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.