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Wednesday, December 14, 2011


BIRD WALK IN THE PARK: A mindfulness practice in nature

Nashville Warbler at Toronto bird walk
Nashville Warbler
Armed with binoculars and cameras, more than 40 bird watching enthusiasts gather at Colonel Sam Smith Park for a free monthly bird walk hosted by the Citizens Concerned About The Future of the Etobicoke Waterfront (CCFEW), an advocacy group that formed to safeguard public access to Toronto’s Humber Bay Shores from encroaching condo development.
The group, led by veteran birder Bob Yukich, heads to the lookout platform on the pond where a few barn swallows treat our eyes to their visually stunning display of acrobatics. Basking in the bright sun on this pleasantly warm April day, we stick around for awhile, watching them dart from side to side, circle and dive through the air as they catch a protein-rich insect lunch. Known as quite a vengeful bird, the unmated male Barn Swallow sometimes kills the nestlings of a nesting pair. Rather than turning off the female, his actions often succeed in causing a split, which opens up an opportunity for him to mate with the female.
We proceed to the waterfront where we catch some of the few remaining migratory waterfowl before they fly north to their summer homes. A flock of Long-tailed ducks sit lazily on the calm lake. With an intricate pattern of black, grey and white markings, this distinctive duck looks more like a finely-painted sculpture than an actual duck. Its beauty is not its only remarkable trait, the Long-tailed can dive to a depth of 60m and is known to spend more time underwater relative to time on the surface than any other diving duck.
We stroll past a couple of nesting swans before walking away from the water. Many of the mostly middle-aged regular birders cluster into groups and move at their own pace, some chatting about rare birds they’ve sighted, while others ask birding questions of the more experienced in the group. As we’re walking, one of the group members points out a Nashville Warbler. We stop and look. Bob gives a description of the bird to which one of the regulars, Dave, adds in: “Grey head and a banjo.” A bit of birding humour to brighten the day.
Dave has counted as many as 175 birds on a good year, just in the general vicinity of this park. Bob has counted even more than that, just in his own backyard over the years he’s lived in the city. Toronto is a prime destination for migrating birds since it’s positioned in the middle of many of their migration routes. Preparing for, or after, a long flight over Lake Ontario, some migrants stick around for a short time to rest and rejuvenate, while others choose the city as their winter or summer home.
We walk across a large, open field toward the edge of a forest, a prime birding spot since it marks the transition area between two very different terrains. “Keep your eyes on the ground,” Bob warns. A female Rufous-sided Towhee stands a few metres into the forest, loudly kicking up a storm of leaves as she looks for her next meal. After a good look we continue to meander through the park.
“Chee che che che,” a Palm Warbler sings to us from the tree canopy. Bob identifies the bird by sound, a difficult skill learned only with years of birding experience. Novices alone would likely have just heard a sound in the sky and walked on. Thanks to our guide we knew what the bird was, stopped, listened and took a good look at it.
It is this focused awareness that turns the hobby of birding into a powerful mindfulness practice. Birds are everywhere, but how often do we notice them? How often do we hear the ever-present soundtrack of bird song. Birding trains us not just to listen, but to pay close attention.
“Sharp-shin. Sharp-shinned hawk,” Dave shouts out. “See it. Square tail.” We look up to see this “Sharpie” soar overhead and quickly out of sight. “That’s good, mark it down,” Bob says, remarking how it is not a common sighting in these parts. Indeed, it was good to see this amazing carnivore that, despite being only 10 to 14-inches in length, can eat birds as large as an American Robin or Ruffed Grouse.
After walking through most of the park, we end up near Lake Shore. The remaining few who stayed to the end gather around Bob, who has his checklist out, tallying up the total. The group chimes in with all their favourite sightings of the day, while a middle-aged man speaks excitedly into his phone, repeating some of the highlights: “Nashville Warbler, Carolina Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet.” A total count of 64 species in a couple of hours makes for a successful day of birding. Though birding can be tricky for the beginner, especially if done solo, a group bird walk shares the task among 40 pairs of eyes and ears, making it an especially rewarding activity for the novice birder.

For more information visit CCFEW.