Sunday, June 23, 2013

Rarity: Prothonotary Warbler of Rondeau Park

Well, this was exciting. I could barely keep my hands steady to focus....

I've made many daytrips to Rondeau in the past few years. It's a 3+hour drive from Toronto but worth the effort. Mostly deserted beaches on Lake Erie, fabulous bike trails through Carolinian forests, a 3-km marsh boardwalk trail with a spectacular lookout over the bay, a couple of ponds with reptiles and rare birds, and then there's the Tulip Trail.

There are signs posted at the start and the middle of the trail advising visitors to this unique swamp area to be on the lookout for the legendary Prothonotary Warbler, a rarity in Ontario. It's believed there are only 20 nesting sites and this is one of them -- a bird returned a couple of years ago and it's been some big excitement in the park.

Last year I was there on a day when there was a sighting recorded in the visitors' book, and I hiked out 20 minutes later, waited a few hours, but no luck.

This year was my day. I'd stayed overnight in the park, and this was my 7th and probably final swing around the Tulip Trail. From station 7 in the swamp, I heard the unfamiliar 'tsweet-tsweet-tsweet-twseet' song. I was able to move quickly and quietly around the swamp and get closer to the song, and spotted the bird immediately. It could not have picked a better spot -- the only clearly lit tree in the swamp at that point in the late afternoon.

More on this species at the Bird Studies of Canada page on the Prothonotary Warbler.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Spring Fever

That spring season was interesting. Now we crawl into the dull months. Too many mosquitoes, not enough birds in the Southern Ontario skies.

I ventured out to "Happy Valley" near Schomberg last week and got some bug photos, and bug bites, but otherwise spent the day tramping around a forest listening to Pileated Woodpeckers in the distance, but unable to see them for all the foliage.

But these photos (above) are a small slice of the "Happy Memories" of the past few months.

I didn't make it to Pelee (usually an annual pilgrimage), but snapped and saw a lot of birds around the GTA. From what I can recall: I did 2 quick daytrips to another migration hotspot, Rondeau Provincial Park, and I spent 4 days at the Huron Fringe Birding Festival taking hikes and classes with experts. I visited every marsh and thick forest in the GTA region, and had an amazing day seeing baby eagles at Cootes Paradise near Hamilton.

And I learned a lot -- from official teachers and friends on the trails. Rather than getting high volume birding done, I spent more focussed time on bird or one species.  Highlights included:

Rose Breasted Grosbeak - as a relative newbie, this was a new bird for me. I watched them for hours at the feeders at Rondeau visitors centre, learned their calls, then went into the forest (the Tulip Trail) and found them in the trees. Observed some distinctive mating behaviours.

Bay-Breasted Warbler - Some semi-pro photographers invited me to join them on a stakeout for this bird. "Birders" usually frown on this kind of activity from the 800-mm paparazzi, but I decided to try it out. We watched the bird hop in and around bushes for two hours, and just before dusk I got a semi-focused shot of this beauty.

White Throated Sparrow - Another first this spring. They call it a "life bird." Then I saw them everywhere. Also lots of Song Sparrows, which last year I thought too common. This year I learned its song and have a new appreciation.

There's an explanation from Jonathan Franzen  about, why birding, why now?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sandhill Cranes on Bruce Peninsula, May 2013

On one of the hikes with the Huron Fringe Birding Festival, I heard Sandhill Cranes in the distance at Cabot Bay, but there was no sighting. After the festival wrapped up, instead of driving home right away, I headed further north up the Bruce Peninsula to Singing Sands, where I knew they sometimes flew.

I arrived about 1 pm and there was nothing on the sands, so I unpacked a picnic lunch and waited... and waited. Finally, two of them popped up in the distance, and I was able to observe from a distance as they loped around for about 30 minutes. Amazing the way they march in unison. I need to get a video camera....

These birds are about 4 feet high. Very impressive in flight.

 I'd seen some earlier this year at Grass Lake, but had never seen them fly. These were taken on a dull day, thanks to my friend and novice birder Cathi Bond, who found the hidden lake near Ayr, Ont.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Owls and other fierce birds of the winter

Learning about owls was a goal this year. I joined a $99 bus tour group to Amherst Island in November, and the trip was all about owls. Got some owls that day, and picked up some tips on how to find more.

I can't believe the dozens and dozens of hawks and owls I spotted on telephone poles while I was driving (too fast to stop) on highways this winter. I can't believe that the few times I was able to stop, they flew away when I rolled up.

But, as these photos show, not a bad total catch for a total newbie.

-Great Horned (owls and owlets)
-Barred Owl (multiple times, multiple birds)
-Red Tailed Hawk

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Redpolls! Algonquin Park in Winter

Okay, this is nuts.

 On my way to Ottawa to see the Great Grey Owl invasion, I drove through Algonquin Park and got a few shots of Common Redpolls. (Not so common, in fact.) They were kind of fuzzy photos.

So I drove all the way back to Algonquin 2 weeks later on a quest. In a bit of a snowstorm.

Had a great day seeing a lot of new birds ... dozens of Redpolls, a few new woodpeckers (not photographed), and a rare Boreal Chickadee. Oh, and some nice people too -- really generous with advice and tips.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pine Grosbeaks at Algonquin Visitors Centre

I'll be back next year with a better camera.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Great Grey Owls and Pileated Woodpeckers, Ottawa Region, Feb. 2013

I drove to Ottawa to get a glimpse of the Great Grey Owl invasion of 2013 -- dozens of owls came down from the north to spend the winter. I found them easily, thanks to maps and directions from other birders and some help from a cousin who lived nearby. It was -17 with windchill that day but well worth the long walk into the woods.

The next day came the unexpected thrill. Before heading home, I hit a few popular birding spots in the Nepean-Carleton area, and got nothing. Then I spotted a sign for a conservation area not noted on any of my lists. As I was walking in with my camera, a young man with  dog emerged and said, "Good, you've got a camera! There are these freaky-looking woodpeckers in those woods. Please get a picture if you can and post it on the park's Facebook page."

At first, I could hear lounder-than-usual woodpecker knocking and suspected Pileateds, a crow-sized woodpecker with rather aggressive behaviours. But I'd never seen one.

While I was photographing an ordinary Downy --- whoosh --- in flew a monstrous-sized Pileated. I got a couple of fuzzy shots and then a dog started barking and scared it away.

I spent another 2 hours scouting around, and found about six Pileateds. I mostly observed from a distance because they are rather intense, and might have been nesting. It was dark, it was hard to focus, and they were up high, but I did get a couple of okay photos with some branches in the way. Maybe next winter, a clean shot.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Author Elizabeth Gilbert on the 'freakishness' of her success

I posted this a week ago and am still thinking. Like millions of others, I found her book "Eat, Pray, Love" enjoyable and engaging. But on another level, it really sucked. She went on a journey of self-discovery in Italy, India and Indonesia but it it seemed pre-meditated rather than meditative. A book deal-inspired sojourn.

But this "Ted" talk makes her likeable again; she's still thinking and seems to have a good perspective on her success. She suggests that the answer to "artistic" anxiety and depression is to consider artistic gifts as just that -- gifts that come and go, not a part of one's identity. The muse theory modernized.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Walking Meditation

I can walk and chew gum at the same time, but have never been able to master the art of the walking meditation.

My friends and relatives who meditate would usually laugh if I confessed that sitting meditation is much easier for me. I could happily sit for 10 days, but the part of retreats I find most stressful are going out for the walks. "You better figure out what that's about," one friend warned me.

I attended Spring Rain Sangha's December one-day retreat this weekend. I was dreading the walking part of the day, as it was way below freezing outside -- windy and overcast. A black ice day.

But the frigid temps must have sharpened my mind, and Jim Bedard's instructions (perhaps the third or fourth time I've heard them this year) finally sank in.

I was able to hear the word "grounded" as the meaningful part of the instruction. As I coordinated my breath with movement of the foot, I realized that I was habitually lifting my back foot before the front foot had finished its work. This is what had been throwing off my breath, and putting my mind into states of confusion.

Once I left that back foot grounded, until it was time to move it, the rest came easy. The breath fell into place, the mind cleared and the ground below me didn't spin.

This came just in the nick of time, as I am headed back to IMS for a New Year retreat. I could hide in the woods during walking meditations in the summer, but winter weather leaves me fewer options ... so I can walk with peace this time.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Advice from Lao-Tze

Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Still Crazy after all these Years: Why Meditation isn’t Psychotherapy

Patrick Kearney's kind critique of the ambitious styles of Jack Kornfield, Mark Epstein and others who -- in new books -- might be making too much of this whole business about the psychotherapeutic achievements of Western-style Buddhism.

It opens:

"As I read these books I did not feel the excitement that comes from discovering a new and culturally relevant way of encountering the timeless essence of the Buddha-dharma. Rather, I felt somewhat disturbed by what I see as a growing confusion about the nature of Buddhist teachings and a willingness to distort and dilute these teachings, apparently in order to make Buddhist meditation more saleable in our contemporary spiritual marketplace."

It closes:

"Buddhism is not a collection of spiritual or therapeutic techniques. Buddhism is an ocean. If we want we are free to paddle on the edge of the shore, trying a technique here or a therapy there, occasionally getting our feet wet, but staying safely within our limitations. Or we can take the advice of D√łgen Zenji, who said: "Arouse the mind that seeks the way, and plunge into the ocean of Buddhism." Ultimately the future of Buddhism in the West will be decided by those who take the plunge, because the paddlers will always draw back and, rather than adapt Buddhism to its new home, will develop new forms of Buddhised psychotherapy. For ultimately we must choose whom we will follow. We can follow Buddha or we can follow Freud; we cannot do both, because they are just not travelling in the same direction."

To read what's in-between, click here

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Thanksgiving birds

"Among Buddhists, geese are revered because they were said to have circled the Buddha as he walk toward the Bodhi Tree before his enlightenment. Consequently, the wise, swiftly flying goose became a symbol of the spread of Buddhism to all corners of the world."
(Encylopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A retreat schedule

I have pledged to get away for exercise or mental clarity one weekend a month for the next year, though I might have to skip a September time-out due to heavy work load.

Here is what I found for my August retreat weekend: A $299 yoga weekend at Sahayoga in Prince Edward County, taught by the owners of Bliss Studio.

The deal included 5 delicious vegetarian meals, healthy snacks, 2 nights accommodation, 6 yoga classes plus some meditation sessions, and a Reiki massage. Great location and free bikes for a ride on a country road by the lake. I'd never done Kundalina yoga before, so this provided a kick of something new to get my breath work back.

Click here for more photos

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

New take on meditation

The great take-away from my stint at Insight Meditation Society this summer was a new theory of meditation practice. It’s been a pleasant transition to adopt this easier manner of sitting and observing. I’m a lazy soul and this works for me.

Christina Feldman, one of the three teachers at this course, said that in recent years her style of teaching meditation had evolved. Lately she has encouraged students to create “spaciousness” around their thoughts. Many of her instructions to students were along the lines of "just take it easy" and see what happens when creating space in the mind. The goal shouldn’t be to empty the mind, but to create space around thoughts and thinking. Worrying and obsessing can thus be detached from the objects /subjects of concern.

I came home to find an article in the latest issue of Shambhala Sun on the same topic. Pema Chodron describes this new style of spaciousness as an effective technique for becoming untangled from the minutiae of daily life. She calls these moments of enlightenment “gaps.”

“If you take some time to formally practice meditation, perhaps early in the morning, there is a lot of silence and space. Meditation practice itself is a way to create gaps. Every time you realize you are thinking and you let your thoughts go, you are creating a gap. Every time you realize you are thinking and you let your thoughts go, you are creating a gap. Every time the breath goes out, you are creating a gap.”

She goes on to describe a “pause” practice that can be incorporated into daily routine. Hard to do but worth trying out on the occasional crazy work day. And I’m just kidding about being lazy; it actually takes some discipline to achieve these “gaps” of insight in day-to-day life and the training at IMS was invaluable.

Small excerpt here, and worth checking out in the latest issue on stands now.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Lessons from the Dying

"For those who are willing to learn, the dying offer powerful lessons on how to live with vitality and passion. Most of us do not give death the attention it deserves, and the lessons go unheeded. Every contact with death has the potential to deepen our understanding of life regardless of whether this is a peaceful resolution or an intense dramatic struggle."

It was really just an accident that I spent eight days listening to "Lessons from the Dying," the core teachings of Rodney Smith.

I picked my retreat based on scheduling -- when I could get off work, and where I could travel to easily. Didn't pay much attention to the teacher bios. Given that I spent my winter vacation sleeping in hospice room chair and being present for my mother's final journey, meditations on "Lessons from the Dying" wouldn't have been near the top of my summer wish list.

So what a lucky accident this was, to hear someone speak so eloquently and passionately about what the dying have to tell us about living.

Rodney Smith writes like an angel, but his lectures have strange twists and turns. He can take on an admonishing tone. It was like, "I'm only going to tell you once, so pay attention." It was just what I needed to wake up.

He didn't tell many hospice stories, but he described how anxious people die -- often waking up from their comas again and again to take care of small bits of unfinished business. I'd seen this phenomenon, and wouldn't want it happening to me or anyone else I loved.

It's also a good metaphor for life -- are we just going through life wrapping up one small bit of business after another, or are we seeing the big picture?

To sum up some Smith's "Lessons": If you live a life full of anxiety and despair, you're going to die that way too. And what a shame.

One of the other lecturers recommended incorporating a contemplation of death into daily practice. Not to be morbid or anything... but as an affirmation of life.

Lessons from the Dying

Seattle Insight Meditation Society

The 5 recommended daily contemplations:
- Aging
- Sickness
- Death
- Separation from everything one day
- My responsibilties

And if anything can keep you going, it's just thinking about 'responsibilties' .... nice balance to tack that onto the end of the list :)

Monday, July 28, 2008

8 Days of Silence

Just back from a retreat at The Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, and I feel like the luckiest woman alive ... or the luckiest woman to be approaching death. What I learned is: how you prepare for death has a lot to do with how freely you can live.

A 30-retreat is in the works ... somewhere more challenging and remote. But for now, this will do. The staff at IMS have a pretty good system set up for a crash-course in meditation.

The accommodations were plain but efficient, the food was simple but deluxe, and the schedule was well-organized. Packed with 16 hours a day sitting meditations, walking meditations, a bit of yoga, a few chores, and highly informative instructional sessions and evening dharma talks.

The course was led by two intellectual heavyweights of the IMS movement, Christina Feldmanand Rodney Smith.

My only complaint is that, with 103 students in this session (apparently the largest group IMS has ever hosted), it took almost 5 days for the group to "settle down" and get to work.

But once the real work began, I realized it was worth the wait. A lot like life, you have to organize a group, corral the energies, and then rush to meet deadlines.

The course was so good that I have little to say about it, but a lot to follow up on in terms of practice. I've been out for 8 days now and have meditated each day for at least one hour in the morning, sometimes another half-hour in the evenings, and am starting to get the hang of walking meditation.


Discovered the on/off switch for anxiety (the fight/flight mechanism)and got fast at shutting it off

Learned how to calm the body and the mind in 3 easy steps

How you live dictates how you die ... and thinking about how you're going to die is the most life-affirming thing you can do. Are you going to leave a mess for someone else to clean up? Or are you going to have it all packed up in 16 boxes or less?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Dana Dilemma: How much should I pay?

I've been attending a wide range of meditation and yoga groups the past few weeks and have assembled some pointers for choosing a meditation or spiritual group:

- Don't get roped into any one particular meditation group your first six months or year. Make sure to explore different style and teachers, and don't get locked into the guru-mentality. You are not looking for a guru, you are looking for some inner peace and don't need early attachments.

- Listen to your friends, but also use your inner wisdom. Don't sign up long-term contracts with groups claiming to have "the answer." Watch out for (TM) symbols.

- Don't pay more than you can afford for a single public lecture. A two-hour evening event with a top lecturer should cost no more than $35. A weekend workshop shouldn't run more than $500, unless they are providing accommodation and meals.

- Dana works... There are many good and serious meditation teachers and groups who work on the 'dana' or donation system.

- How much should I leave for 'dana'? If it isn't obvious and you need to do a bit of math, here's a formula: Consider the sum your teacher might need to live for a month. Estimate what he/she needs to earn for the month off that one weekend. Count the number of students in the room. Divide by that number of students, and then add whatever else for personal appreciation of the teachings.

Okay, that should be enough monkey-mind material for one sitting today, and it still won't add up.

Just make sure that it's more than you would spend on a typical weekend of movies, dining out and other entertainments.

- Watch out for the volunteers who help run these 'dana' teachers' business tables. If you encounter a cliquish group of people who seem over-efficient or too friendly/too cool, there could be a cult-like atmosphere or a replication of the ancient "church-ladies" syndrome. Avoid, ignore, do not pay attention to their pecking order.

- Well-run weekend or week-long retreats have a sliding scale. There could be basic fee for room & board, and some options to pay more if you can afford it. And then another dana offering for the teacher.

- Four final words: Moderation in all things.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Wise Heart

Jack Kornfield provides a clear communication of what the 'science of mind’ and Buddhist psychology is all about. Chapter after chapter, he lays it out in the same easy steps. Accumulation of a life's worth of wisdom. You can read an excerpt

Speak or act with a deluded mind and sorrow will follow you

As the wheel follows the ox who draws the cart
Speak or act with a clear mind and happiness will follow you
As closely as your shadow, unshakable.
- Dhammapada

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Walking the Noble Eightfold Path in Manolos

I was expecting to get an intellectual kick out of Shakespeare this weekend, but silly me. It was the "Sex and the City" movie that turned out be the thought-provoking entertainment.

Unexpected, but casting those cartoonish women into a classic 2-hour plus movie gave the scripwriters something to chew on. The movie wasn't as funny as the TV series, but it had meaning.

I can't spoil the plot... but you can see Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha deal with some universal truths over the course of the film. They learn their lessons the hard way. For those of you who've seen it, some clues without giving too much away for those who haven't:

  1. Right view (wrong - Carrie's attitude to wedding)
  2. Right intention (wrong - the reasons for wedding)
  3. Right speech (Miranda's big 'oops')
  4. Right action (Big's big freeze)
  5. Right livelihood (Samantha's career woes)
  6. Right effort (the Mexico jaunt)
  7. Right mindfulness (Carrie's new assistant gets things rolling...)
  8. Right concentration (The final writing)
I was reading Jack Kornfield's new book before the movie, and the coincidences were just waiting to be noticed.

Really astonishing about the long-awaited SATC movie was how bitter and strange these four characters were at the beginning of the movie.

It's as though they'd been emotionally and intellectually frozen since their early 30s, and all of a sudden unfrozen in time at the beginning of the movie, in their mid-40s. They had some catching up to do. Happens to a lot of us.