The Natural Interest Concern


The Naturalist’s Cabinet

On Sunday we had a bright, if still quite cold, day here and we took our young puppy friend on a longer walk than normal and through an area in our neighbourhood we hadn’t visited before. We came to a some railroad tracks and were happy to explore around the junk-strewn way space for a while. Years ago, when the tracks were more accessible by our old apartment we enjoyed having the relatively wild fields that ran along side. Railroad tracks are a haven and ultimately the end for all sorts of plant and animal species and many of my first bird identifications were around those tracks.

Back to last Sunday… we were crossing one set of tracks when Gayla noticed the body of a bird that was fairly intact but probably clipped by a fast moving train. What might seem odd to many people is that the curiosity and fascination of most naturalists often extends beyond death. While my preference would always be to see live and active plants and animals, the chance to see a specimen up close can sometimes be the only time certain details are visible.

I thought I would spare you the photos I took of the bird on the tracks.
Illustration — National Association of Audubon Societies

Some Victorians may have valued the aesthetics of natural curiosity above living breathing Nature but collections of “study skins” and holotypes are still useful means for up-close inspection of birds and other species. My personal goal isn’t rigorous scientific study but I have still always held an interest in seeing the anatomy of various species as closely as I could. Though I have to admit a great fondness for natural assemblages and collage like the boxes of Joseph Cornell.

A couple of photos taken on the scene lead me to later discover that the bird we found at the tracks was a Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris). They aren’t uncommon birds and they seem to anecdotally be found around way spaces like railroad lines but I had only ever seen them in passing in books before Sunday. Even in its twisted and still form, the Lark sparked some type of thrill, in experiencing difference. I felt a twinge, a sort of self-doubt, in feeling excited to be seeing this lifeless bird but death holds more than its fair share of wonder as much as we might want to cast that fascination to the side. Without getting too Circle of Life, death is just a part of it all.

Leave a comment


Langue verte

This site is possibly in danger of becoming an all-birds-all-the-time affair but I can’t help but look to the birds. The birds (along with a few squirrels and the near-feral neighbour cats) are keeping our backyard view alive. The vast majority of those birds have been Starlings.

Starlings used to nest in the eves of our old apartment.

The European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is widely derided as a pest bird — like weeds on the wing. They were introduced to the United States in 1890 by Eugene Schieffelin (a member of the American Acclimatization Society) as part of the poetic/naive gesture of bringing “the birds of Shakespeare” to Central Park. Starlings now number in the teeming millions from the hundred or so originally released.

Starlings have always been a fascination for me. The oil-slick iridescence of their feathers makes them a marvel to see up close but it is mostly their vast repertoire of appropriated bird songs that makes them so compelling.

You can often catch male Starlings perched high on rooftops or poles cycling through all the bird calls and environmental sounds they have committed to memory. If the “language of birds” is, as was once thought, the true original language, then Starlings are one of its great archivists.

Thinking about the adept mimicry of Starlings, I began to wonder about bird song in general. A bit of surface level reading (cough, Wikipedia) introduced me to the concept of song crystallization. Young birds are taught calls by mature tutors. They practice and elaborate on the calls as their social interaction increases going through a phase of plastic song until their song matures and becomes less varient. Amazingly, birds deprived of tutors and social interaction still sing but only in a limited simplified manner called isolate song — I feel sad just thinking about that. There I go, thinking about birds in human terms.

The fascination with bird song throughout the ages isn’t surprising. To us, its scope and complexity makes it easy to compare to the diversity of human language. The vast variety of bird calls from rasping to melodic communicate everything from alarm to sexual availability. People love to find something of themselves in the other animals around them and mysteries like the seemingly coded language of birds can take on mystical importance to some. The title of this post, Langue verte, refers to the belief that the language of birds was a “green language” — a pure form of language — even the language of angels.

I love watching the determined march of Starlings across grass. All bobbing their beaks into the soil repeatedly like those plastic drinking dippy birds.

As a large group of Starlings forage in our neighbour’s yard today, my attachment to them feels much more on their own level. I’ll certainly admit to me own fair share of anthropomorphism when it comes to birds and other non-humans. But with Starlings I also feel excited simply to wonder at the complexity of their communication beyond any connection to human language or thought.

Leave a comment

File under: Gleanings
Tagged: , , , .

Slate-coloured Junco

Not having traveled this month, February hasn’t been the bird-dense month that January was. Still I have enjoyed the sparse bird sightings attainable in our backyard. With only a handful of visiting birds in our yard, my list for February will mostly boil down to Pigeons, Starlings, and Sparrows.

One exception is the quite common — but new to me — Slate-coloured Junco (Junco hyemalis hyemalis) aka the Snowbird. They’re one of the Dark-eyed Juncos. We have seen single birds and small groupings in our neighbour’s cherry tree and jumping lower along our fence line.

I’m going to call it my “Bird of the Month”.

Slate-coloured Junco by Ernest Seton Thompson, from Bird-Life: A Guide to the Study of Our Common Birds, 1900

“Modest in manner and attire, there is nothing of especial interest in the Junco’s habits, and only bird-lovers can understand what a difference his presence makes in a winter landscape. It brings a sense of companionship ; it is a link between us and Nature.”
— Frank M. Chapman
Bird-Life: A Guide to the Study of Our Common Birds, 1900

Leave a comment


Cultivating Wonder

When we speak about “childlike wonder” we are drawing on a time when wonder was as innate as breath. For children, wonder is practically key to their survival. Wonder is synonymous with a child’s fluid acquisition of language and their drive to discover and define the seemingly infinite new things that get introduced to their senses. Our nacent sense of wonder is our earliest guide to the world.

The wonder of childhood feels like this in my memory. Rapid flashes with the occasional moment of brilliant clarity.

It’s strange that we relegate wonder to the realm of childhood. To me, it feels just as innate and necessary to adult life — we adults are just unfortunately good at suppressing wonder. Because we tend to tag wonder as a child state, it becomes too susceptible to being derided as frivolous.

Wonder deserves to be cultivated. A strong sense of adult wonder deepens our understanding and appreciation of everything around us. Wonder is amazingly not finite. I was thinking about wonder metaphorically as a choose-your-own-adventure system for discovery. Every observation, experience, and question are paths we take that always lead to further wonder if we let them. And the choices available often splay out before us iterating like fractal branches.

The intensity of needing to get close and closer to things to examine them in detail means we are often at a childlike distance from things that spark our interest.

In a sense, wonder shared is culture. We bond to each other through mutual experience of our senses and our intellectual and aesthetic pursuits are formed almost wholly from our fascination with both describing and evoking wonder.

I felt compelled to write this as I can occasionally see the barriers I impose on my own strong sense of wonder. I sometimes need to remind myself that wonder is right there, as involuntary as breath to me, if I don’t hold it in.

Leave a comment


Urban Wildness: Leslie Spit

Living in Toronto, our largest natural feature is Lake Ontario which wraps along the southern coast. One of our favourite spots to explore juts out into the lake in Toronto’s East end. Tommy Thompson Park — more commonly known locally as the Leslie Spit — is a purely urban unique wild space.

This long man-made peninsula sprang into existence in the late 1950’s. The lake-filled landmass is composed of decades of infrastructural waste: concrete, utility poles, uprooted trees, ceramic tiles, and more. The spit’s original purpose was as a breakwater for when Toronto used to harbour extensive shipping traffic. By the 1970’s, facing varied development plans, an ad hoc group was formed to protect the burgeoning wilderness that had taken hold on the new land. The Friends of the Spit are still active today in protecting and fostering public use of the land.

A testament to Natural resilience, The Spit is currently a vibrant ecosystem with to a multitude of native plants, hundreds of bird species, teaming with insect life, and home to mammals rare to urban life such as coyote and fox.

Visiting The Spit is always an adventure. We have walked and biked down the 5 kilometre main road and along its pathways, side trails, fields, and woods to always observe something new. Hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants nest on the Spit along with Tern, Egret, Heron, Gulls, and more. You can often see vast flocks of the black Cormorants flying overhead.

The other thrill of the Leslie Spit is it very active status as a dump site. Yes, the Spit is still growing! You would expect that wilderness and concrete-laden trucks could not co-exist but somehow the clash makes visiting more captivating. The expanding Eastern shorelines are a tumble of jutting rebar, mutli-coloured tiles worn round by the lapping of the lake, and broken red brick. In the midst of this is a rusted empty Quonset hut and a managed wetland filled with darting Purple Martin and drifting water fowl.

It’s the sort of place where you indulge your childhood drive to find a snakeskin and collect pocket-fulls of the best beach glass. Occasionally you glance up at the full Toronto skyline in view to the West and marvel at where you are. It is truly wild and truly urban.

Because it can be hard to describe the splayed jetties and associated paths that fan out along the length of the spit this map will give you an overview:

View Larger Map

Leave a comment

File under: Expeditions
Tagged: , , , , .

The Reluctant Birdwatcher

A few weeks ago, in Baja California, we had the chance to go on a couple of bird walks with an experienced and passionate guide. The initial question was one I have been asked before and my answer was predictable.

“Are you a birdwatcher?”
“Oh. No… not really. I just like birds.”

It’s an answer based in a strange mixture of misplaced modesty and pride. Admitting to a fascination with birds is to align myself with some shameful teenaged notion of what a birdwatcher might be. At the same time, my respect for the dedication to observation that is at the heart of birdwatching makes me feel unworthy of the title.

Turkey Vulture in Baja California – Photo by Gayla

Back to those bird walks… once I had that pair of binoculars in my hands I was craning this way and that trying to be the first to point out new sightings and talking up the guide Joe with tales of the multitude of Turkey Vultures that were roosting nightly beside where we were staying. I was unabashedly birdwatching.

Our guide that day was Joe Sweeney. He gave each of us a small slip of paper with “Steps to Becoming a Birdwatcher”. Sometimes we need to be given permission to get past some false barrier we’ve created against our passions. His simple list boils down to equipping yourself in the most basic way to foster that excitement you already have around looking at birds: binoculars, bird books, people to see birds with.

I have carried a small folding set of binoculars in my camera bag for a few years now (yeah totally not a birdwatcher). Number one on Joe’s list is “Buy Binoculars”; we were using Nikon Action 7×35 binoculars when we walked with him and it made me realize that I wanted to upgrade. I have a couple of pocketable bird guides for our region. There are of course apps but I seem to prefer a quick flippable guide. So I could upgrade but I already have the basics to allow me to embrace being a birdwatcher.

Here’s one last thing that held me back… it’s the thing that I have used to mentally separate me watching birds from being a “birdwatcher”. Birdwatchers invariably keep lists. And the stigma around those lists is that they are cold Victorian enumerations or like the much-mocked ticks in some imagined trainspotter’s notebook. Joe talked to us about keeping a list and may have even been playfully competitive about the length of his list. But it was undeniable that Joe has a passion for birds and that his list is valuable to him for reasons beyond geeky pride.

So… in embracing the title birdwatcher for myself I am going to begin keeping a list. I see it now as a tool for memory and fuel for my own love of birds and their many nuances.

Here’s the start of my list based on an admittedly bird-packed January:

  • Turkey Vulture
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • California Quail
  • Mourning Dove
  • Nuttall’s Woodpecker
  • Western Kingbird
  • Black Phoebe
  • Western Scrub-Jay
  • American Crow
  • Common Raven
  • Mountain Chickadee
  • American Robin
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • California Thrasher
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Spotted Towhee
  • House Finch
  • European Starling
  • Blue Jay
  • Northern Cardinal
  • California Brown Pelican
  • Lesser Goldfinch
  • American Goldfinch
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Probably other Sparrrows as well. Sparrows are hard.
  • Common Grackle
  • Great Tailed Grackle
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Rock Pigeon
  • California Gull
  • Zone-tailed Hawk
  • Hummingbirds (not sure what type)
  • Killdeer
  • Rhode Island Red Chicken

Amazingly that’s probably not a complete list for the last month but it’s an exciting start for my first list. Do you have a list? Favourite birds?

* * *

I spent a bunch of time at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s terrific All About Birds site in preparing this list.

Leave a comment