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.