Point Pelee, where I spent many days in my childhood, is a mecca for birders every May. The spring migration of birds coming north to breeding grounds, especially the sweet, tiny warblers, is a fiesta of “falls” of dozens of species in a day, throngs of birders all looking for the most elusive birds, or racking up unprecedented totals of different species in any given day.
Despite his half century of ornithological credentials, Finch had never been. So having me in his life, and my having a car to lend him and a couple of weekends to spare, he made the pilgrimage for 10 days. I joined him in the bookends, to be with him, see birds, and experience the phenomenon of the hordes.
Plunging into the vortex of any sub-culture is disorienting. I expected crowds, and I’ve been around Finch long enough to know that while the stereotype of the slightly doddering, Tilly-hatted, geekily-peering birder who sleeps with his binoculars has its adherents, there are also plenty of birders who could easily be confused with mountaineers or grade school teachers. Or who *are* mountaineers and grade school teachers. I’ve also picked up that birding has multiple sub-cultures, from the more casual families with their little kids learning to use binoculars on fair-weather days to look at the prettiest birds to the tech-heavy soldiers who clad their 800 mm telecameras in brown camo and tromp around with flash guns and tripods I could perch on. (For some reason, at Pelee, most of these were francophones). What I wasn’t entirely prepared for was the volume. All of these people are trying to see a single Kentucky warbler, a wee little bird that is about 3 inches long and could be hidden in my closed hand.
Being a somewhat solitary individual myself, I found the crowds a bit unnerving. When I’m trying to concentrate on even *seeing* a tiny bird that’s hopping out of sight in the shrubbery, chaotic guesses about identification and people obliviously stepping in front of me can be distracting. There is an etiquette of sharing and collaboration that most people honour — a little girl offered me a view through her dad’s telescope (called a “scope” by birders) to see the prothonotary warbler, for example — but there are the over-eager, and the ditherers, and the too aggressive tour guides, like the guy who kept flashing a laser light and pulling his group members in front of other people as though no one else existed. But the overall excitement of a shared experience threads through the whole thing. People getting out of bed at 5:30 am and strolling wet, unseasonably chilly woods to see … something unidentifiable.
What swims to the surface for me is the intense conflation of vulnerability and fearsome strength that is the spring migration. Tiny birds, flying from the tropics up to their northern breeding grounds, flying through the night to escape being seen by hawks and other birds of prey, some of them 10,000 feet up in the air, finding themselves over the lake with nowhere to land. “Falling” finally on the first point possible, to feed and rest.
The awe at the strength is obvious — the knowledge of instinct, patterns learned from short generation to short generation. But even my first weekend I didn’t fully understand the fragility. But this weekend snapped cold, rain driving the chill further in. We saw shivering baltimore orioles trying to shelter under logs, unable to feed, quivering with the cold. A ring-billed gull thuggishly killing a beautiful tiny american redstart that landed on the beach, unable to move further, shaking it to death and batting its peers away as it flew off with its booty. Black-throated blue and Canada warblers haunting the edges of the foliage, dangerously visible and vulnerable in their quest for food.
Finch told me that you don’t usually find warblers on the ground — that you usually see them in trees. These were hiding in the ground cover to keep warm and find food — pursuits that are life and death when you are smaller than a tiny house mouse and you have just flown thousands of miles.
I don’t know why the other hordes show up, exactly. There is good natured competition along with the camaraderie, and this year, the Park was giving out special “100” pins to people who saw more than 100 species, to commemorate 100 years of Parks Canada. (I got one, with 114 species, thanks to Finch. On my own I might have identified 25). But underneath the crazy cameras, and the rushing about to “twitch” the nighthawk-that-might-be-a-whippoorwill, and guiding each other to the rarer birds, and the endless consumption of dessicated sausages on a bun made by the Friends of Pelee volunteers, I assume everyone shares this kind of awe. The migration at Pelee lets you see, up close, intimately, the mystery beyond the individual, the unearthly beauty of the prosaic.
Most people know next to nothing about birds, I realize, even the ones who have enough affection for them to put out feeders and keep little guidebooks handy next to their kitchen windows. I overheard one member of a Park-guided hike ask “what’s the difference between a goldfinch and a yellow warbler?” (“one’s a goldfinch and one’s a warbler,” said the patient guide), and the cook at our breakfast diner that had the special garden room overlooking a feast of feeders told us that there was a “canary” out on the deck. A year ago, I didn’t know what a warbler was either. But I saw 19 species of warblers on Saturday and was able to really *see* them, hold their distinctness and strokeable beauty fast in my soul.
To see the difference between the blackburnian male and female, and really understand the similarities and patterns that go beyond colour.
In this early learning about birding, I’ve come to realize that when I spend real “time” with any bird, it becomes “mine.” We craft a kind of intimacy, the watcher and watched, the photographer and the muse. Pelee is about creating that connection with warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers and countless other families. Even the ring-billed gulls that upset me so much. Intimacy with the way other species live out their purpose. Magical.