This male Mallard takes flight in a spectacular show of form and colour along Salmon Arm’s Foreshore Trail. (John G. Woods photo)

This male Mallard takes flight in a spectacular show of form and colour along Salmon Arm’s Foreshore Trail. (John G. Woods photo)

Column: Shuswap birder struggles with question, ‘what’s your favourite bird?’

Nature Watch by John G. Woods

I’m often asked if I have a favourite bird.

Most recently, three travel writers – two from Australia and one from Toronto – asked me that question as we strolled down the wharf looking for birds. They were shocked when I told them I didn’t have a single first choice, but many favourites.

Not prone to giving up on a question easily, they insisted I must have a favourite among the favourites.

I explained I like birds in many different ways and that I do have leading contenders from each of these points-of-view.

For example, for shear musical ability, my ear finds a singing hermit thrush high up in the mountains in spring to have an unapparelled purity of voice.

Far below, the Pacific wrens in the dark glades of Coyote Park are tiny sopranos that pour hundreds of delicate notes into the sky each time they sing.

Sandhill cranes, with their raucous yodels that carry for kilometres, give us samples of what the Jurassic might have sounded like during the golden age of dinosaurs. I can’t pick one of these singers over the other, it’s a three-way tie.

For flying ability, I’d give one of my “most favourite” votes to displaying male Rufous hummingbirds.

When you can fly forward, backward, do aerial figure-eights, blast skyward like a rocket and dive like a daredevil, you are hard to beat in the bird light-aviation category!

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Looking at medium-sized flyers, short-eared owls need a mention. They seem to do moth-like patrols over shorelines and marshes most often at night, but also on cloudy days.

Since we see them in flight more than most types of owls, they get several notches up of favourite-ranking just by letting us watch.

But alas, nothing quite compares with the sudden eruption of courtship display by a pair of our very own Western grebes.

Their choreographed head flicks, neck twists and splashy-dancing, followed by a race across the lake is a grand performance.

This certainly places them on the favourites short-list for many people and in my top group.

The upper ranks of my big-bird favourites is a crowded place.

Do I pick the huge American white pelicans with their precise aerial formations and superb ability to glide just above the waves?

Or perhaps I should choose the osprey with its exhilarating headlong dives towards the water that end in a split-second switching to a talon’s-first capture of an unsuspecting fish?

In the most beautiful birds in flight category (a much-contested grouping), I’m in awe of the glorious complexity and form of feathers embracing the air and the surprise of colours and patterns revealed by the spread of a wing in action.

Certainly, male mallards caught in the air through the magic of high-speed photography are a top candidate for my short-list of flying favourites.

And that brings us back to my travel writers who still didn’t believe I lacked a single favourite. They all had a favourite, so why couldn’t I?

Partially relenting, I confessed that I used to have a favourite bird when I was a teenager exploring the world by canoe whenever I could. And it was (and perhaps still is) the common loon, a bird that often fishes on Shuswap Lake and breeds mostly on smaller bodies of water during the summer. As I explained, loons make heart-stirring wails and exuberant yodels on their breeding grounds. Loons have always ignited my soul as an embodiment of wildness.

“You mean the bird that’s on your one-dollar coin?” one of writers asked. “Yes, and if we set up my spotting scope right now here at the end of the wharf, we may see one on the lake,” I replied. And then I decided to turn the tables and asked them “What is your favourite bird?” They all had one. Do you?
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