I’ve been thinking a lot about how birding has changed me in unexpected ways. I’ve fallen in love with Southern Ontario and its parks, rivers, wetlands, sewage lagoons, beaches (who knew Ontario had beaches?!), fossils, woodlands. Of course, I harbour no illusions about this landscape of mine: it’s not remarkable in any way, there’s nothing sublime in it whatsoever, but now that I know many birding hotspots, and as I get to know the local species, along with their predictable, but sometimes peculiar, comings and going, the province has started to really feel like home. I’ve lived in Ontario on and off since 1987 (with a seventeen-year interlude, mind you), and the province has always inspired a feeling wanderlust in me, a take-me-anywhere-but-here mentality. Strangely, now that I’m birding that feeling has abated. I used to find the familiar both boring and altogether too easy; now, with every season, I’m starting to see the nuance of familiarity. I relish the return of Snowy owls and breathe a sigh of relief when I see them back in familiar terrain. This may well be age (middle age?) but I marvel most consistently at the everydayness of this familiar landscape and the fact that I’m learning more and more about its geography.
All that to say that although I love traveling and fantasize about northern light and landscapes pretty much constantly and imagine packing my bags and heading back for Whitehorse or the Lofoten Islands, I am, inadvertently, becoming a child of this place, of this altogether plain, mountain-less, ocean-less, sublime-less, and yet utterly magical place. And it’s very likely the birds’ fault.
Yesterday, minus 20 (give or take) degrees Celsius, winds beating our faces, we set out. In spite of the weather, or perhaps because of the weather. Either way, it’s winter and I’ve come to love the freezing temperatures. A welcome jolt to the system, this cold. We visited with the local Peregrine falcon who nests on the lift bridge between Hamilton and Burlington, we communed with the hundreds of Long tail ducks, I finally grasped the difference between a Canvasback duck and a Redhead by seeing them side-by-side. There were also coots, trumpeter swans, bufflehead, greater and lesser scaup, common mergansers — all usual suspects for January. And just when the day started to feel a little too uneventful we stopped by the Bronte Harbor and saw our first Snowy owl of the year. I gave out a little yelp and said what I say every single weekend I’m out in the field (except that awful day last fall when we stared at 400 house sparrows for hours in a freezing car, desperately in search of the eurasian tree sparrow and came home with NOTHING), “oh my goodness, people! this is the best day ever!” And that’s how birding works.
It really does transform a day and a place into the best thing ever.