Natural High: The Art of Bird-Watching

Creatures that fly on their own power, armed with sharp talons and sharper eyes, with calls that range from musical to threatening … birds would be mythical beasts if they didn’t live among us.

They soar in graceful silhouettes, build homes in trees, and demonstrate levels of intelligence that science is just starting to grasp. ‘Bird brain’ could be a compliment. They’ve moved poets and artists like John James Audubon to great heights – and still do.

Among local admirers: science journalist Genna Buck and nature photographer Lance McMillan. The duo joined hordes of Toronto bird-watchers for this year’s Christmas Bird Count, an event that brings out more than 70,000 people all over North, Central and South America, both professional ornithologists and citizen scientists.

The count is an invaluable contribution to science, indicating population and health of species. It’s also a chance to appreciate birds in their natural habitats. And watch other bird-watchers.

“I’m obsessed with subcultures,” Buck says. Essentially, if there are people with passions, she wants to meet them, even if it means showing up on a Sunday at 8 a.m. in snowpants.

Early dawn and deer at Park Lawn Cemetery. (Copyright Lance McMillan)

McMillan arrived before dawn to get a head start. He’s travelled to Japan to photograph snow monkeys and the Galapagos Islands to shoot wildlife there, so was excited to focus on creatures closer to home. He and Buck reported to ‘Sector 2’ in Etobicoke and the Humber Valley, starting at Park Lawn Cemetery. McMillan was rewarded for his early arrival by spotting three deer.

Turns out Toronto is home to some wild wildlife: Birds of prey nest on condos, the highest spots in what used to be Carolinian Forest.

Peregrine falcons are at home in Toronto, thanks to condos. (Copyright Lance McMillan)

“We don’t have old-growth forests here, but we have new-growth condos,” says Buck, relating a drama she and McMillan witnessed by the Humber River.

A peregrine falcon was circling a condo, then swooped down to kill a gull, dragging it to a rock.

“Then a kestrel came and head-butted him to take the seagull,” Buck says.

During the bird count, a kestrel stole a peregrine falcon’s meal. (Copyright Lance McMillan)

The kestrel took off with the dead gull, but lost it. Kestrel karma.

McMillan saw the whole thing play out in high definition through a scope (a small telescope), down to the blood dripping from the falcon’s mouth. Buck had a pair of opera glasses that served her well. (TIP: If you don’t have a scope, binoculars, or – like Buck – opera glasses, you can use your smartphone camera and zoom in to watch birds.)

The pair learned to identify robins from a distance because they look like flying apples (they’re really plump). They saw woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, and in the public parks, they were swarmed by chickadees expecting to be fed.

Overwintering Canada geese in the Christmas Bird Count. (Copyright Lance McMillan)

Most of all, they saw waterfowl. Some Canada geese overwinter here. The Humber River is alive in winter with rafts (that’s genuinely the term) of ducks: honey mergansers, long-tailed ducks and buffleheads.

For McMillan, while he got a lot of great shots, the bird count was a chance to learn where these birds hang out so he can go back and take more time.

(Copyright Lance McMillan)

Both he and Buck found their best aid was their human guides, professional birders.

“You really appreciate the trained eye,” says Buck.

Bird-watching, for both amateurs and seasoned pros, helps train the eye, a boon to any artist.

“Don’t try too hard to keep up with the birds,” adds Buck, encouraging first-timers. “Do it as a way to see the city from a different angle.”

Special thanks to Lance McMillan for sharing his photos, including the featured image of the woodpecker at the top of this post. You can see more of his work at Lance McMillan Photography,