I won’t be the first to say that winter got the better of me this year. It wasn’t so much the cold as the ice; every step felt tentative and for every outing I went on, the payoff/effort ratio seemed skewed. Of course there were exceptions: we went to Costa Rica for a week in February and I fell in love with Motmots with a fervor that took me by surprise, so much so that one morning, when marveling at the tennis-raquet-like tail feathers of a Turquoise-browed Motmot, I actually pushed my husband out of the way to get a better look, which is a level of annoying I hadn’t stooped to before (the slightly more rarefied Toddy Motmot failed to arouse the same level of fervor, and I merely gazed in well-behaved, silent reverence). Basically, in Costa Rica, I became a birding beast. It wasn’t always a pretty sight and I wasn’t always my best self.
I spent most of the winter lamenting the fact that the Northern Shrike kept eluding me. And then, in late March, I went out to Tommy Thompson Park with my genius birding friend Sarah, and the stars were aligned. First I asked for a loon, and one appeared within a few meters of us at the Unwin Street bridge. Then I smugly requested a Canvasback, which also materialized on the little island in cell 2, and finally, throwing caution to the wind, I rashly demanded a Northern Shrike, fully expecting nothing in return. To this day, I have no idea why the bird gods listened, but they did, and the shrike appeared, as if on command, sitting high atop a bush, surveying its territory, and I watched him until I tired of watching him. The moment I put my binoculars down, he too seemed bored with posing and swept low into the adjacent bushes and was gone. To say the moment was magical is no exaggeration.
In between early signs of spring and riotous Red-winged Blackbird songs, I spent hours in the hospital with my grandmother, in what turned out to be a protracted 6-week goodbye. She was 99, lived a great, eventful life, but even so, it all felt too soon. I found myself hovering between the twilight of a life and the exciting beginning of another, brimming with light, song, spring, migratory restlessness. Early April was a strange time. Even stranger, perhaps, was the song of four Killdeer, as they accompanied my grandmother’s internment, squealing louder than our mourner’s Kaddish, and serenaded her from this world into the next.
And now I’m back at the bird banding station two mornings a week, scribing, extracting little by little (emphasis on the little), bearing witness to the birds as they trickle in, miraculously on schedule as always, and no matter how hideous the news — and it only seems to get worse in these parts — the birds make me smile. Today, I even got a lifer, which is happening less and less often in Ontario — a White-eyed Vireo. Though I’d never seen one before, I knew exactly what it was when my friend extracted it, which means that all the reading and rereading and (horrible) drawing I’m doing is amounting to something.
I have a horrible secret to share with you. Every year, I fear I’m going to lose interest in birds. I’m often a serial beginner (what haven’t I tried? pottery, bookmaking, yoga, pilates, cycling) and have been known to give up when my skill-level starts to plateau. Every fall and winter there are days when I head out into the field and see a fraction of what people report on eBird, not for lack of trying but for lack of skill. Or there is the inevitable embarrassment of mistaking a Red-necked Grebe for a Common Loon, or a White-winged Scoter for a female Common Goldeneye, when I start to wonder whether my energy might not be spent elsewhere, and the fact that I still don’t really understand moult and get the primaries and secondaries confused and can’t distinguish the lesser from the greater coverts. The day in February (these thoughts always strike me in February) when I thought maybe this wasn’t really my thing after all, I saw a Dark-eyed Junco, the commonest of winter birds. His cute, chubby body with a sweet pink bill made me smile when I least expected to, not only because I could correctly ID him, but also because I knew exactly which field markings to look for.
I may not bird forever, but I have no plans of quitting any time soon.