Monthly Archives: February 2014

Birding and People

My unintentional interest in birding didn’t start out because of birds. I was initially fascinated by the birdwatchers themselves. You know — the people who wear those multi-pocketed vests and Tilley hats, who assess avian plumage with as much aplomb as others consider the newest JCrew item in the catalogue. These people fascinated me and I wanted in on their lingo, and since I already had a Tilley hat of my own, I figured I might be on the way to becoming a birder anyhow. And so I found myself a bird group, stared at ducks for over an hour, unable to fathom what was so spectacular about the Red-necked Grebe everybody kept talking about. While they went on about the grebe, I stared at the people and fantasized about a cup of coffee. What would possess anybody to wake up at 6:30 am on a Saturday morning and stare at ducks? Who were these people?

Amidst my total confusion and my inability to follow a single conversation thread — “we had a common goldeneye, a gorgeous Hoodie, a female Red-breasted [merganser understood]” “oh that’s definitely a lesser scaup! nope, not greater — see the shape of the head?” — I concluded that bird watching wasn’t exactly my kind of thing after all. The coffee break couldn’t come quickly enough. And then, unbeknownst to me, my world changed. I saw my first Red-winged Blackbird. I’ve been trying to understand and relive that moment — my first RWBL sighting — ever since March 2009, and I’m still trying to comprehend exactly what happened during those thirty seconds when I stared at the bird in utter disbelief. How was it possible that these gorgeous, otherworldly birds — these common birds — had been here all along and I just hadn’t bothered to look? Something in that moment shifted in my consciousness.

And suddenly, the vests, and optics-talk, and extreme birdy-nerdiness turned into something endearing, something that I knew I was already — in spite of myself — a part of. It took six months for me to summon up the energy to set my alarm clock early on a Saturday morning and venture out into the field again. But during that time I couldn’t forget about two things: the unimaginably exquisite Red-winged Blackbird, and the enthusiasm and generosity of the birders I had met on that frigid March morning. They had not only been excited to show me birds, but wouldn’t leave my side until they were satisfied I had seen them. They took me seriously even though the only bird I could safely identify was a pigeon. I had never encountered that particular brand of generosity of knowledge before.

And so I came back on account of the Red-winged Blackbird and the birders I had met. And sure enough, we became friends. Who else could share my spring warbler frustrations? Who else could I talk to about the joy of correctly ID-ing a female Black-throated blue warbler? Who would understand when I shrieked upon seeing my first Great Gray Owl? Every Saturday, I come away from our birding fieldtrips energized by the birds themselves and also by our various conversations about that other thing that occupies our time — life.

I’ve been tremendously fortunate in my birdy friendships, some of which have intersected with my writing life, and all of which continue to inspire me and teach me about what I see in the field. I won’t rattle off a list of acknowledgements, but I’m perhaps most grateful to my home birding group — the people I see almost weekly.

Yesterday, I learned that one of my dear birding friends passed away. It wasn’t a sudden death, and she had a long and wonderfully rich life, but I feel the loss deeply. I hesitate to write about Lucy here, on this public blog, because she was such a fiercely private person. But she loved birds, and her enthusiasm for them was infectious. I think I fell in love with birds by watching Lucy love them, and by seeing how they had transformed her life.

Yesterday, we went out and saw three owl species: a Snowy, a Long-earer, and a Great Horned. And then we settled into a pub in Grimsby, and over a drink, we toasted to her life, to her indomitable spirit, her love of birds and nature, her no-nonsense ways, her refusal to ever complain, and her wonderful capacity to see the good in everybody. After dinner, we headed out to the Saltflats near Hamilton to watch the Short-eared owls fly overhead as the sun set. But it was not to be. The owls had other plans last night, and instead, we were left to contemplate a senselessly beautiful, muted winter sunset and remember our dear friend Lucy. Perhaps it was the perfect ending to the day. It would have made her happy.


This & That, Birdy & Otherwise

Things have been happening here at Birds and Words — even during what felt like endless January.

I have a new review up on the ABA site. I highly recommend Mike O’Connor’s hilarious Why Do Bluebirds Hate meGrateful to Birding for featuring my review on their website. Do have a look!

I recently found out that I won 1st Runner-up in PRISM International‘s Nonfiction contest! My story will be published in the spring issue of PRISM. Alas, the story isn’t birdy, but it does feature East German days-of the-week underwear, which is always a thrill. (In other writing news, I’m also a finalist for the Malahat Review’s Open Season nonfiction contest.)

I’m also thrilled to share that I have an essay forthcoming in the brilliant Kerry Clare‘s anthology The M Word, which comes out in April. Stay tuned. (Alas no birds there either, but there are some kettlebells!)

And a recent blog post I wrote about gifts that will make the birder in your life happy. There’s nothing better than a happy birder. Honestly.

It’s a Western Year in the East

Dearest Birders! You wouldn’t believe it — another Western vagrant as ended up within driving distance of Toronto. This time it was a Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius), a not-so-distant cousin of the American Robin. A gorgeous, brilliantly hued albeit silent, female beauty of a bird. Not quite as striking as her male counterpart, but still thrilling nonetheless.

Varied Thrush. Photo from here.

Varied Thrush. Photo from here.

What brings this bird from the Cascade mountains to suburban Guelph, Ontario? How did she lose her way? She looked OK, all things considered, and we watched her nibble on berries in -21 degree Celsius weather yesterday morning. I’ll admit that she was a bit fidgety, so perhaps she was a tad anxious what with the distance between Ontario and Oregon.

So far, of the three lifers I’ve seen this year, two have been West Coast visitors. The Spotted Towhee and now, the Varied Thrush. Should this kind of behavior continue, I’ll start to believe that I’m living on the west coast and perhaps our frigid winter will once again become bearable? Perhaps the birds are playing mind games with me, lest I get too settled in my ways. In any event, the Varied Thrush was a thrill. As we were leaving, a flock of Cedar Waxwings graced the trees behind us, as a Dark-eyed Junco perfected his trilling vocal patterns. Northern Cardinals, Red-breasted Nuthatches, rabid chickadees, and a Downy Woodpecker serenaded us as we traversed the arboretum in Guelph.  Actually, I’ll be honest: we were busy ambling through the arboretum, freezing whatever was left of our toes while the birds feasted on abundant bird seed and paid very little attention to us. In fact, they paid absolutely no attention to us. We were out and about, on a quest, and, well, the birds are just busy living.

Birding is humbling in every sense of the term. Not only do the birds rule the terrain — even though we arrive armed with cars and GPS’s and Ipods and Twitter and Ebird and whathaveyou — but they remind us how utterly irrelevant we are. We set out in search of a particular bird, with the intention of marvelling at it, but more often than not, the bird has its own agenda. How often we forget that the bird’s agenda — survival, procreation — is so vastly different from ours, and that they care so little — let’s be honest, they’re oblivious — to our compulsion to list, to count, and to record our sightings.

There’s also a danger in getting excited about vagrants. These Western vagrants are blown off course, in unfamiliar terrain, far from their known food sources. It’s great to see them here, but also a bit terrifying. What if they don’t make it through the harsh winter? What if they’re not able to rejoin their kin? What if this — our prized sighting — is actually the end of the road for them?

And so the day was tinged with something bitter sweet. A brilliant sighting, a gorgeous new bird to add to my mental collection, and also a bird in a certain amount of danger. Why is it that we so reluctantly think of the latter?

Our day ended with lovely, familiar ducks — Hooded mergansers, American Coot, Black ducks, Mallards, Common Goldeneye — and even though there was nothing out of the ordinary about them (though the Hoodie is easily the best coiffed specimen in Ontario this time of year) I found myself so thrilled to see these ducks and know that they were in no danger of falling victim to our harsh winter, or our unknown terrain. These were at home.