#33: Halcyon Days
Participating in citizen science has helped me to see that every little thing is gonna be alright.
One of the (many) unfortunate outcomes of poor urban planning is that we rarely hear birds anymore, or pay them much mind. So it’s not surprising, then, that the first place I ever heard the car alarm mimicry of a Northern cardinal was here, in my late 1970s split-entry tucked away on a surprisingly well-treed cul-de-sac in the middle of suburban sprawl.
Being on a quieter street, my husband Ben and I are able to pause and hear the cardinal regularly. A particularly punky bird, he perches in one of our trees, a shock of red feathers fluffed in a devil-may-care comb. He sings at all hours; being fiercely territorial, mated pairs like to advertise quite loudly to any other cardinal considering taking up residence in our yard that the sleepy street is off-limits.
Go find your own maple, pal.
Random bird facts isn’t common knowledge I’ve harboured over the years. Rather, it’s a recent acquisition during the pandemic when, like many others, I decided to take up birding as a hobby.
Or bird watching. I’m not sure anymore:
This may seem like a pedantic distinction in an already marginal world, but it matters—though the two terms bleed into each other. Crudely put, bird-watchers look at birds; birders look for them (emphasis added).
Jonathan Rosen, The Difference Between Bird Watching and Birding
Whatever we want to call my new pursuit - this desire to be outdoors strafing the obsessive drive of birders with the more passive pleasures of the bird watcher - it began in earnest this last February. After turning 40, and finally relenting to buy myself a present, I researched telephoto lenses and settled on the heftySigma 150mm-600mm lens.
Now to find some birds. The Merlin app on my phone helps me identify a bird via matching either a photo or an audio recording I’ve taken to their databases. It’s the product of citizen science at its’ finest:
Because no two people describe birds exactly the same way, Merlin presents a shortlist of possible species based on descriptions from Cornell Lab experts as well as thousands of bird enthusiasts who helped “teach” Merlin by participating in online activities. They’ve contributed more than 3 million descriptors to help Merlin match your input with the most likely birds. When you identify a species and click “This is My Bird,” Merlin also saves your record to help improve its future performance.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Story (Merlin Bird ID)
Although I recently read Julia Zarankin’s delightful memoir, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, and as silly as this perhaps sounds, I don’t think I truly appreciated the sheer variety of species out there. But now, a veil lifted from the eyes, I began to realize - and see - how many birds have been around my house all this time. Chickadees. Robins. Blue jays. American goldfinches are a particular favourite; I love watching their delightful sine curve flight, and how they squeak like a chew toy on the ascension of the curve.
Gotta Catch ‘Em All
Like other hobbies I enjoy - writing, painting, gardening - it’s become a way to stay rooted in the present, keeping my wayward mindfrom straying too far from the current date and time.
It’s also fun: a real-life Pokémon Go, but instead of chasing around fake animals in a real environment, you’re in pursuit of a clear shot of that flash of colour that catches your eye. Quietly yet quickly walking through the woods, you try to sneak up on a warbler and hope your camera settings will allow for a tack-sharp image so I can add it to my “life list”.
Life lists are simply the birds you’ve successfully identified. People have different rules. For mine, I need a photo of it to identify it. Since starting in February, I’ve identified 79 species. I don’t know that I’ll get any more this year, but would like to get over 100 in 2023, including my current nemesis bird, i.e., the bird you just can’t manage to confirm sighting and add to your list.
When I started this year, it was bald eagles. Then, it was belted kingfishers.
Lately, a golden-crowned kinglet flits among the tree tops of my neighbourhood. It’s a “very tiny bird” that sports a gold brush when excited, looking for lady kinglets. And they mostly stay atop the trees, blending in like a
jerk good kinglet.
Maybe next year. For me, it’s rarely a purposeful trip into nature for a specific type of bird. I’ve only approached the hobby as being in the right place at the right time. Like one June morning, when I went with Ben to the nearby Hammond River. It’s so magical there on a spring morning, with tall grasses beginning to sprout, and ground fog skirting the edges of sandbars.
While he was off wading the waters in search of trout, I stood on the river’s edge, waiting for whatever opportunity would present a possible search. As I watched the flutters of bushes and heard little songs over the water, a common merganser female, and her brood of chicks, make their way towards me. She quacks softly every so often to keep the kids in line, and lets the current take the family down river towards breakfast. It’s probably one of my favourite birding moments this year.
Smile with the Risin' Sun
The day my nan passed away, I was still working from home, in between offices. After getting the phone call, I went outside to the front steps to get some fresh air, stunned yet relieved it was finally over.
Across the street, a red flash.
I look up to see that damn cardinal, atop a thin birch, begin his song, and bring me back into the present moment. And I’m not a believer in spirits, but I believe in symbols, and for a moment, I gave in to the symbolism. That it was her letting me know she was okay now.
They force us to stop and pay close attention, to notice details more acutely. When we’re out birding, we’re experiencing the joy of being fully immersed in the present moment—very much in line with what mindfulness practices advocate.
Julia Zarankin, More Birds Bring More Happiness According to Science
Birding has become a way to feel immensely the here and now, indulging the science and art halves of my brain, while keeping my wayward mind from straying too far from the current date and time. Amidst increasing chaos of a never-ending pandemic, working in healthcare to boot, there are times I just need to escape.
To just feel.
Bream M. (24 Feb 2013). Cardinals’ song means spring is around the corner. Toronto Star.
Weighing in at 1.9Kg, or 4.2lbs, it provides great toning for the arms when mounted on the 2lb Canon 7D!
A boon when you need to do work in strategic planning or research; absolute rubbish for the off-hours.
Bryn, I loved this one! We sound like exactly the same kind of birder. I sometimes call myself a bird noticer, because mostly I’m out to explore and get exercise, but if I notice a bird, especially a new bird ... all bets are off. Have you turned chat on for your Stack? This might be a fun one to have people share pictures (I’ve got a Kingfisher pic I captured recently I’d share)
Birding is the one hobby I resist for some reason. Perhaps because there are so many birders already, it feels like a crowded field? I enjoy the gregarious species and do have some favorite birds (Swallow-tailed kites, magpies, caracaras) but I find myself drawn to the slow moving, the insects and their odd tracks and galls. The plants, because no one is looking down. But I am so glad people are starting to appreciate nature more closely, no matter how they interact with it.