I seem to harbour more than a passing crush on David Sibley. My office is now turning into a DS shrine. I have his 2015 bird calendar, a poster of his backyard birds, and a copy the Sibley field guide all comfortably coexisting with barely two feet separating them.
And yet this weekend, by technological and meteorological error, I accidentally forgot Sibley (in the form of a field guide) at home. The situation wouldn’t have been dire if I hadn’t accidentally ended up at Ashbridges Bay in the midst of what felt like a veritable warbler fallout. I didn’t even have to go looking for warblers; I just stood under a tree and they flocked toward me in impressive numbers. I’d like to say that it was me they were attracted to, but that would be a gross, megalomaniacal exaggeration of my person. No, they were after the last remains of the bugs that early fall still has to offer. That coupled with the pouring rain we had the day before and voila! A fallout.
All of this would have been most wonderful, a dream situation, but here I was in the midst of “confusing fall warbler” mania with nary a field guide! How would I confirm my sightings? How would I tell a Tennessee from an orange crowned warbler? How would I remember what a drab cape may looks like? How would I make certain that I wasn’t committing arch ornithological faux-pas?
Well, I couldn’t. Here I was in the midst of the highest density of warblers I’ve seen this season and I couldn’t even be sure of what I was looking at!
And you know what? After a moment of slight panic and fear of mis-identifying everything (you’d think that with my mad skills I’d be used to this, but no, it turned out it was almost too much for my fragile ego to bear!), it turned out to be remarkably liberating. I pointed my binoculars toward the birds and marvelled. I was thrilled to recognize a black-throated green, an American redstart, a black-and-white, a blackburnian, and a magnolia with certainty. Those I knew. And as I spent time with each of them, focusing on the plumage, head, tail feathers, it really did feel like reconnecting with old friends. And the ones I didn’t recognize exactly? Well I marvelled at them also. I watched them flutter from branch to branch, engaged in their game of hide and seek by practicing my binocular-skills, I befriended even the ones I didn’t know. The greyish green warblers and that lone flycatcher-esque bird remained my favourites, precisely for the mystery they held.
How rarely I give myself permission not to know. And how often it can turn out to be a gift.
The thing is, I’m at a bit of a frustrating point with birding. I know so much more than I did five years ago (for instance, i never would have been able to say flycatcher-esque and known what it meant even a year ago), and yet I still know virtually nothing. Every other song I identify is incorrect. And remember last may when I accidentally mistook a green heron for a HUMMINGBIRD? Yes, that was me. Birder extraordinaire.
Too often when I’m out in the field, I get frustrated by my lack of knowledge. I’m at the stage when I want to accumulate more and more and the more I focus on the accumulation the more I sometimes miss the pleasure of simply looking.
This past Sunday my accidental forgetting of Sibley at home turned out to be a blessing. For the first time in months, I looked with nothing but pleasure and excitement at this miraculous world around me. I took the time to genuinely attend to everything I was seeing. And is there anything in the world better than that?