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.


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