wall of the house - not exactly the most typical perch for a Goldfinch. What were they doing? The weather wasn't bad (other than being really cold), so shelter didn't really make sense as an explanation. When I googled this phenomenon, I read some claims that they might do this because they're eating bugs off the wall (not too likely in Ontario in February), but the last response in that thread agreed with Dad's assessment and the old man, as a former colleague of mine used to say, knows a thing or two about a thing or two.

March 26, 2014

Another New Year?

House Finch
House Finch in spring

Last Thursday, March 20th, was the first day of Spring - the vernal equinox. After one of the coldest, harshest winters this area has seen in decades, we are ready for some spring...but we'll have to wait just a little bit longer. This morning in Toronto it was -10°C (-17°C with the windchill factor). In fairness to Toronto, this has been a slightly atypical winter, long overstaying its welcome — I mean it's almost as cold as it was on New Year's Day out there! But then, if I had my way, last Thursday would have been New Year's Day.

Northern Cardinals
Pope Gregory XIII almost certainly never saw a female Cardinal
Calendar reform is not exactly a hot-button issue these days. In fact, it's been four hundred and thirty-two years since we last had one. We have lived by the Gregorian Calendar (a modest improvement on the Julian Calendar) passed into papal law February 24th, 1582. We've all grown up with it, we've known no other calendar and we've accepted it with all it's flaws. Years ago, I'm not sure when (I was either a teenager or in my early twenties), I invented my own calendar reform and I called it The Craigorian Calendar.

March 23, 2014

White Swan

Trumpeter Swans

I love those random connections that sometimes form when you start reading up on something new. For my recent post on the origin of "sitting in the catbird seat", I was doing a bit of reading about James Thurber and his career at The New Yorker. I learned that Thurber started at the magazine after his good friend E.B. White introduced him to the magazine's founder and senior editor Harold Ross at a party. E.B. White, as you know, is best remembered today for his children's novels Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web and, one that is perhaps slightly less famous today, The Trumpet of the Swan. So it pretty quickly comes back to birds. Okay, I didn't say it was the most incredible connection, but for a guy writing a bird blog, it works.

Trumpeter SwansI know I read The Trumpet of the Swan as a kid, but I didn't really remember the story so I refreshed my memory by reading the wiki-plot summary and boy does it sound like ol' E.B. was on some serious meds when he wrote that one -- we've got a swan burgling a music store, one working in a nightclub in Philadelphia, and a man shooting a swan on a city street. But it's generally a sweet story at its core and surely owes something to classic animal stories like The Ugly Duckling or The Wind in the Willows (after all White's buddy Thurber wrote modern, updated versions of fables himself years earlier).

March 22, 2014

March M̶a̶d̶n̶e̶s̶s̶ Nonsense

This is starting to feel more like an owl blog than anything, but it is the time of year for it.
I recently got a tip about the location of an Eastern Screech-Owl in Burlington, Ontario, a bird neither I nor (surprisingly) my birder buddy Mark have ever seen. Two years ago in Point Pelee we got a tip from someone and staked out a tree for an hour or so only to come up empty handed and uncertain we were even looking at the right tree. This time I was at least confident I knew the right tree to look in, it was just a matter of whether or not the owl would be out. But we hit the jackpot -- it was a freezing cold day, but bright and sunny and right as we pulled up, there he was (or she was) catching some rays.

And there was a bonus -- we talked to a woman who was also there to check on our Screech and she informed us that there was also a grey-morph Screech-Owl in another tree about a hundred metres away. A lifer owl and both colour morphs at once?
We found a small crowd of regulars there with their tripods and huge lenses. I gathered from their conversation that they were waiting for this owl's mate to also appear (a third screech) which they expected to happen a few hours later. Mark and I didn't have that kind of patience. That's some serious nonsense.

March 17, 2014

Rephrasing: Sittin' in the Catbird Seat

Gray Catbird
My first Gray Catbird (August 11, 2011, Bluffer's Park, Toronto)
It showed me those orange undertail coverts and it even meowed at me.

There's an association between baseball and birds that goes back with me about as far as I can remember. It's probably only natural growing up in a town where the home team is the Blue Jays. Maybe people who grew up in Baltimore and St. Louis can say the same. For me as a kid in the Eighties and Nineties, I was part of new breed of Toronto kid -- still a minority then and now -- more into baseball than hockey. I lived and breathed Blue Jays baseball. When my dad took me to get my first real baseball glove, I remember looking at all the different gloves in the store and being slightly overwhelmed, but knowing as soon as I saw it that I wanted the Tony Fernandez model.

Ball boy Jeff Pinchuk covers the corpse
Photo credit: unknown
A few years earlier, back in 1983, I wasn't even ten years old, but I remember how this city went crazy when Dave Winfield, then centrefielder for the hated New York Yankees,killed a seagull at Toronto's old Exhibition Stadium. Depending on who you choose to believe, just before the bottom of the fifth inning Winfield either casually tossed or intentionally chucked a warm-up ball at a Ring-billed Gull. The gull died almost instantly. After the game Winfield was taken into police custody and charged with cruelty to animals, which led manager Billy Martin to quip, "They wouldn't say that if they'd sen the throws he'd been making all year. It's the first time he's hit the cutoff man!"

Years later, soon-to-be Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson created one of the craziest sports highlights of all-time when one of his trademark fastballs was intercepted halfway to home plate by a dove. There was an explosion of feathers, one dead dove, and an official call of 'no pitch.'

These intersections of baseball and birds all came back to me recently as I was looking up the origin of the idiom "sitting in the catbird seat", and I found yet another one. The phrase, which as we all know essentially means 'to be in an enviable position', is generally given to have originated in print with the American writer and cartoonist James Thurber. Thurber's short stories, many of which were published in The New Yorker, include The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which was made into a well-received Danny Kaye film in 1947 and a poorly-received Ben Stiller film in 2013, and The Catbird Seat, published in 1942 and, funnily enough, also made into a film, this time starring Peter Sellers.

March 09, 2014

Purple Fever

Purple Finches
The elusive Purple Finch.

Elusive to me anyway -- the one and only time I had seen these guys, until last weekend, was a distant view on an early morning paddle in 2011 (cropped, mediocre shot on right). So it's fair to say I was a little distracted when we arrived up at the lake last Saturday to find the feeders being absolutely swarmed by Purple Finches. I probably spent as much time with my lens pressed up against the windows as I did visiting with the folks.

Of course it's always worth the two hour drive just to spend time with the family, but what a bonus when something like this happens as well!

It gave me the opportunity not only to get some nice shots, but as I always tend to do in the days after seeing a particular bird, to do some reading up on the Purple Finch.

Owl Hunt III

Snowy Owl
It's Snowy alright
I've already written about Owl Hunts I and II and how I got a headstart on Owl Hunt III, but on February 1st it was finally time for the Third Annual Owl Hunt.

If you're reading this, your life is probably pretty sad so you may well already know that the winter of 2013-14 has given us the biggest irruption of Snowy Owls in fifty years. All winter I read article after article about Snowy Owls being seen all over Eastern Canada and the US, but I hadn't been out once this winter to look for them, so when Owl Hunt '14 finally rolled around, these guys were definitely something I was hoping to see.

In three years of doing this, we've still never seen a Long-eared Owl, a Saw-whet, Boreal, Screech Owl, or even had much of a look at a Short-eared, but this year we got to see SEVEN Snowy Owls.  Unfortunately, it was an overcast and very snowy day so my photos aren't real award winners.

Cheating on the Owl Hunt

Great Grey Owl

Before we get to Owl Hunt One Four, I have to come clean about something: I cheated.
I didn't tell the guys, but after the OFO site had been lighting up with news of a Great Grey Owl hanging around all week in Brooklin, Ontario, on Saturday, January 18th I went out there to try to see it. The third annual Owl Hunt had already been scheduled for two weeks later, but there was no reason to believe this owl was going to stick around for that long. So I went and amazingly it was there!

Looking Back: Owl Hunts I and II

Five weeks ago, on February 1st, I met my buddies (Mark, Ben, Brock, and Jer) in the now-familiar Whitby GO Station parking lot for our third annual Owl Hunt. It's just a name - we don't shoot owls of course, you'd have to be some kind of lunatic to do that. But since 2012, the five of us have been getting together in late January/early February for a little male bonding and owl hunting. Because who doesn't like owls?
Before I write my entry about the third one, I thought I'd do a little look back at the first two Owl Hunts.

Great Horned Owls
Owl Hunt '12 was a memorable one; I got to see my first ever owls in the wild(!) A mating pair of Great Horned Owls in Thickson Woods (right).

I'm told these two have been here for years, though I'm not sure how many. Evidently Great Horned's in the wild generally live a little over ten years, while the oldest known owl on record lived to 28 years old. However old they were, it was a good moment, seeing my first owls.