Monthly Archives: June 2012

Ho-hum

Understanding Birders! The more I go out birding, the more I’m realizing that there are the illuminating days and the ordinary days. The more surprising thing I’m realizing is that I don’t mind the ordinary days! (This, people, is very unlike me. I used to be all about extraordinary events all the time; anything short of extraordinary didn’t hold my interest for long.) And, for the record, I’m being generous when I use the word ordinary. Really, what I mean is a seven hour outing in the humid mid-June southern Ontario weather wherein I see a grand total of three birds. A few years ago, this would have irritated me. I would have written this off as a complete waste of a day.

But now I put a different spin on such ho-hum days. When my husband asked me about our sightings, I reported: “Oh my god, you wouldn’t believe how close I was able to get to a Red-bellied Woodpecker, a Horned Lark and a House Wren!” Husband: “But you saw more than just those three birds, right?” Me: “Well, not exactly.” Husband: “You woke me up at 6:15 in order to see 3 birds?” Me: “Today, I really got a chance to get to know them better. It’s not about quantity!” At which point, we agree to disagree.

To tell you the truth, we showed up near the Hamilton airport to see none other than the Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) and instead of that bright red-headed wonder, we were greeted by a few Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) with their glowing red caps and their barred backs. I caught a glimpse of them in a variety of positions: drumming holes into a post, flying, engaging in philosophical debate on a dead tree branch. We spent about a half hour waiting for the desired woodpecker to appear (he never did), and happened upon a Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) walking proudly across the road.

Photo from here.

Here was the culprit who inspired Mikhail Glinka to compose The Lark , a famed piano piece (thanks to Mily Balakirev’s arrangement) that terrorized me over the course of a summer when I had to learn it for my piano exam! How momentous to see theactual lark face to face and to hear the Glinka-Balakirev soundtrack as we made fleeting eye contact.

As the weather grew progressively more wretched, we drove to the Dundas Conservation area and saw the day’s piece-de-resistance, the House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), poking its head in and out of a hole in a dead tree. I watched the bird do this greet-and-retreat routine until my arms and neck hurt and I had to retire my binoculars. Not much to report about the House Wren’s physique or wardrobe choices: uniformly brownish brown. However, as a member of the Troglodytidae family, the House wren boasts tremendous singing aptitudes (like its relatives, the Winter Wren, the Eurasian wren, the Sedge wren, Marsh wren, Carolina Wren, etc; who knew there were so many wrens?!). I did get a chance to watch the wren throw its head back impulsively, open its mouth so wide it made me wonder whether House wrens had experience visiting orthodontists, and intone a grandiose “come hither” melody. We didn’t wait to see whom the bird managed to attract, but I’m sure the results were in no way disappointing.

All in all, a hardly formidable, but nevertheless worthwhile day.

Why?

Exuberant Birders! I keep getting asked why? Why birds? And I started thinking about it in earnest. Why, indeed?

It started out, as you all know, somewhat sentimentally, with a crush on Jonathan Franzen (bird essayist extraordinaire, fellow onetime Missouri resident), which then lead to a fascination with Phoebe Snetsinger (aka: greatest birder ever, coincidentally also onetime Missouri resident), and finally to my first birding outing where I saw a Red-winged blackbird (which is apparently the greatest cliché ever, but such is life) and never looked back. And it’s now been close to three years.

I wonder why it is that people (friends, relatives, acquaintances, honestly, EVERYBODY) are so shocked to learn that I’m a birder. A bird watcher. One of them! Those strange folks who don Tilley hats and oversized pocketed vests, travel around in large groups and stare up at the sky, talk about optics interminably, and enjoy awful bird-related puns. How could I possibly be one of them? Well, I haven’t yet succumbed to the beige vest, but the rest is indeed applicable. Just a few days ago, I received a wonderfully thoughtful gift from a friend: a notepad with a raven on it that says Raven Lunatic. Oh, the puns.

But you know what? I had birding sensibilities before I ever went out into the field. I’ve owned a Tilley hat since I was 18 (a bit young to be sporting such geriatric looking apparel, but I’ve accepted my fate), and I’ve always been an acute observer. In fact, I first discovered binoculars as a young tween (pardon the awful word; I’m testing it out and don’t think I’ll do so again) and spent many hours staring into our neighbor’s house, watching her watch The Wheel of Fortune with her husband over a tepid cup of Ovaltine. (The binoculars were confiscated by my parents.) And years later, I used to watch my South African housemate watch birds from our balcony in New Jersey. I must have been born with a slight voyeuristic streak, which is probably a requisite trait for a writer anyhow.

In a way, I knew birding and I would click. But the biggest surprise is how much birding has taught me about the writing process. So much of birding centers around looking carefully, observing the most minimal alterations and movements, learning to put them into words, and, most importantly, waiting. If anything, birding is teaching me the art of patience, which I then bring to my writing desk every day. Very often, a bird is there, hovering above our heads, and we have to play the waiting game until it decides to make a surprise appearance. Sometimes it mocks us and only discloses its song and there is seemingly little payoff for our work, but then when you least expect it a different, often more spectacular bird, appears — almost out of nowhere. It’s magic.

A form of magic: sunset on Georgian Bay. I did see a Black and white warbler here and a group of 15 common loons who put on a musical performance.

I love birding most because it teaches me the art of sitting with an idea. I’m an impatient, goal oriented person by nature, and birding forces me to slow down, have faith in my careful, diligent observation, and let myself be surprised and astounded by the world around me. And isn’t this the same as writing? I sit at my desk for long hours, wrestle with thoughts, and in the end (days, weeks, months later) after hard work and patient waiting, something finally happens. It’s rarely what I anticipate, and almost always ends up being something better.

So here’s the verdict: birding enables my writing. It sounds like an overly bold pronouncement, and perhaps it is, but the ingredients of birding accompany me to my desk every day: relentless observation, research, patience, and a willingness to accept what comes my way (including some totally-less-than-stellar days).

And, recently, a piece of (unexpected) very good news: one of my pieces has been accepted for publication in The Threepenny Review. I’ll keep you posted!