I’ve discovered a birding paradox. Most of the time, I head out in search of a particular bird, fail to find it, but encounter a bird in its stead that is even better than the one I’d been chasing. It’s a moment of recognizing the beauty in what I wasn’t looking for, or — as is most often the case with this somewhat birder — the beauty in what I didn’t even KNOW existed. I find what I knew not I was looking for, and I fall momentarily in love with the bird. It’s how I fell in love with the Red-winged Blackbird, which turned out to be infinitely more exquisite than anything I ever could have possibly imagined. It literally exceeded and inadvertently broadened the horizon of my expectations.
I fell in love with birds partly because I didn’t know the were out there. I mean, I knew birds existed in the abstract, the way I also know that fossils exist and computer programmers write code and engineers build bridges. But it was an existence that had absolutely no overlap with my day-to-day and my imagined landscape. When I finally did point my binoculars (badly, with trepidation, nervously) at the Red-winged Blackbird (before I could even register it as an Agelaius phoeniceus), it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I felt like I was seeing birds, nature, The Universe for the first time. The enormity of my spark bird experience — and, poor readers, why I keep rewinding to my initial Red-winged Blackbird sighting — was just that: I suddenly saw the world anew. Or rather, I saw a new world — one that had been within my reach all these years (35!) but which I had never bothered to notice.
What a spectacular failure of the imagination. That there was a day three years ago when I didn’t know that birds exist, when I couldn’t have known, because I couldn’t imagine them. Now that former world of mine feels diminished; when I see photos of myself three years ago, it’s not without a hint of sadness, because I know that the ME in those photos is a self without any notion of a world with birds. A self I can’t quite relate to anymore.
And then this weekend, something strange happened. I finally saw a (male!) Harlequin Duck. I’m so used to thinking of the Harlequin as that bird with whom I just can’t seem to connect; our schedules just aren’t in synch. Usually when I appear, the duck absconds; once I leave, it resurfaces. You’ve been there; you know what I’m talking about.
On Saturday, after a two-hour rain-filled walk around Humber Bay Park (East) with the CCFEW group, where we saw mainly Red Breasted Mergansers, a few delightfully coiffed Hooded, a battalion of Ruddy Ducks (not sure why they weren’t displaying their usually erect tails), a few lone Bufflehead, Long-tailed Ducks and other usual November waterfowl suspects, about six of us decided to venture onwards and find the Harlequin Duck. A cup of bird friendly coffee later, we finally caught up with him at Cliff Lumdsen Park, and for the first few minutes, I couldn’t believe it was actually happening! Here I was, in the presence of a duck I’ve been trying to track down for the past two years!
I stared and tried my best to take in his regal appearance. And I’m ashamed to say that my first thought was “oh, but it isn’t as glorious as the Wood Duck!”
How could that possibly be? The bird I’d been chasing for two years appears before my eyes, and instead of relishing the sight, basking in the the moment’s perfect synchronicity of events, all I could think was that the Harlequin hadn’t quite lived up to my expectations. Why is that? Had I accidentally transformed the Harlequin duck into something utterly ineffable?
The moment of distress only lasted a few seconds — I immediately forced myself back into Total Admiration mode, and soon enough I really did feel like the duck was as spectacular as I had hoped it would be. But it did get me thinking about the danger in setting up expectations.
Ah well. No answers. Just a spectacular Harlequin Duck and the realization that it’s great to find what you’re looking for, but it’s just as important to take the time see it for what it is, in addition to what you hoped it would be.
It’s not that I look for similarities between birding and living. It’s just that birding has simply become a part of living.