Birding through troubled times

In the past six years, since I was 12, both of my maternal grandparents died, my paternal grandfather has had a stroke and moved into a nursing home, and my father was diagnosed with cancer. It was only this summer, after the stroke and my father’s cancer surgery, that I realized just how much birds and birding have helped me through very difficult times. Birding has been a distraction and a comfort for me, something that has both calmed and energized me.

In September 2009, several months after I started birding, my maternal grandfather was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given 12 to 18 months to live. It was hard to believe at the time, because I knew only happy times with my grandparents, either here in Alberta, or visiting them at their homes in New York and the Caribbean island of Nevis. My grandfather, who was a keen photographer and loved the outdoors and gardening, gave me my first pair of binoculars, which I’m still using, and also a copy of of Les Beletsky’s Bird Songs, with its digital audio player that was a tremendous help for me when I was so young and curious about birds. After my grandfather started radiation treatments, my mother flew from our farm in Alberta, Canada, to New York in November to help him.

Unfortunately, the radiation didn’t work and the doctors told my mother and grandfather that his prognosis would be even shorter. When it became apparent that it would be his last Christmas, my mother had my father, my brothers, and me travel to NYC to spend Christmas together with my grandparents one last time (he would die several weeks later, in early January). As a distraction from a very sad situation — my grandfather’s illness, his changed personality, my grandmother’s sadness — in a very small New York apartment with seven people, my father (who isn’t at all a birder) took me to Central Park for a bird walk. Although it was snowing quite heavily, we saw some good birds, many of which were lifers for me. We even walked over to the Fifth Avenue apartment building where the celebrated Pale Male lives, but swirling snow prevented us from seeing the nest.

Several months after my grandfather died, my family flew down to Nevis in October to help my grandmother sort through my his things at their retirement house, and to prepare the house for sale. Although our days were very full with clearing out, cleaning, and painting the house, I still had time to go birding every morning. While on Nevis, I added lots of species to my life list, including three new species of hummingbirds — Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Green-throated Carib, and Purple-throated Carib. I showed my grandmother many of the photos I took, and her favourite was a backlit photo I took of a Purple-throated Carib. One of the highlights of that trip was finding a female Antillean Crested Hummingbird on her nest, and also photographing it. For a 12-year-old birder, this was certainly something special.

The female Antillean Crested Hummingbird on her nest (2010),


Nevis is also the place I started this blog. Because I was taking lots of photos, and seeing so many new species, I thought a blog would be the perfect medium for chronicling my adventures. But partway through our stay, my grandmother became very sick, and then died several day later, very suddenly and unexpectedly. What had already been a difficult and sad trip, so different from our previous family visits, was even harder. Being able to go birding every morning gave some sense of normalcy to my days, and also gave me something to look forward to, especially after we found out that our return home would have to be delayed for several weeks while my parents made all the necessary arrangements. And while I started the blog at a difficult time, it has brought me so many friends and opportunities. It’s another reminder that good things can come out of terrible circumstances.

This year has been particularly hard. In April, my paternal grandfather, who lives nearby and with whom I’ve always been very close, suffered a severe stroke and nearly died. He was in the hospital for five months and recently moved into a nursing home. He is no longer the man he was — he is confined to bed or a wheelchair, and his memory and speech are almost gone. He doesn’t know me anymore, and there have been days when he’s been so agitated that it’s upsetting to see. And his stroke has changed my grandmother too, from the calm and always smiling glue of the family to someone who is now almost always sad, anxious, and distracted. It’s rather like finding out that two rocks you have been able to count on your entire life have suddenly crumbled.

Our family spent much of my grandfather’s first few weeks in the hospital with him, and after long hours of being cooped up, it was wonderful to be able to go birding in, to escape to, the nearby Provincial Park, a short walk away. The hospital had its own little oasis, too,  a central courtyard with a garden, and from the window in my grandfather’s room, I could watch the Blue Jays, Black-billed Magpies, and House Sparrows that came every day. The species weren’t particularly exciting, but I realized that for patients and visitors, even a House Sparrow can bring some cheer after days and weeks spent in the same room. Keeping my grandmother company, I would sometimes bring my ABA field notebook to work on, and show her my sketches in progress.

A sketch of a Hermit Thrush I finished while in the hospital,


I’ve thought often that one of the things my grandfather and I liked to talk about, one of the things we’ve had in common, are a love of animals in general and birds in particular, and it’s painful to know that we won’t be able to talk about this and share it any more. Spring migration was in full force during much of his stay at the hospital. I’d bring my iPad to the hospital room and show my grandfather my photos. Sometimes he would laugh and smile when looking at the photos, other times he would cry and look very sad. My grandfather always loved nature and he loved to share his knowledge and experiences with his grandchildren. Now that he’s in the nursing home, unable to stand, to remember his family, or to express himself clearly most of the time, it’s hard to accept that he will never again be the person I once knew — a person who enjoyed nature, who could spend an entire afternoon watching the birds through his kitchen window. I can also appreciate how miserable he must be, unable to get around on his own and confined to a facility, unable to be outdoors where he was always happiest. Birding, and photographing birds, is a way of remembering and honouring both of my grandfathers.

Shortly after my grandfather’s stroke, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was a frightening time for my family, especially waiting to find out whether the cancer had spread. His surgery was in Edmonton, a three-hour drive from our house, and my mother was with him for the four days they were in the city; she kept in touch by telephone, but for a family used to spending so much time together because of home schooling and farming, the distance was difficult. It was rather disconcerting to be so far away from my parents at such an important time, and we didn’t have any family staying with us because my grandmother, aunts, and uncles were all looking after my grandfather. I did go birding a few times while my parents were gone, which was a helpful release and a chance to forget about everything happening. Even when I didn’t have time for dedicated birding, I was always observing birds. On my way to work every day, I would see everything from hawks, gulls, and a pair Guinea Hens crossing the road (escapees from a neighbouring farm), to a large group of pelicans flying north from the river. Almost every morning I would see an American Kestrel siting on the power line or fence post often with prey in its talons. This is one of the beauties of birding — birds are everywhere and can help distract your thoughts from times of hardship.

A Killdeer from one of my bird walks this summer,


During the difficult times my family has had to face, birding has helped to keep me strong. I’ve learned to go birding as often as I could, to make the time even when I was busy with my summer job and farm chores, because it helped me relieve stress and remind me of happier times. Especially because birding around our farm or the Provincial Park nearby means going for very long walks, I was able to lose myself whenever I went birding. Most birders know Emily Dickinson’s famous line, “Hope is the thing with feathers”. I’ve found that birds do indeed give me hope, especially at times when life seems to be rather hopeless, whether it’s the anticipation of migrants returning in the spring, or that tomorrow might bring a new species for my year list or life list or even just the sighting of an old favourite. Being out in the woods or on the prairie surrounded by birds — surrounded, as I wrote this the other month, by tens of thousands of Canada Geese and Snow Geese — I was reminded at this harvest time of the generosity and abundance of nature. That no matter how hard or ugly life can be, there is always beauty, grace, and strength in this world. That just as as winter always comes, with witherings and departures, so to does spring, with returns and rebirth.

A male Mountain Bluebird at the local Provincial Park. My paternal grandparents are particularly fond of Mountain Bluebirds,


My Hummingbird Essay

This is one of essays I wrote for the Doug Tarry Young Ornithologists’ Workshop. The original essay topic was to write about your favorite bird, but I couldn’t choose just one bird, so I chose a bird family instead. I couldn’t include photographs with my application, but I’ve added some below, from the past few years, to this post.

“My Favourite Bird”

I don’t think I have just one favourite bird, but my favourite bird species at the moment is hummingbirds, Trochilidae, because of their beautiful plumage colours, their physical stamina and size, and the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to appreciate them close up, since they seem to tolerate humans nearby more than other birds, especially when they are drawn by flowers in the garden and hummingbird feeders. Every year when the hummingbirds return to our yard, I am reminded that I enjoy watching them more than almost any other bird, and how very different they are from most of the other birds I’ve seen. I’ve also been lucky to see hummingbirds not just in Western Canada, but also in the West Indies visiting my grandparents.

Alberta has so many brightly colourful birds — such as the American Goldfinch, Mountain Bluebird, Purple Finch — that it could be hard for a hummingbird to stand out. But whereas some birds are brightly coloured, the hummingbird’s coloration is a bit more subtle with a metallic sheen which can become quite eye-catching as the sun hits the feathers. In addition to the iridescence, many male hummingbirds have beautifully coloured head and gorget feathers: in the the case of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), a bright metallic red throat patch; the Broad-Billed Hummingbird with its red bill, and dazzling blue throated males; and Costa’s and Lucifer Hummingbirds with iridescent violet or purple crowns and gorgets. I hope one day to find a hummingbird feather to study under our microscope. I have read that a group of hummingbirds is called “a glittering of hummingbirds” and given the metallic sheen of their plumage, it seems a very good description.

Each spring I anxiously wait for the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to arrive at our farm at the end of their long migration. Having traveled far, often through harsh conditions, the small birds’ ability to navigate such a long trip is remarkable. Just from the Yucatan Peninsula to Edmonton is a distance of more than 6,000 kilometres. And each year, as I learn more about birds, I find the journey and the perils the birds survive more, and not, less amazing. Living in eastern Alberta, I am lucky to be within the western limit of the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds’ summer breeding range. And I very much appreciate that this bird family is found only in the Americas. We are so lucky to be able to enjoy their presence in the summer.

We usually have two pairs of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds who return annually. They like to sit, and possibly nest, in a spruce tree just north of our house, a few feet away from our dining room window. I hope that this year I’ll be able to find a nest and watch the nestlings grow and fledge. They also spend time at the feeder on the deck, near chairs, where they sometimes fight with each other, and also in the flower garden, where they like the nectar from the Maltese cross, columbines, lilies, nasturtiums, and catmint, and don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that we are gardening nearby (well, my mother keeps gardening while I stop quietly to watch).  It is amazing to see the birds stop short exactly in front of a feeder or flower, hover as long as they need, or fly backwards. I especially enjoy the males’ dramatic and dizzying aerial displays.

In 2010 when my family was on the West Indian island of Nevis, visiting my grandmother, I was able to see many new species of birds, including three new species of hummingbirds — Antillean crested Hummingbird (Orthorhynhus cristatus), Green throated Carib (Eulampis holosericeus), and Purple throated Carib (Eulampis jugulars). I had several unexpected and exciting encounters with Antillean crested Hummingbirds, the smallest bird species on the island. One day, I had to rescue a hummingbird stuck in the garage ridge vent, almost 20 feet off the ground. With the help of a ladder, I was able to get the hummingbird and me safely to the ground. Sitting on the grass, I let it rest for a while on my open hand — which gave me the chance to study its beautiful feathers and delicate features — and after a few minutes it flew to a nearby red ixora shrub to rest some more.  Another time, I was waiting in our car for my parents to return from shopping, and passed the time watching a bullfinch singing on a branch. Suddenly, and just as my parents returned, a female Antillean crested Hummingbird flew by and sat on her nest. I had never seen an actual hummingbird nest before, so we asked the home owner if we could go in his garden for a better look and some pictures. There weren’t any eggs yet in the nest, and we never had a chance to go back, but it was still thrilling.

These are just some of the reasons the hummingbird is my favourite bird species is the hummingbirds. In the future, I would like to read and study more about hummingbird hybridization, between closely related species and species in different genera, and see for myself the different combinations — just one more reason they are such a fascinating species.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird at our feeder two days ago,


Antillean-crested Hummingbird, Nevis, West Indies, 2010, rescued after being trapped in the garage,


Purple-throated Carib, Nevis, West Indies, 2010,


Female Antillean-crested Hummingbird on nest, Nevis, West Indies, 2010

Hummingbird nest with a very small egg, 2010 (sorry this is so fuzzy, I was still getting used to the camera and taking birding pictures),

Early Morning Bird Walk

My father and I went out again this morning to the swamp nearby.

When we arrived, the Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Common Moorhen were there, and after awhile two Yellow-crowned Night Herons and three Green Herons flew by, and one Green Heron stopped but too far away for a close-up picture. But I took advantage of the fact that it had stopped anyway and took a picture.

I was hoping to get close to the Great Egret for a picture as I was returning to the car, and caught a glimpse of yellow and followed it in to the trees. To my surprise two Solitary Sandpipers were there, but I hadn’t forgotten about the yellow bird. I peered into the tree, it was very hard to see the bird, but I got a fairly good look at it so I think it was a Yellow Warbler. I hope it was.

The Great Egret,

This morning there was only the one male Common Moorhen,

The Great Blue Heron,

The Green Heron,


Brown Pelicans on a fishing boat,

Just as we got in to the car and started going down the road I saw some kind of a black bird. I told my dad to back the car up,  got out and started to look for the bird, and saw it was an immature Glossy Ibis,

A Good Day for Birds

I went out this morning at 6:15 to watch the birds in my grandmother’s garden. My dad heard me get up, so he asked me if I wanted to go to the nearby freshwater swamp. When we arrived I was very happy to see the resident great egret fishing for crabs and a very still Great Blue Heron. After a little bit of time passed, two Common Moorhens appeared, but then the best part of the trip was three Green Herons.  Unfortunately, I forgot my camera so of course they came right up to us and it was very exciting. My dad and I hope to go out even earlier tomorrow morning, and I will make sure to bring my camera.

This morning I spotted:

1 Great Blue Heron

4 Common Moorhens

3 Green Herons

1 Yellow-crowned Night Heron

2 Zenaida Doves

2 Gray Kingbirds

5 Cattle Egrets

2 Bananaquits

1 Pearly-eyed Thrasher

6 Lesser Antillean Bullfinches

2 Magnificent Frigatebirds

3 Brown Pelicans

2 Purple-throated Caribs

Beach Birds

From our trip to the beach on November 7, not the sunniest day but some very exciting birds!

I was very happy to spot a pair of Solitary Sandpipers,

As I was taking pictures of them, they spent most of their time over the water waiting for me to leave,

The male came very close to me for a few minutes,

While my family and I were enjoying the water and body surfing, I looked up and there was the Yellow-crowned Night Heron. I ran out of the water to get my camera before it flew away,

On the other side of the roof,

I was able to get a very close look at the heron,