May. 16, 2012 - Issue #865: Road Trips
Wings of desire
Birding as a practice and a passion"Birds will give you a window, if you allow them," begins a passage from a profound and beautiful collection of naturalist writings by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, on a pursuit that has inspired more than its fair share of profound and beautiful writing: "They will show you secrets from another world, fresh vision that, though avian, can accompany you home and alter your life. They will do this for you, even if you don't know them by name—though such knowing is a thoughtful gesture. They will do this for you if you watch them."
This is, in essence, the thesis of her book, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds, and the touchstone of Haupt's own birdwatching practice. Her unhurried, affectionate approach resonated with me in my early days of birding, a blurry period of trying not only to acquire specific knowledge, but also to apply it, however clumsily, to every flapping mass of feathers I could find.
I recall being horrified at how wretched I was at identifying species; how blind I seemed, oblivious to details like field marks or general body shape. How I felt like I was taking wild stabs at species and families, rather than diligently puzzling it out. How—maddeningly—I sometimes couldn't even see the bird my companion had spotted in the foliage. I was spectacularly terrible at birdwatching, tormented by what I thought of as my "slow eye"—my seeming lack of ability to process moving visual information quickly enough to make an ID.
Weirdly, though, for an activity I had no innate talent for, I also loved it. Birding was an immediately satisfying pursuit: a pleasant walk anywhere, in any weather, became a combination nature documentary/treasure hunt. The birds I actually saw were lovely, whether showy, like Northern Flickers in the River Valley, or creatures I'd previously considered indistinguishable, like the many little brownish birds wintering in mixed flocks downtown (revealed as mostly House Sparrows and Pine Siskins).
Birding indoors was also fun: hours spent poring over gorgeous field guides, listening to songs and calls, reading books on bird life and questing birders, trying to learn what to look for, where to look, and how to see. Bird behaviour hooked me—the idea of all these little avian dramas taking place, in plain sight, like a cryptic biological soap opera!
I was also struck by how much richer and more fine-grained the world seemed, now that instead of looking at a bird and thinking "bird," I thought of a particular bird. It was like semantic magic, as if by enlarging the category with new language, you actually enlarged the real world. Now with more bird! The cant of birding, poetic as it is, also appealed: evocative terms like "migratory restlessness" and "eclipse plumage" danced around my consciousness, trying to join my vocabulary.
Teasing out IDs made evolution more vivid, concretizing relationships between species. And the "birdiness" of birds threw light on my own "mammalness," our divergent habits and morphologies made tangible. My surroundings became alive for me in a way that had never really happened before, animated with information.
In a lifetime of being a resolutely indoorsy science lover, I'd never considered that an amateur could learn to read the landscape, discern the connections and history in a tangled profusion of life. I'd always believed it to be the province of specialists, or the impenetrable lore of dedicated campers, passed down through generations. Which in retrospect seems silly, but the idea you could teach yourself natural history, starting even from a place of near-total ignorance, was intoxicating. And birds were the right footing on which to begin, being, to a large extent, out in the open: lots of them, lots of kinds, everywhere. Their world, unlike that of almost any other kind of organism, lay noticeably on top of ours, like a velum over a book page.
Reading Rare Encounters actually made me a birder, crystallizing my practice when I was plagued with frustration (stupid Slow Eye!). I switched my focus from making IDs to really looking at the birds, their environment, and what they were doing (which, of course, made them easier to ID, in the end). Haupt's essays advocate a kind of local mindfulness, a delight in moments of intense feeling with familiar creatures in humble nearness to our everyday lives. Her practice runs counter to some other philosophies in the global birding community, lying somewhere between exceptionally tender field observation, the transcendental idea of witnessing and an eager biophilic playfulness. Her book got me through my first two years of being a bad birdwatcher to the past couple, where I'm able to often, thrillingly, differentiate between sparrow species and to place birds I've never seen before into categories that significantly narrow down their IDs. (Birders have a somewhat embarrassing term for a kind of characteristic impression a bird gives off, even in nano-glimpses; they'll speak of an unknown creature seeming "finch-y" or "warbler-y" or whatnot, or even cite a species: "it seems Snow Bunting-y." This comes with experience and knowledge and—the embarrassing part—is referred to by various birders as the "giss," "jizz," or "jiz" of a bird; all pronounced the same, like the semen synonym, except typically with a slightly de-emphasized ending, more "s" than "z." It's usually described, amorphously, as the vibe of a bird—a combination of behaviour, physical qualities, and location that points to identity. Although all three spellings crop up in birder literature, "giss" seems to be the correct term, from the military acronym "General Impression, Size & Shape.")
I can't defend my excitement about my hard-won sparrow somewhat-mastery. At some point, you either get how birdwatching could be rewarding—or you don't. Every birder has a different story; there are many motivations and approaches. But I offer mine simply because if I can do it—with no money, time, physical energy, tolerance for group activities or initial knowledge or talent—anyone can.
Watch the birdies
You probably already do, but my birding began with field guides my companion brought home from the library, before even going for a walk. Obviously, I'd seen birds, but I'd never really taken them in. So, scrutinize anything feathered. You don't have to go anywhere special. Watch from your window or balcony, on the way to work, while running errands. Birds are everywhere, and even gulls have exciting lives.
No avian Madonna/Whore complex
There are no "good" birds or "bad" birds. Stop hating on magpies and pigeons and gulls.
Learn the culture
Birding is a big tent, drawing together poets and pedants, show-offs and loners, meandering frosty-tops and kids whose practice revolves around energetically flushing targets and driving them away. Rich birders haul scopes and comically long camera lenses in mini-vans and RVs; broke birders may not even have binoculars or transportation. Birding has its protectors of orthodoxy and its freewheeling rebels. It has literary classics and hagiographies, like of Phoebe Snetsinger, a middle-aged Cold War housewife diagnosed with terminal cancer who took off on a global birding quest that set a record for most species seen. Or Kenn Kaufman, whose Kingbird Highway is a muscular memoir of youthful misadventure in the 1970s. Birder books contextualize field guide facts, concur with or contradict observations you've made, and offer birding tips, etiquette, or incidental knowledge that will illuminate some dark corners of birding. Jonathan Rosen's Life of the Skies has great urban birding advice, for instance, since he birds in New York City's Central Park. Consider them field guides for types of birders and their idiosyncratic methods and preferences. Birding blogs, especially from authors or scientists, can be enlightening. Caught By the River (caughtbytheriver.net) is a hub for UK arty types on the forefront of a new wave of naturalists, like illustrator Matt Sewell and half of the musicians in British Sea Power.
Develop a practice
Not a regime, or any sort of schedule, but more like an approach, as you would with a creative art. Watching birds is step one. Step two is knowing them. How you know them is your practice. Are you more likely to track something specific, or ramble and see what turns up? Will you return to the same sites again and again, or constantly seek out the new? Are you a year-round birder, or a fair-weather one? Adventurer or homebody? Do you want to see more species or know a few species really well? Want to combine it with another hobby, like photography? And, why watch birds, anyway? Every birder develops a philosophical stance. Thinking about how you want to know birds gives your explorations shape and direction.
Find the right guides
I love field guides so much that I wish a llama walked everywhere with me, carrying every field guide in the world. But sometimes I catch myself squinting into a guide when I should be seeing the bird before me. Guides should be thumbed through enthusiastically when you're not birding, but once outside, be judicious in their use—don't forget the bird. Field guides can be personalized by adding your own notes: log species hot spots, dates or times of fruitful events, first sightings, bizarre encounters, birthday birds, keepsakes and wishlists. These guides become precious living documents to your birding life. Most birders use multiple guides, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Kenn Kaufman's photographic guides group his birds in an oddly intuitive way. National Geographic has clear and detailed illustrations, but not much behaviour. DK has a handy flight guide. Peterson and Sibley are solid all-around, the latter's Bird Life and Behavior essential. Donald Kroodsma's works on calls and song are worthy references, as are Sibley's Birding Basics and Kaufman's Advanced Birding. Regional guides, like Lone Pine's charming John Acorn-penned Birds of Alberta, can be goldmines: I've found bluebirds on the exact highway he says they're on, and many of his bird descriptions are singularly apt (too bad the illustrations are only serviceable and some of the information is getting dated). I carry my trusty Acorn everywhere, and add an illustrated North American guide for cross-referencing on outings. The Edmonton Public Library has most guides, so borrow them all and see what works for you. And keep an eye out for vintage guides, which are often stunningly illustrated and full of interesting, if perhaps timeworn, facts.
Learn from others
Naturalists of all stripes generally welcome newcomers (except sometimes mushroom people, but their field guides have recipes, which accounts for their secretive ways). The Edmonton Nature Club (edmontonnatureclub.ca) has a Bird Study Group and events through the year, but the nexus of the community in Edmonton is Wildbird General Store (wildbirdgeneralstore.com). Sign up for newsletters and get updates on rare and seasonal sightings, workshops and group outings. Volunteering with conservation organizations (like Ducks Unlimited) or participating in citizen science projects put you in touch with more experienced birders in a social setting. Solitary types can seek out Birdingonthe.net, a moderated list of Alberta-wide bird alerts and related chit-chat. Ebird.ca has statistics you can search to get an idea of what birds move through your area, and when. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's stellar site (allaboutbirds.org) has an online guidebook, with audio and video, and a "Birding ID Skills" section that is fantastic for beginners. Cornell also connects with citizen science projects like FeederWatch, NestWatch, and the Christmas Bird Count. The Royal Alberta Museum has an excellent collection of fetchingly taxidermied birds, which is like having a 3D guide, with everything the correct size—especially useful for comparing similar birds, like Cedar to Bohemian waxwings.
Don't fear no gear
I expected my wishlist to get longer as I got more into birding, but I only want serious outdoor winter wear (I try to be an all-season birder, but I'm wimpy). My companion gave me binoculars a couple holidays ago—no extraneous functions to trip me up, chubby but lightweight so they're easy to grip, and still good in fading light. Those binoculars and my guides—many second-hand—are all I use. Borrow guides from the library and canvas your tribe to find unused binoculars (invariably, someone you know has a pair they never use). Make do with whatever you find for free and cheap while researching your dream optics online and at the Wildbird General Store.
Know local conditions
Alberta is a birding haven. We have several ecosystems in our backyard, and we're on three (out of four) North American flyways, which are migratory bird superhighways. That means twice a year, for short periods of time, we get avian guests on their way to and from their Arctic breeding grounds. A tool like eBird can tell you when you're most likely to spot passersby, but so can field guides, and even your own notes after a few seasons. Even wasteland Edmonton winters offer good birding, like when flocks of crossbills feed in the pines, chattering like monkeys while discarded pinecone scales shower down. Nuthatches, woodpeckers, redpolls and chickadees come out of the woods to haunt downtown feeders, where they're easy to see in naked branches. March to May is an excellent time to begin birding, with spring's waves of migrating returnees and Arctic-bound exotics, crazy courtship plumage (now's the time to watch for gulls' red "breeding ring" around their eyes) and behaviour (like elaborate grebe nest material ritual exchanges and lake surface ballets), nests being built and early hatchlings emerging. (Fun fact: Before Audubon, people thought birds hibernated in a flock at the bottom of frozen lakes.) Waterfowl in spring are good "beginner" birds: relatively large, out on the water, in snazzy plumage. Come summer, it's more challenging to spy birds in the greenery, and they've dispersed to raise families, but the warm weather lends itself to more patient birding. It can be a challenge to ID juvenile passerines ("perching birds"), because they can be about the same size as their parents—and even look bigger, because of their fluffy undeveloped feathers—but look completely different. (These huge babies are still very dependent on their parents and by and large won't be engaged in the same sort of activities as adults, but be hiding, testing their newfound skills or begging their moms and dads for food.) Through summer into autumn, many birds lose their breeding plumage and moult for migration, obscuring distinguishing marks. But you also get huge flocks in the fall, including Arctic migrants heading south, and spectacular displays of migratory restlessness, hunting and feeding, so it's still a great season for birding.
Bird with all senses
Immerse yourself. Thumb through guides, watch videos, speculate about observations. Draw birds from life or books to get to grips with morphology. Even if you're a terrible illustrator, you'll get a better feel for their form and features. Keep field notes on what you've seen; place the birds in context, in their environment, doing bird things. Listen to calls and birdsong, sing what you've heard in the field to yourself or record what you hear, work to associate sounds with birds. You could be alerted to waxwings by spacey, buzzing chirps high above you, or discover migrating cranes sound like a thousand kittens—just the kind of sublime moments of natural spectacle that make a birder's heart leap with joy.
Although Edmonton has stellar birding opportunities, many more are just a delightful road trip away. Here are some destinations to consider:
Fred Johns Park, Leduc
Territory: A walk in the park. Literally. A sedate, easy stroll around a pleasant landscaped reservoir with wide, meandering paved walkways and porta-potties. Waterfowl heaven, although ringed by bland suburbia and with big box stores and a highway overpass in close proximity.
Look for: Adorably sexually aggressive Ruddy Duck drakes with cartoon blue beaks; aerobatic Purple Martins gobbling up bugs, hooded gulls bobbing on the water.
Beaverhill Lake Area/Amisk Creek
Territory: Beaverhill's been losing water for years, although last spring the surrounding parched wetlands were somewhat revived. Buggy and boggy near summer, it's eerily magnificent desolation: spotty cell phone reception, pitted roads and prehistoric-looking dragonflies. Amisk is a conservation project straddling a road just a few miles away, but with an unbelievable density of birdlife.
Look for: BH has a rainbow of warblers by day; Short Eared Owls by dusk; Amisk has Pintails, Shovellers, and shorebirds galore, and Northern Harriers swooping and dipping low to the ground in mesmerizing hunting ballets. (beaverhillbirds.com for activities and information.)
John E Poole Wetland at Big Lake
Territory: Five minutes from downtown St Albert, Ducks Unlimited built a delightful wooden walkway that presses deep into a squishy wetland.
Look for: Sociable iridescent Common Grackles with long fan-like tails and oddball calls, Red-Winged Blackbirds flashing their scarlet epaulets, and coots—a plump grumpy bird that looks like it was made out of discarded parts.
Clifford E Lee Nature Sanctuary
Territory: Pick'n'mix landscape, from a shallow lake and wetland to forest to knobby prairie meadow, all blessed with easy trails and few people.
Look for: Improbably elegant American Avocets, pudgy and panicky Spruce Grouse.
Ellis Bird Farm
Territory: A delightful semi-working farm that has been a sanctuary for many generations of bluebirds. Tired? Watch the feeder over a scone at the teahouse.
Look for: Mountain Bluebirds, which look like a loose bit of sky, and smiley Tree Swallows; you feel very cartoon Snow White there. Also hummingbirds in the gorgeous gardens.
Lesser Slave Lake Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation
Territory: Otherworldly Northern Alberta landscape; deep cold lake hugged by birch and aspen woods. June 2 – 3 is their 2012 Songbird festival, but The Nest, their thrifty eco-hostel, is open year round.
Look for: Diminutive Northern Saw-Whet Owls, which look like fluffy angry fruit when you spot them napping in a pine. Loons haunt the silvery lake while grouse march, presumably seductively, around lakeside leks. Songbirds.
Elk Island/Hastings Lake
Territory: Typical "used to be a honking big ice sheet here" landscape.
Look for: Terns, cormorants and pelicans can often be mere dots in the distance on these big lakes, but Killdeer this time of year are defending nests on the beach. Their camouflage makes them hard to spot, but if one suddenly pops into view spazzing out and mewling, tread very, very carefully—you're almost on top of their nest and they're trying to lead you away. Let them.
Any old backroad, Alberta
Look for: Most of the birds I've seen, I've seen en route. Spot freaky little orange chickeny heads of Gray Partridge, murmurs of starlings, or the American Kestrel's star-spangled plumage. Stop the car in the middle of the road and enjoy swallows surrounding you like a feathery cloud, hunting bugs attracted to the dissipating engine heat. Southern Alberta is home to Burrowing Owls, world's most awesome creatures (sorry, whale sharks!) and ibises. V vueweekly.com comments: powered by Disqus
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