“I think that’s a duck, but I’ve never seen a duck fly before.”

That’s what I overheard yesterday on my trek to Leslie Spit on my first solo birding excursion ever.  I had a momentary shiver of incredulity (“how the hell do you think they migrate??”) — but then realized my own knowledge of birds wasn’t far off that a year ago.

This birding lark was strictly an accident.  I can point to about three earlier moments in my life when I consciously noticed birds, other than moments while canoeing or kayaking when cormorants, loons or the odd great blue heron were part of the landscape.

The first was a short hike in Ontario about 15 years ago with my ex, with a stop on the highest point on a not-very-high trail.  We ate our lunch and watched what we could only describe as “hawks” swooping around above us, and were momentarily transfixed by their arcs, their dance.

The second was a trip to the Isle of Skye a few years ago with a different ex, who is a biologist and casual birder.  It was a rainy week, which made it hard to do the kind of climbing we had planned to do, and we walked a lot along the shore instead.  He pointed out oystercatchers through the drizzle on a faraway shore on one trek, and later, we sat on a the edge of a promontory and watched gannets (which he had to identify) diving into waters filled with minke whales.  We shared his binoculars and I was quite taken with the power and precision of the gannets, torpedo-ing straight down at hapless fish. But I had accidentally dropped my small compact camera over the cliff face as we’d clambered down, and the memory of the gannets was blurred by our Rescue Expedition.  (I recovered the camera, but later that week left it somewhere on a ferry dock.  That trip really yearned to be undocumented — in keeping with that point in a faltering relationship).

Somewhere over the couple of years that followed, I shifted from thinking of photographs as something that merely documented experiences and bought my first DSLR for my second trip to Africa for my project with orphaned and vulnerable children.  That trip also included a trek to see the mountain gorillas and climbing Kilimanjaro.   And a moment as I sat eating my first decent meal in a couple of weeks at a lodge in Queen Elizabeth Park (between the orphans and the gorillas) where I realized I had no frame of reference for the colourful small birds that hopped on my table.  They were… yellow and small and sing-y.  And pretty.  That’s all I knew.  I wished I knew more.

Over the next months, I learned how to use more buttons than the green “auto” on my Canon Rebel, and joined an urban exploration club that specializes in photographing abandoned sites. Learned how to use a tripod and make compositions out of decaying buildings full of echoes and loss.  Started to feel a certain kind of tingling when I made an image that I knew had “something” in it.  Scrutinized what I shot and thought about how to improve them.

And now I have this ornithologist/wildlife photographer/explorer in my life.  Surprising intersections, except for the birds occupying the parts of his brain that words, communication theory, human relationships and a weird habit of tracking license plates inhabit in mine.  And with him, I’ve learned to use binoculars, understand the basics of bird identification and taxonomy, and had expert tutelage in using my camera.  Nothing holds you to higher technical standards than wildlife and birding photography, I’ve come to realize.  And I’ve even found that the very weight of the 100 – 400 mm lens I’ve now acquired for my (new) Canon 7D requires physical muscles I’ve never used (or even *had*) before.  A whole new world.

Yesterday, I did something surprising.  I went out birding for the first time on my own.  Not ideal conditions — middle of the day, a little too early for much small bird migration, and in the city, on Leslie Spit.  And I really wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy myself.  I told myself to just go out for an hour and see what happened.

In the end, I was out for the afternoon, and I felt 11 years old.  Some birds I recognized easily — American Robin, red-winged blackbird, ring-billed gulls, house sparrows.  Some I didn’t expect.  A lone killdeer, calling away.  A cacophony of calls I couldn’t place, until I squelched through mud and reeds and discovered a little nesting colony of Forster’s Terns on an “island” of construction debris in the tiny “lake” in the middle of the Spit.  I spotted a lone, surprising Great Egret (and a man who had never seen one before).  I thumbed through the Audobon birding app on my i-phone to place ducks I may have seen but couldn’t immediately name.  (Long-tailed, it turns out).

Chased something I knew were swallows but couldn’t name until I found their nesting boxes and they finally settled down.  These things are remarkably difficult to photograph or even fix bins on, but I finally was sure about their pure white underbellies and the iridescent sheen of blue-green.  Tree swallows.

Found a completely unexpected, enormous, pulsating colony of ring-billed gulled and double-crested cormorants.  How could I live in this city for 23 years and have no idea that this chaotic mess of nesting and breeding happens right at the foot of the urban mass??  Truly, before this spring, I barely would have noticed that there even WERE cormorants down at the lake.

I didn’t jump into birding with much optimism — and I still find the single-minded doggedness of “real” birders a bit daunting.  There’s almost nothing I like doing for 10 hours at a time, and that’s a standard day for my birder lover, whom I’ll call Finch here.  I still have a certain kind of ambivalence — it’s sciencey, and precise, and requires the kind of detailed memory I don’t really have.  And patience.  And trust me — the fairy godmother who was supposed to bring the patience wand was stuck on the subway when I was gifted with my many fine qualities.

And yet yesterday, on my own, I was bubblingly happy.  I was outside, on a glorious day.  In a part of the city that is literally made out of old bricks, broken concrete and shards of glass — but that has grown a new skin and pulse full of joggers, cycling families, people fishing — and 1000s of birds.  A landfill still in creation (closed Monday – Friday for more dumping), with birds breeding, calling, resting from migration. When I’ve jogged on the Spit, I’ve been conscious of the lake on both sides, of the sense of well-being of my fellow runners and cyclists, but moving that quickly, down the centre of the Spit, you just run through it.  Birding, you move off the road onto the winding sidepaths, and every tree becomes a possibility.

I’m… feisty.  I go at things with a certain kind of ferocity.  Looking for birds with various lenses in my hands, that ferocity is refracted through a kind of gentleness.  I’m still looking intently for movement, trying to assess whether all of those ducks waaaay out there on the lake are all the same or not.  But the ferocity is calm. A good 10 minutes standing stock still hoping that those two sleeping ducks that are either canvasbacks or redhead ducks will lift their heads just long enough for me to identify them.  Photographing the unidentified so I can pore over them at home.

Birding is mystery, and puzzle, and wonder, and eureka moments.  There is a graceful logic that is deeply satisfying to feel slide into place — time of year + habitat + geographic location + shape, colour, call = probably this bird, probably not that bird.  “If they were breeding there, they’re double-crested cormorants.  Brandt’s don’t occur that far east.”  There’s treasure hunt, and beauty, and feeling all of your senses click together at once.  Brain puzzle and felt joy all together.  Seeing distinctions, personalities where before there were just “birds.”  Watching, for the first time, displays and mating behaviour, and giggling along. (Like these laughing gulls in their breeding ground in Texas last month).

Feeling in the spring resurgence an intense sense of connection to something beyond language, across place and time.  Mystery right in front of us.


One thought on ““I think that’s a duck, but I’ve never seen a duck fly before.”

  1. So beautifully written. You should read William Fiennes “The Snow Geese” — you’re writing reminds me of it. I look forward to the day when I can be rah-rahing at your book signing. 🙂 xxx

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