Monday, April 30, 2012

But where were the birds?

Saturday April 21, 2012

The woods were eerily quiet.  No wind, no bird song, no scurrying mammals. The sky was heavy with clouds, and it was cold.  It may as well have been January.  I buried my hands in my thin jacket pockets, and kept walking.
Clairville Conservation Area is supposed to be a good place for birding, but I hadn’t seen any yet.  The trail led me through patches of meadow, woodlands, and pine groves.  It was the pines that unnerved me the most.  They had no needles, were just grey spindly branches.  I don’t know if they had all died, en masse, or if they were just some kind of pine that lost its needles (the ground was blanketed with brown dry ones) and hadn’t grown them back yet.  I walked slowly. The branches, though needle-less, still managing to block out the light, adding an extra element of eeriness to the whole thing.  There was obviously no life here, avian or otherwise. 

I felt very alone, but not the kind of loneliness that grasps at things, in search of any kind of comfort.  Rather, the sort of alone-ness that has already accepted the way things are.  The sort of alone-ness that reaches out for no one because it knows there is nothing there.  That’s kind of how it felt - as if it were the end of the world, there was no more life, just me and this grove of dead pines.  I was acutely aware of how I would one day – a breath away – join them, there at that end of the world.  It was an odd feeling and I couldn't shake it.  I could just keep walking.

I made it out of the two or three patches like this, and came out into more alive-looking woods. Nevertheless, still utter silence.  I had come for the birds, but where were they?

I caught a sudden movement in the bare bushes. Aha! I didn’t know what kind of bird it was, but it was small and brown, with a spotted breast.  I watched it for a while and took a few photos.  Occasionally it would emit a soft and muted “chuck, chuck”.  Was it afraid?  Curious?  Trying to distract me from its nest?

  After consulting my field guide, I believe it’s an Oven Bird.
Relieved that the woods were finally coming to life, I kept walking.  From a cliff overlooking the river, I saw a woodpecker fly up to a tree – and then suddenly vanish into a perfectly round hole!  I didn’t realize their nest holes were so perfectly round.  I’m pretty sure it was the female, since there was no red spot on the back of her head.  Possibly a Hairy Woodpecker. 

Now you see me... you don't!

 I saw a few other birds that I wasn't able to identify, and then the cold got the better of me.  As I tried to make my way back to my Zipcar using my newly acquired GPS, a man came out of the woods with a very large camera.  We started chatting on our way back to our cars, and he showed me some photos he’d gotten, most notably one of a Great-horned or Long-eared Owl.  I was properly impressed, never having had the chance to see an owl up close like he had (I did, however, see some baby Great-horned owls in Point Pelee last year – what a treat!).  He seemed to mostly be talking to himself.  I find it odd when people do that... yet I have been told I do it myself, so I'm not sure how I feel about it.  I didn't mind listening to him talk; it's always good for me to practice being social (albeit not always with strange men who appear out of the woods, but the giant camera strapped around his neck seemed like a safe sign).

  Last year's baby owls at Point Pelee
I couldn’t feel my fingers or ears when I got back to the car, but I was motivated to continue my day-trip.  I’d had a rough start in the morning, as I drove around struggling to find the entrance to Clairville, and was on my way back home in frustration (mostly at the cold) when I stumbled upon it completely by accident.  As I left Clairville,I decided to drive to a Tim Horton’s, get some hot chocolate and continue on.

I looked in my map book (yes, I had 3 detailed road/street maps in the car despite the GPS because I’m responsible/paranoid like that) and saw that there was a place nearby called Heart Lake Conservation area.  Not able to resist a place called "Heart Lake", I decided to drive there.  

I love Ontario.  There are so many places in this world, it never ceases to amaze me.  When I was a little girl I’d pour over a road map my father had of Toronto and long for the day I could explore these unknown (to me) green spaces.  It's a thrill to finally be able to drive and explore at will.

At Heart Lake (which is indeed sort of heart shaped if seen from above) I was rewarded with what appeared to be Buffleheads.  I had never seen a female before.  They always stay so far from shore, though, so it’s hard to get a good close-up. 

I decided the logical thing to do would be hike around the entire lake.  (Note:  I am not a logical person when I am in the woods.  I resist following maps, trails, or heeding to common sense.  I alarm those who walk with me by standing precariously on the edges of cliffs, veering suddenly and without warning off paths, and occasionally falling into rivers.  I am still alive, so my instincts must be serving some purpose.)

It was very quiet, but an alive kind of quiet this time – the occasional rustle of a hidden bird, frogs crooking – and then!  The White-throated Sparrow.  I love this bird for so many reasons, but its best feature is its song.  It’s the heart and soul of the north, and I ache every time I hear it.  It also has an adorable yellow spot near its eye and is very amenable to being photographed.

It was also around this point in my day that I realized I needed to write again.  Now that the “spectre of academic writing” (as a friend put it) has finally lifted from me (at least for a time), I need to exercise my other writing muscle. 

After hitting a snag with my “walk around the lake” idea (I somehow ended up in someone’s backyard and had to walk on the street for a while; the GPS was terribly confused and most unhelpful), I eventually found my way back to where I’d started.

It was still only 5pm, but I was exhausted from two long hikes, so I picked up a place on the map that was near water but far away enough so I’d have a rest while driving – Keswick, at the base of Lake Simcoe.

I love driving through small towns and slipping into a local place for dinner, so that’s what I did to end my day (delicious fish and chips) – but not before I encountered all manner of strange waterfowl that I have yet to identify.  I thought maybe they were Goldeneyes or Buffleheads from afar, but they seem to be something else.  And then, suddenly, in among all the others, appeared the Mergansers.  I love their sleek look, and the way they glided right through the crowd, parting it…you could tell they had clout.  Bird politics can be incredibly fascinating if you watch them long enough. 

I didn't even realize until I looked at the picture just now that this is obviously a family with four baby-somethings!

The woods are full of mysterious things.

I had many other thoughts as I wandered through the woods that day, but if I don’t write them down in the moment, they are not recoverable any more then the moment that inspired them is recoverable.  Next time I will have to write on-site.