I never thought — not in a million years — that I’d develop an interest in birds. Actually, it snuck up on me. Well, not quire. I suppose I was looking for a hobby. And then, I happened to read an essay by Jonathan Franzen in the Discomfort Zone on the topic of birds, and I wanted to see what they actually looked like up close. The essay, called “My Bird Problem,” captivated me immediately, and I found myself desperately wanting to develop a “bird problem” of my own. And I figured that if Franzen could render the experience so literary, then surely it was something I had to try first hand.
I’ve had many reservations about becoming (not that I’m there yet, not even close) a birder. First, the binoculars. No matter how you wear them, they’re dorky. And heavy. Second, the early starts. I must admit that I’m not so coherent before 8 am, and birding forces you out of bed much earlier than that. Especially during migration season (which I’m about to experience). Third, the idea of being a birder. The sound of the word felt geriatric to me.
And then, I saw this:
My first red winged blackbird. Before I went out birding, I proceeded to buy at least ten books about birds — from picture books to memoirs to personal narratives about the process of birding. The one thing everybody agreed on seemed to be that you never forget your first bird. I thought that was ridiculous because I’d already seen hundreds of birds in my life, including all those hideous pigeons that my sister and I used to run after near Queens Park years ago.
And then it happened. Last April, on a cold morning (long before 8 am), on the shores of Lake Ontario right near Humber College, I looked through my binoculars and came face to face with the red winged blackbird. I had found a birding group near Toronto, and they graciously took me along on their trips. (The Red Winged blackbird remains the only bird I can identify on my own, but the sight of the bird excites me every single time.) I wasn’t expecting to find myself entranced by this bird — by the bright red and yellow on its epaulets — but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Even now, almost a year later, whenever I see the bird, it feels like recognizing an old friend. I’ll admit, I get a little over excited every time I’m with friends or family and we happen to run into a red-winged blackbird. Just last week, I jumped up and down at the sight of one and (gasp!) regretted not having my binoculars nearby.
Maybe that’s what appeals to me about meeting new birds. It feels like you’re developing a friendship of some sort. I’m going to use this blog to try to figure it out. There’s no way I’ll bore you with technical details, because I myself am incapable of remembering them! Instead, I’ll tell you what it is I’m learning how to see. Because that’s just it: birding is a new form of seeing.
So…I’m the proud owner of binoculars (gift from a dear friend), 12 books about birds, and I’ve now been out three times. And yes, like all my hobbies, birding is on the geriatric end of the spectrum, and it’s just as well. Today, we ended up in Grimsby — searching for hawks — and after admiring a few from a far, I focused my binoculars on a group of birders staring at hawks and saw the most fabulous moustache I’ve seen in a while: thick, coiffed, gleaming white, almost crispy. How often do you get to stare at people shamelessly through binoculars and examine moustache follicles up close?