Monday, February 5, 2018

The Illustrated Queenfisher

  A short story I wrote, “The Illustrated Queenfisher” was just published in Abstract Magazine (
I'm digging that art they've paired it up with). Read it here:
  Fooled another one, heh heh. I just re-read it, and I hate it now – ugh, I guess that’s normal. I’ve written close to twenty of these “X-files/Twilight Zone” birding tales, it would be cool to put ‘em all together some day.
  The inspiration for this story came from the moment when I saw my first Common Kingfisher in Korea way back in 2005. It was hovering over a misty pond at dawn, a beam of sun lighting it up in shades of neon turquoise and orange. For a few seconds, I thought I was looking at an actual fairy.
  Admittedly, this story, while about birds, is not exactly about birding. There was a whole birding story arc in the original story, which rambled past 6,000 words and wasn’t close to being done. Not knowing where to go with it, I scrapped it and remolded the best parts into a “flash fiction” story, which generally means 1,000 words or less.
  For the writers out there, I would recommend writing a few flashes as a way of salvaging failed ideas, or just as an exercise in trimming the fat from your storytelling (I’ve still got a long way to go on that front). It can be challenging to tell a story in under a thousand words, so it forces you to cut to the chase. For example, in this latest story, I initially spent three paragraphs describing how a character was disheveled and downtrodden, and the troubled life that led him down that road. That cost me about 600 words, so I replaced all that with the word “unshaven,” hoping the reader would fill in the blanks. Another advantage to writing flash fiction is that if the story sucks, you’ve only wasted a day or two on it, instead of a week or two.

Birds Korea Checklist 2018

  Birds Korea has just come out with their 2018 Checklist, hurray! Download and/or view it here:
  Nial Moores and some other folks put a whole lot of work into this, and this time, I was able to put in a little of my own (editing/proofreading). While there were a couple of long nights, it was rewarding to get elbow deep into the mud of it, get an intimate feel for the list, and the changes since the 2014 checklist. The statuses of some species have shifted for the worse - more evidence of the disturbing downward trend of bird populations in Korea, and indeed all across our thin-skinned little orb.
  It was also a reminder of the species that have turned up in Korea for the first time over the past few years (Grey-sided Thrush! Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher!), and indeed, the huge repertoire of birds I’ve yet to see there. A good reason to go back, amidst a turbulent sea of reasons not to.
  Hey, I’m going to Cuba next week! Tody or not Tody, that is the question.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Oil spill headed for Jeju Island

Jeju's lovely southwest coast, one of my old birding haunts
That black pumpkin seed at center screen getting whacked by oil is Jeju Island (Reuters)
  The Sanchi, an oil tanker that sunk off China this month, is leaking oil, and that oil is predicted to reach Jeju Island in the following months. I lived on Jeju for four years, and it's a place I dearly love. Here's hoping that oil slick breaks up, changes course, or 'something.' The proper Korean authorities mobilizing immediately would be a good start towards preventing yet another slow-motion Korean eco-disaster. Birds Korea outlines the bird species that would likely be affected if the spill reaches Korea, and it's not pretty:

Reuters graphic of possible spread of the oil spill:

Friday, January 12, 2018

Mini-lens of last resort – first trial

Fits nicely into a small camera case (not included)
Goofy-looking, but fun
Taken with Canon DSLR with 100-400mm lens for comparison
Taken with cell phone camera without zoom, or mini-lens
Cell phone camera with zoom, without mini-lens
Cell phone camera without zoom, with mini-lens (oops, the mount slipped)
Cell phone camera with zoom, with mini-lens - verdict: better than nothing!
  I got this cute little clip-on mini-lens for Christmas, and I finally tried it out in the cemetery the other day. I’ll get the downsides out of the way first:
-It is NOT a telephoto zoom lens. It is a fixed lens which takes advantage of the zoom feature on the phone itself. The adjustable ring is just for focus. The claims on the packaging are fake news.
-Your subject will need to be sitting still – you’re not going to be snapping off skulking warblers or Peregrines in a stoop with this.
-You have to practice – practice deploying it from your bag and uncapping the lenses, practice putting on the clip and screwing on the lens, and especially practice zooming and focusing with the phone camera app.
-It’s not a Canon lens (I’ve dropped and dinged mine many a’time – the thing’s a tank), it’s basically a toy. It’s made of plastic, and cost 20$. It will eagerly break if mistreated.

-This won't take the place of your 'big lens'. It's strictly for emergencies only, when you're caught without optics.
  All that being said, it’s a decent and fun little bit of ‘optics of last resort’ toy to keep in your non-birding bag. I wrapped mine in an old Korean ‘cooling arm band’ and it fits nicely into a small camera case with the clip.

  The results actually surprised me, and kind of reminded me of the “World’s first digi-scoping” stunt I pulled off in the ‘80s with a Bazooka Joe spy camera and a spotting scope (Click here!). I didn’t mess with it too much, but when I saw a stationary squirrel, I whapped it on out.
  The lighting was poor, no doubt it would have done better with some sun. Also, I only just realized this now, but while I did focus using the cell phone, I forgot to fiddle with the little focus ring on the lens itself, so there’s a chance I could have gotten a sharper image. None of the images were edited or cropped in any way.
  I can’t wait to try this out on the next Western Kingbird I see sitting on a traffic light on St. Catherine street.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017, du og jeg var skuffede over hinanden

And that's before wind chill...
Bird of the year! Black-backed Woodpecker Picoides arcticus, Mont-Tremblant, July 31, 2017
American Woodcock Scolopax minor, Mount-Royal Cemetery, May 2, 2017
Gray Jay Perisoreus Canadensis, Fôret Montmorency, February 26, 2017
Black-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus erythropthalmus, Mount-Royal Cemetery, June 29, 2017
Wood Thrush Hylocichla mustelina, Mont-Saint-Bruno, July 12, 2017
Saltmarsh Sparrow Ammodramus caudacutus, Sandy Neck, Cape Cod, June 19, 2017
  I was planning to get out and do a bird-sweep through the cemeteries today, to keep in line with a self-imposed New Year’s birding tradition I’ve stumbled into over the past few years ( Do something twice and it’s a tradition, innit. In light of the snot-freezingly, Tauntaun-slashingly frigid arctic air mass that has gripped the area with its mailed fist - I’m out. Personally, I could layer up and weather through it, but I’m not keen to subject my optics to a -30 torture test, just to check a box.
  2017 - what a year. It was the fastest year ever, and also the longest. Normally I’d say “I want that year back,” but eff that. Good riddance. There were some birding highlights though, which I will use to reassure myself that the year wasn’t a complete write-off. I got to really know not only the Mount-Royal Cemetery, but also the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery. That less sexy of the two cemeteries gets overlooked by birders, but has some great little scraps of habitats tucked away. One of the year's biggest cemetery surprises was probably the American Woodcock I spotted there in the spring (and the ones glimpsed in fall!). Another recent cemetery highlight was crossing paths with some Red Crossbills in November. As was the case during my first experience with the species, I failed to capture an image, heh heh.
  I got a much better feel for the wood-warblers in the cemeteries, in both spring and fall plumages. I also saw my first Black-billed Cuckoos there, and figured out where they hung out all summer - even saw a juvenile, woo-hoo.
  I was lucky enough to go on some memorable birding trips, notably several with the McGill Students' Birding Club down in southwestern Québec, and also a trip up to Fôret Montmorency near Québec City, with its rock star Gray Jays and Boreal Chickadees.
  A July trip north of Montreal revealed a long-sought-after Black-backed Woodpecker – my bird of the year. My first Wood Thrush since the 80s was also a welcome summer sight, on a mountain south of the island. I picked up more long-awaited species on trip to Cape Cod in June, with Saltmarsh Sparrows standing out in my mind. Speaking at the Congrès QuébecOiseaux in October was also a real hoot.
  Where will 2018 lead? Well, if the coin-toss comes up in favour of continued human life on Earth (instead of thorough nuclear armageddon), then I’ll get outta Dodge. Wherever I end up, I’ll be carrying on with my wacky birding scribblings, and hopefully some more of it will get published. And I'll try to get out birding a few times.
  Be nice to one another.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Chicka-peas, and other seasonal randoms

Dan and I birding in the Mount-Royal Cemetery in the 80's - I'm bringing saggy red sweatpants back in 2018
A goofy duck I sewed and glued together in kindergarten - still tops the tree
A wacky little clip-on lens of last resort for record shots when caught without optics.. It's a little fiddly, and not an actual 'zoom' lens, but it seems like it could be better than nothing. We'll see how it performs in the field...
  When I saw this Chicka-peas ornament at a PQSPB bird fair in the 1980s, I knew it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen in my young life. Many decades on, it is sadly still the coolest thing I own.
  Dan and I volunteered as ‘floaters’ for a couple of these 80s-era bird fairs, which were held at Westmount High. As floaters, we mostly scrambled around bringing people coffee, if I’m remembering things correctly.
  We were eventually given one specific, all-important job – standing outside a room where some bird expert was giving a slide-show/speech. Under NO circumstances were we to let anyone in after the start time. We stood there for a while feeling badass because we’d been given a legit task, when a couple of people walked up. We squeaked “Hey you can’t go in there, it’s closed,” but they pushed right past us without acknowledgement and walked in, to a chorus of tisks. We resolved to be tougher, but after it happened again a few minutes later, we abandoned our post, grabbed a bunch of free doughnuts, and meekly ate them in an empty classroom until the heat died down, heads hung low.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Glædelig julfugle!

...and a new year jam-packed with birds, and free of willful ignorance.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The stupendous case of the human guard dog

Sweet flash setting, bro
  Last year on December 17th, Dan and I took part in a frigid ‘Christmas Bird Count.’ I couldn’t devote an entire day to this year’s event, but thought I should get out for an hour on its anniversary, just to knock the dust off the ol’ binoculars. I went over to the tree-lined grounds of a nearby school, which we surveyed as part of last year’s protocol. It was super cold, but there were a few dog-walkers and even some cross-country skiers out enjoying the weekend.
  I was working my way through a small wooded area adjacent to a condo parking lot on the other side of a chain-link fence when I spotted a White-breasted Nuthatch with a crown stripe that was greyer than I’d encountered in recent memory. I whipped out my Sibley to double-check how grey the females are meant to be.
  “Hey! You! Who are you? You're not allowed to be in there!”
  I turned and saw a short stocky fellow getting out of his BMW SUV about 30 feet away, stabbing his finger at me. He seemed quite angry.
  Always one to build bridges between birders and non-birding individuals, I flashed on my best fake diplomatic smile, and explained why I was there. ‘There’ was on the school grounds, not on the condo property, but 30 feet away, through a fence, mind you.
  “Hello! I’m watching birds, sir. There’s a nice nuthatch up there.” I showed him my binoculars, pointed up at the nuthatch, and even held up my field guide.
  “OH YEAH? I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!” He was absolutely screeching.
  It’s not like I was pointing my optics towards him or the condos - as a rule of thumb, I never aim my bins or camera at homes or businesses.
  “No it’s true, sir, there’s a nuthatch up there. I’m here watching birds. Have a nice day,” I gave him the last of my smiles, and kept on walking.
  At this point he took out his phone and started taking pictures of me.
  Spittle was actually frothing from his lips and speckling his sweater.
  “Why are you taking pictures of me?” I asked calmly, in spite of my raising hackles. Clearly the guy was under the sway of drifts of cocaine, and/or in the midst of a serious psychotic break.
  “I’M GONNA SHOW THESE TO THE COPS! OH YEAHHH! I GOT YOUUU!” His voice was raised in pitch and cracking up, like an over-stimulated teenager.
  I was done trying to reason with the little fellow. In a true Crocodile Dundee “That’s not a knoife!” episode, I swung up my big 400mm lens and took some pictures of him, in the spirit of the moment.
  In spite of his zeal for photography, he didn’t appreciate when I reciprocated the gesture, and his shaking hands snapped up to his face like he was on an episode of To Catch a Predator. I approached the fence and told him I’d wait there with him if he wanted to call the cops so we could all discuss birdwatching, but he lurched away, holding up his hands to prevent me from photographing his face. It sounded like he was speaking in tongues. He squealed: “Bllllaaarghhh! Imgonnacc-c-calltheCOPPPSS!!” all the way back into the building.
  I honestly feel sorry for him. Something must have gone horribly wrong in his life for him to end up snarling and snapping at folks through a fence like a neglected Chihuahua. Take a chill pill, duuuude!
  I carried on birding the rest of the grounds at my own pace for another 45 minutes. No police showed up. If he actually called them, I imagine his panicked conversation with 911 operators was a classic ("Um...sir? Did you just say nuthatch?"). Some people.
  This interaction was an apt example of the level of discourse in 2017. Can’t folks just talk to one another? Does anyone use their brains anymore? Fuck you, 2017.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Turiffic Turdus

American Robin Turdus migratorius...check out that bill!
American Robin Turdus migratorius 
American Robin Turdus migratorius
House Finch Haemorhous mexicanus
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
  ‘Twas a lovely crisp morning on the mount, glad I layered up - my wips got fwozened. I got wrapped up in a wave of confiding American Robins in Oak Ridge, after I did the statue routine for a few minutes – they were literally walking over my shoes. One male had an overgrown upper mandible, but still seemed to be loving life. Gotta love them Turdidae – I miss the motley variety found in Korea.

Mount-Royal Cemetery, (Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery), November 23, 2017
Peregrine Falcon-1 over the north entrance
Downy Woodpecker-1
Hairy Woodpecker-2 (1)
American Crow-5 (2)
Black-capped Chickadee-27 (7)
White-breasted Nuthatch-2 (2)
Red-breasted Nuthatch-2
American Robin-50+ in the west and centre of MRC
Northern Cardinal-4
White-throated Sparrow-1 by the feeder
Dark-eyed Junco-2 (1)
American Goldfinch-3 (3)
House Finch-1 male by the feeder

Monday, November 20, 2017

November’s Northbirds

The Tim Burton-y wonderland of Alfred-Kelly Nature Reserve
Joey in the heavy fluff-fluff
Pointing at a thing, totally naturally
Joey trying out the boat anchor on an American Tree Sparrow
Near where we saw American Pipits

Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Joey's shot of an American Tree Sparrow Spizella arborea
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris

  Just returned from a quick foray up north to hang out with Joey, and as is tradition, we squeezed in a few hours of birding at a couple of local hotspots. My arrival coincided with that of ol’ man winter's, with stiff winds, a respectable dusting of snow and temperatures of -8 (before wind chill) being our persistent companions for the day’s birding.
  Along the Rangs Ste Marie & Ste Dominique in Mirabel, we crossed paths with several photographers out trolling for Snowy Owls. We didn’t end up seeing any of the moon-eyed vedettes, as we were more focused on the LBJs that worked the fields along the roads.

  Among them was Joey’s first experience with Horned Larks. After they flushed several hundred feet into the field, we parked and let them work their way back to us for a half hour. Joey was amped to observe them from so close, and hell, so was I. I took a blurry video of the cute way they scuttle about warily like shorebirds when foraging.
  On our way into the area, we saw a small group of LBJs in undulating flight heading along the scrubby wet fringes of an agricultural field, then into some mid-level trees in a small woods at the road’s edge. We parked in what was probably not the best spot (at the side of a snow-choked road) and made our way across towards the birds. Big mistake. They flushed from relatively far off, and went on through the woods towards the south. When they flushed, they made a distinctive, squeaky ‘pip-pip’ call. 
  Mostly on the strength of this call, as well as the quick views from the car (they gave off the jizz of an upright, elongated bird hued in a buffy/brown palette, with chest streaking noted), the size, flight and flushing patterns, habitat, small group size, and time of year lead me to deduce that they must have been American Pipits.
  I’m not sure how crazy unlikely this record is, but after looking online, it appears that November 20 is at the tail-end of observed southward migration for the species. The tree thing bothered me for a species known as a ground-dweller, but apparently it’s not unheard of to see American Pipits in trees after flushing – I’ve seen several pipit species in Korea take to the trees.
  Flushing them before getting an ID locked down was frustrating, as it would have been Joey’s first view of the species (I seem to recall from Korea that pipits have a relatively wide flush-radius). Thus unfolded #746 in my series of painful fieldcraft gaffes turned learning moments: Thou shalt not approach birds, no matter how distant, without first trying to ID them from afar...

Rangs Ste Marie & Ste Dominique, Mirabel, (Alfred-Kelly Nature Reserve/Parc des Falaises de Prévost), November 19, 2017
Canada Goose-3,000+ in the fields
Red-tailed Hawk-1 or 2 patrolling along the 15
Hairy Woodpecker-(1 distant bird possibly heard)
Blue Jay-1 (1)
American Crow-35+ (3)
Common Raven-(2)
Horned Lark-8 in two separate groups
Black-capped Chickadee-(6)
American Pipit-7 probable just east of the intersection of Chemin Dupuis and Route 158 in St-Canut
European Starling-15+
American Tree Sparrow-2 in St-Canut on Chemin Dupuis
Dark-eyed Junco-(3)
Snow Bunting-7 in flight across the road
American Goldfinch-3 overhead, (1 overhead)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Tuque Weather

Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus getting into the wild grapes
House Finch Haemorhous mexicanus getting into the berries
American Goldfinch Spinus tristis getting into the birch catkins

Lil' raccoon feetsies

  Brrr, it was -10 with the wind chill up in the cemetery hills ce matin. No sign of those Red Crossbills from the other day, but there were a few hopeful folks out looking for them.
  Up on Pine Hill Side, I spent an enjoyable 20 minutes under a steady flurry of husks and debris from birch catkins, produced by a busy crew of American Goldfinch.

  It was a pleasure to see some Cedar Waxwings, hopefully the Bohemians show up soon. And a big mess of Evening Grosbeaks, that’d be nice, too. And a Gyrfalcon. Thus ends my Christmas wish list. Oh, and a Boreal Owl in a pear tree.
  On the way out I bumped into Jean-Sebastian Mayer, and we had a laugh about our shared Red Crossbill encounter from Tuesday (on his 1,000th birding session in MRC - legend!). I wasn't able to compare notes with him at the time, as when the birds flushed, he tore after them up the hill faster than I've see a birder run for a fair few years.

Mount-Royal Cemetery, (Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery), November 17, 2017
Bald Eagle-(1 juvenile winging west)
Downy Woodpecker-2
Pileated Woodpecker-1 male eating wild grapes in L7
American Crow-21 (17)
Common Raven-1 heard
Black-capped Chickadee-26 (17)
White-breasted Nuthatch-4 (3)
Red-breasted Nuthatch-1
American Robin-2
Cedar Waxwing-3 in section H
Northern Cardinal-1
Dark-eyed Junco-16+, mostly in G6
House Sparrow-(2 near Decelles entrance)
American Goldfinch-15 on Pine Hill Side
House Finch-3 in section H

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Crossbill Traffic

White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Hermit Thrush Catharus guttatus...Shhhhh, it's only sleeping...
Red Fox Vulpes vulpes...scratch scratch scratch...
  This morning at the cemeteries was a slow one until the very end of my three-hour walk, when a single finch flew overhead, towards the north entrance. It was bulky and plain, and made a call I likened to shades of American Goldfinch mixed with the bass notes of a Star Wars blaster. Tsew tsew tsew! 
  Fifteen minutes later, in the pine trees near the north entrance (the direction the singleton had flown), I came on a group of at least a dozen chattering finches in the large pine trees that dominate that area. I got backlit but decent binocular views before they flew towards Mount Royal. They were unmistakably Red Crossbills. Whaaaaat? I would have loved a better look, as this was only my second brush with this irregular species. Next time, Red Crossbills, next time. *shakes fist at sky* 
  Crossbill hard to get views of you...

Mount-Royal Cemetery, (Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery), November 14, 2017
Merlin-(1 near Decelles entrance)
Hairy Woodpecker-(1)
Pileated Woodpecker-(1 heard from UdeM woods)
American Crow-5 (8)
Black-capped Chickadee-12+ (6)
White-breasted Nuthatch-2 (5)
Ruby-Crowned Kinglet-1 near the north entrance
Hermit Thrush-1 dead on Pine Hill Side
American Robin-2 overhead
Northern Cardinal-10 to 14, widespread and mobile in the eastern half of MRC
White-throated Sparrow-2 near the north entrance, 1 on Pine Hill Side
Dark-eyed Junco-10 (4)
American Goldfinch-4+ (3)
Red Crossbill-12+ in the pines in section H
+1 Red Fox scratched an itch then bow-yawned