A Western Bird Comes East

Winter birding offers some of the most unexpected surprises. It also requires a bit of madness on the part of those birding, but that’s a different story. Yesterday my alarm rang in near blizzard conditions. I looked out the window, monitored the snowfall in a half-dazed stupor, and when I checked the weather reports, which suggested limited, but not horrendous visibility, I concluded that it would be ok to drive to meet my birding group.

But really, the little voice I heard in my head uttered only two words: Spotted Towhee! Spotted Towhee!

For some reason, this Western bird, which normally resides in the general Colorado/Utah/California/Arizona area, with forays into BC, Alberta, parts of Saskatchewan and the US Great Plains, somehow got blown off its course and ended up about an hour north of Toronto, in a small hamlet called Glen Williams. I had little choice in the matter; this lifer was a must.

Here is the Spotted Towhee. Photo from here.

The magnificent Spotted Towhee. Photo from here.

And so we drove north at 50 km/hour in search of the Pipilo maculatus, which was allegedly hanging out at someone’s feeder. With visibility low, the wind howling, the snow blowing fiercely from every directly, I briefly wondered  whether we had completely lost our minds. We drove for over an hour and all we managed to see was one Ring-billed Gull. But we were on a mission. Who knows when I’d get to see a Spotted Towhee in Ontario again? When would another bird like this one stray from its usual route and grace our fierce winter climes with its presence.

We reached the quaint town of Glen Williams and headed straight for the appointed address where the Towhee was last seen. When I saw that house with multiple bird feeders was also the Piano Studio of Glen Williams, I knew luck and karma would be on our side. I come from a family of pianists — surely such a coincidence was fate?

And so we parked the car, lowered our windows and waited, binoculars glued to our eyes. The feeders attracted ravenous Chickadees, American Tree Sparrows, a lone Song Sparrow, a few insatiable Dark-eyed Juncos, a coquettish White-breasted Nuthatch, and a majestic Northern Cardinal. Seeing the birds so close, watching the Nuthatch creep down the tree right next to me, its neck slightly craning upwards, hesitantly grasping at the world around him, I no longer thought we were crazy. It seems there is no other place for me on a Saturday morning. I need to be watching birds.

There, next to the corpulent Mourning Dove, I saw a bird with a glistening black head and bright white spots on its wings. Spotted Towhee! There he was, with his bright, sci-fi-looking reddish eye, picking at the seed on the ground, hopping around, perfectly content with his new surroundings. I wanted him to sing for us — to see if he sounded anything like his “Drink your tea” Eastern neighbor, but the bird seemed to be saving his voice for another day.

Winter birding certainly doesn’t offer the ferocious diversity of Spring of Fall birding, but what it does offer, without fail, are the intensely beautiful, utterly unexpected sightings. And isn’t that why we bird in the first place?

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