Close Encounters of a Feathered Kind: Great Canadian Bird Stories
From Cooper’s hawks in Kitchener, Ontario, to Bullock’s orioles in 100 Mile House, B.C., here are some of our favourite Canadian bird stories from Our Canada magazine.
A Regal Encounter
After a quick glance in the rear-view mirror, I tap the brakes. My old farm truck fishtails through the slush. “Are you trying to kill us?” my 86-year-old mother shrieks. “No.” I grip the steering wheel, peer through the spring blizzard and stop as close to the edge of the road as I dare. I give Mother a huge smile. “I saw an owl.”
“You saw a what?”
“An owl. Back there, on a fence post.” I flick on the four-way flashers and reach behind the seat for my camera. “I’m sure it’s a great grey.”
“You saw a bloody owl? Are you crazy?” Mother shakes her finger at me. “We have to go home before the roads get worse.”
“I’ll be quick. I promise.” I flip the camera’s strap over my neck, get out and shut the door without making a noise. Large, fat flakes fall straight down. I tuck my camera inside my parka and support it with one hand as I skirt the truck to get to the snow-filled ditch. He’s still there. A grey blur. But even from a distance, and through the squall, his shape is unmistakable. It’s a great grey. Mother pounds on her window. I wave at her, tighten the tops of my mukluks and step onto the bank of snow. With one hand still supporting the camera, I stick my other arm out for balance. I take cautious steps, expecting each one to plunge me through a soft section but the snow holds. Flakes splat on my head. They soak my hair and chill my scalp.
When I get to the barbwire fence, I’m five fence posts away from the owl. I sneak my camera out. As I lift it, he turns his round head and faces me. Impassive. Regal. He stands on the post. He’s big, a metre tall at least. He leans forward. “No,” I whisper. His massive wings unfold and he takes off, slow, methodical flaps carry him across the snow-covered hayfield. He lifts, soars upwards and lands on top of a distant poplar tree.
I stare at the distance between us. Two hundred metres? Maybe. I look down the fence line and see the weathered “No Trespassing” sign. I glance back to the owl. He’s still there. The sign is old and tattered. I turn to the truck. Mother watches me. “Five minutes.” I hold up five gloved fingers.
Before I take off, I check around to see if anyone else is watching. Maybe the No Trespassing sign is only a suggestion, meant for hunters, probably not owl watchers. I test the snow on my side of the fence. It’s solid. The wire squeaks when I press it down. Careful to avoid the barbs, I swing a leg over, set it down and tap the surface on the other side. It feels hard. Leaning down on the wire with one hand, I flip my other leg over. A scratching sound and the scraping sensation against the crotch of my jeans make me grateful for thick seams. With my next step, toward the owl, I sink to my knee. My balancing arm comes in handy as I flail it forward. The next five steps I stay on top of the snow. I get cocky right before my left leg disappears and I sink to my thigh. My spare arm’s windmilling motion stops me from doing a face-plant. I congratulate myself on staying upright, then check for the owl. Unfazed by my floundering, he’s still there. Not knowing when I’ll sink next, I prepare myself to limit any unnecessary body flailing. Grey owls are not afraid of anything, but I don’t want to annoy him. I move forward again. Some steps sink, others don’t.
When I’m within five metres of the tree, I take the lens cap off and zoom in. The owl turns his head to the distant woods. It’s a perfect profile shot. He looks at me. I take more pictures. I move closer to the tree. Close enough to see the large grey-and-brown concentric circle pattern around each bright yellow eye; similar to the growth rings of an ancient tree except these rings act as antennas and direct sound to the owl’s ears. I hold my breath as the camera clicks. The white bow-tie markings with a black centre, which are just below his yellowish beak and above the top of his neck, end the circular pattern around his eyes. Light greys and greyish browns dappled with dark grey cover the rest of his body. He turns his head to look behind himself, almost as if his head is not attached to his neck. When I have enough pictures, I put the lens cap on and tuck my camera back inside my coat.
I stare at the owl. His eyes lock on mine. I try not to blink until he does. It’s difficult. I can hear snowflakes land, there’s just me, the owl and the quiet. I watch him watch me. Moist air tickles my nostril. The finger-thick poplar branch he’s perched on is straight. Not the slightest bend. I’m afraid to move, not because I’m frightened of being hurt but because I feel movement would shatter this moment—this silent, perfect encounter. He tips his head at me. When a grey owl nods, it’s like he doesn’t have a neck. He nods again. I nod back. Then he stands and leans forward. “Goodbye,” I whisper. He spreads his wings and falls from his perch with elegance. He flaps once and just when I think I need to duck, his wings lift again. He circles above me without a sound and then glides across the field and disappears into the forest. My mouth is open, I want to say something profound, but I’ve got nothing. Melted snow trickles down my face and mixes in with a few tears. I trek back to the truck. As I get closer, I hear the dull pound on the window and see Mother’s blurred face through the foggy streaks. I wave at her, climb over the fence and pass the “No Trespassing” sign. I look back towards the woods, but he’s gone. —Barbara Wackerle Baker
A Born Bird-Lover
I don’t remember when or how my interest in birds began. If I were to guess, I would have to say that it began when photography became a very important part of my life. The variety of colours, sizes and habits of birds intrigued me and with the ability to capture them through a lens, my enjoyment of them increased.
This interest in birds was something that I shared with my late father. Long before I caught the “bird bug,” he was feeding them in his beautiful yard in Milk River, Alberta. My dad was old-school, a man who worked hard all his life, and I was surprised that bird watching would become one of his favourite things to do. My mom did not share the same enjoyment in watching birds as Dad. He liked to feed them fairly close to their deck and because of birds doing what birds do, it often became an annoyance to Mom to have to clean the deck as much as she did.
It must have been a small inconvenience for Mom though, as they would go on to share 67 years of marriage together. Before they both passed on, I was able to show them many photos of birds that I had taken.
I like all birds, but I do admit that I am partial to owls. In particular the snowy owl. To me they take the sting out of a cold winter day but more importantly, when I see one I believe that my dad is thinking about me. The tiny hummingbird would be right up there as well, as this bird makes me think of my mom.
It is more than just capturing the various types of birds with a camera that I enjoy—it’s also the challenge of trying to identify the kinds of birds I see before me. Many are easy to name, but birds that make only a short visit to your yard as they migrate back and forth during the spring and fall are the ones that make you break out your bird book to try to put a name to them—and that simply adds to the enjoyment.
The number of feeders I have in my yard seems to increase every year. My wife casts a wary eye at me every time she sees me holding up a feeder in a store. In the winter, my bird diner is not as buys as it is during the summer, but there are still regulars who come every day.
Of course the birds love the feeders, but so do I, as they allow me the opportunity to take photos of my feathered visitors. Birds are like people—not all of them enjoy city life, so there are times when I pay them a visit out in the country.
It would be interesting to know what the average age of a birder is. I would have to believe that the vast majority are baby boomers, and are people who find pleasure in the simpler things in life. I am pretty sure that my two grandsons would not be all that pumped if their grandfather suggested going on a bird-watching adventure with them.
For now, I am content with the return of my seasonal visitors. I keep my camera ready and my vehicle full of gas as I continue to learn more about the world of birds. – Jim Stickel
Check out our gorgeous gallery of Canadian birds.
Duel on the Grand River
Several years ago, I was out for a walk with my trusty camera. I was walking along a beautiful nature trail on the Grand River here in Kitchener, Ontario. You just never know when you’ll come across that perfect photo op. Today was going to be one of those days for me. Approaching the far end of the trail, near the area I usually turn around to go back, I spotted movement and commotion in some scrub about 12 feet away from me. I was amazed to see a Cooper’s hawk perched on the ground, totally oblivious to my presence. Up went my camera and I zoomed in on it. I kept snapping as I slowly moved around to achieve the best vantage point. I could not figure out why this hawk was on the ground and totally ignoring me. Normally they would be gone by now. I was in Heaven as I normally don’t get that close to such a magnificent creature. I took one more step to my right and a foot closer to this wonderful bird when, suddenly, up flew a small song bird from some undergrowth. It happened so fast I couldn’t even identify the small bird. Up into the sky went the Cooper’s hawk, right on the smaller bird’s tail. They both flew around a corner behind some trees and disappeared—the hunt was on.
I don’t know what the final outcome was for either bird, but I certainly am happy I was there to photograph the experience. The moral is, always keep your camera ready as you never know when that perfect picture will come your way. – Michael G. Henderson
Counting 100 Species of Birds in 100 Mile House, B.C.
It’s a late May afternoon and the day has grown progressively hotter. I’ve been birding since 5 a.m. and although I was full of enthusiasm and concentration during the cool morning hours, the heat of the day has made me a bit weary. My goal at the outset of the day was to count 100 species of birds in close proximity to the town of 100 Mile House, British Columbia, and I’m very close.
As I often do, I began my bird search at the 100 Mile House Marsh, a small wetland area in town, where it is possible to see over a dozen species of ducks, trumpeter and tundra swans, and several species of grebes. The marsh is also home to the ubiquitous yellow-headed blackbird. If you are really lucky you might also see all six species of swallows on the power line near the arena.
From town, I head west to the Bridge Creek area to look for birds such as the solitary sandpiper, hooded merganser olive-sided flycatcher and the American three-toed woodpecker. To the south at 83 Mile’s Bogie Summit, the elusive Townsend’s solitaire cavorts on the volcanic bluffs. The golden-crowned kinglet can be heard singing from the treetops on the way to the lookout. And on it goes as I scour out all the bird species within a 12-mile radius from the centre of town.
As the afternoon warms up further, I slump into the welcome shade of a lone poplar tree on the sloping pastures above Exeter Lake. My list sits at 93.
But my relaxed attitude has a focus even as I take this little breather. I know that both species of rail—the sora and Virginia—birds still missing from my list haunt the riparian area of this lake and, being that they are furtive in their manner, listening for their voices is the best way to find them.
As I wait for the rails to call, I set up my scope on its short legs and scan the lake and surrounding area for other bird species. I spot a lone surf scoter far out on the water as six ring-billed gulls drift lazily past. Two brown humps, with just their backs showing in the tall grass, turn out to be a pair of sandhill cranes. A Northern harrier flies up from the extensive sedge meadow on the east end of the lake and escorts a passing bald eagle away from the area—a sign that the harrier likely has a nest in the vicinity. These are all birds I need and my list continues to grow.
Then, over the strident call of a disturbed killdeer, I hear one of the rails, “Ikit-ikit-iki.” It’s the unmistakable call of a Virginia rail. A short time later I hear a far-off whinny. It’s not a horse come to claim its pasture, but the sound of a sora rail. The number of birds on my list now sits at 98.
Satisfied with the results here at the lake, I make my way homeward, confident that I can add the last two species at the house. As the day starts to cool, I will hear the song of the hermit thrush from my back step. And the rufous hummingbird that has eluded me all day will visit my feeder before dark.
I’ve done it again. I’ve counted 100 species of birds in one day in close proximity to the town of 100 Mile House.
When I moved here more than 20 years ago, I kept notes on the bird activity around the area, noting everything from the arrival dates of migrants to the nesting times of the various species. Eventually, I realized that an impressive number of bird species could be found during a one-month period, from the middle of May to the middle of June. The goal of 100 species in a day is simply my way of taking a core sample of the richness of the bird life in the area. I have never failed to get within two or three species of reaching that arbitrary number, and oftentimes I have surpassed the goal by a few birds. But regardless the outcome of my quest, I am spending time outdoors in a most impressive part of Canada, the beautiful South Cariboo region of British Columbia. – Tom Godin
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Proud and Free
Barbara Elisabeth Tiedke of Vancouver writes, “I love this photo as I believe it is such a powerful images that symbolizes a feeling of being wild and free. For me, the eagle represents the vastness of Canada’s wilderness really well. I also like the cultural connection between the eagle and the First Nations People of Canada: ‘The eagle has the ability to live in the realm of the spirit, and yet remain connected and balanced within the realm of the Earth.’ I snapped this picture at Spanish Banks, a series of beaches here in Vancouver.”
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Fly Away Home
Shelly Pals of Castor, Alberta, writes: “We were busy redoing some flower beds last spring when my husband pointed out this baby bird hidden in the trees. I think it had just taken its first solo flight—it still had some fluffy tufts on its head. Still not quite sure of its flying abilities, it stayed there for a while. We continued working, making sure our cat did not get too close, so that the bird could gain confidence before it moved on. Several hours later, we checked back and it was nowhere to be seen. We hope it’s now one of the birds we see flying around our yard!”
Duck, Duck, Goose!
Nestled in the heart of my hometown of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, and flanking our beautiful Island Park, is an often-overlooked wetland known as Crescent Lake. This little oxbow lake attracts a variety of waterfowl species such as pelicans, plovers, grebes, plus the occasional swan. However, it is the colourful mallard ducks and the oodles of Canada geese which descend on the water every year that provide me with a ready source of wild birds to photograph.
The ducks and geese are indeed most photogenic when they sport their breeding plumage and, of course, when they have recently been hatched. Due to our very short Manitoban springs and summer, however, there is only a small window of opportunity to take pictures of the fluffy chicks before they grow out their adult feathers. Nonetheless, I find that these birds’ adorable and comical poses beg to be captured at every stage of their humble duck and goose lives.
I make it my goal to take photos at Crescent Lake at least one day a week during the peak seasons. My photographic adventures begin in the spring when the ducks first arrive to nest in the cattails. I finish shooting in late fall when the last goose has flown to warmer climes for the winter.
Patience and quietude are a must when photographing wild birds. I prefer to keep a healthy distance from these beautiful—but very wild—creatures. Nursing a bruise on your posterior from a defensive father goose is not anyone’s idea of a noble war wound, so I consider myself very fortunate to own a good camera with a built-in digital zoom. My type of camera may be considered obsolete technology by now, but it suits my needs just fine.
If you happen to stop into Portage la Prairie during your travels, please make an effort to visit our lovely Crescent Lake. You just may see a tiny woman aiming her camera towards the many wild ducks and geese congregated on the shore. And, yes, that camera lady would probably be me. – Debbie Reichelt
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Watch the Birdie
I have had cystic fibrosis my entire life. When it caught up to me as an adult, my working career was cut short. Retired at 49, I began looking for a hobby to fill the void. I was introduced to photography by my brother, Mark. I find it very enjoyable, easy to do and it gets me out in nature. With the peace and quiet, I am able to relax and just watch the birds come and go as they put on a show. I find it amazing how fast they move. Hummingbirds in particular are so small, yet so strong. – Frank Roden
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Tiny But Fierce
It was a frosty winter day when I went out for a hike in nearby North Vancouver with my wife Michelle and sister-in-law Shannon. The fog was really thick and we were questioning whether we should go for coffee instead of walking around outside in the cold.
When we hike, we usually look for birds and wildlife, but with the thick fog the odds of spotting any birds weren’t great.
The three of us were chatting as we hiked the trail, when Shannon pointed up to a tree branch and whispered, “Pygmy owl!” She was trying to be quiet so as not to scare him off, but she loves owls and was very excited.
I set up my tripod and began clicking away as we watched this tiny owl moving his head back and forth, looking for prey. At first it was tough to get photos through the fog, so we watched him for a bit then decided to continue on our hike.
A while later, as we were heading back, we were lucky enough to spot the same tiny owl close to where we’d first located him. He was actively hunting voles and songbirds, his head constantly turning as he searched for his next target.
Although pygmy owls only measure 16 to 18 centimetres in length and weigh between 60 and 70 grams, they can take down prey three times their own size—they’re fierce hunters. On the backs of their heads they have “false eyes,” a feather pattern that resembles eyes to scare off predators. They’re diurnal owls, which means they are active during the day.
We were lucky to find this little owl and had fun watching him. I managed to capture this show after the fog had lifted slightly. – Tony Joyce
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