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A Two-Pronged Anniversary

April 9, 2011

Devoted Birders! Today marks a two-pronged anniversary. Two years ago today, I went birding for the first time ever. We went to Kipling Spit and stared at a variety of ducks (yes, that was before I learned the more sophisticated term water fowl) which all looked more of less the same for what seemed like an eternity. To give you an idea of the extent of my cluelessness about everything bird-related, I actually showed up for the bird outing without binoculars! I nearly froze that Saturday morning in April 2009 because I had come under the false impression that birding was a physically demanding sport and so arrived with neither mitts nor hat nor scarf. It was a rough three hours and I honestly wasn’t sure I’d ever be back. If we hadn’t ended the morning in a great coffee shop (more on that later) and if I hadn’t found the members of the bird group so delightfully quirky, I definitely wouldn’t have come back.

Today, two years to the day, we went back to Kipling Spit.

What did we see that day? Red necked grebes, mergansers, horned grebes, and a brilliant rarity, the Western Grebe. What’s funny is that I have absolutely no recollection of the bird everybody got excited about and couldn’t stop talking about. Instead, all I remember about the day was seeing my very first Red-Winged Blackbird, a bird I now recognize as a common, run-of-the-mill avian creature. The bird transfixed me whereas the Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) was just another duck to me back then:

I’ll admit that it took me about six months to go out birding again. And then another eight months after that second trip. But by late March 2010, I found myself craving more. And then I started this blog. Today, Birds and Words is celebrating its first birthday! (I think my first entry was in late March of last year, but today feels like a good day to celebrate; besides, declaring a bird-blog anniversary the day after International Draw A Bird Day seems particularly auspicious). And here at Birds and Words, we love to celebrate.

What was it that made me come back? I honestly don’t think it was the ducks. Even today, two years later, I’m still luke-warm about water fowl compared to brightly colored song birds or woodpeckers or pheasants of any persuasion. In retrospect, I think it might have been the actual names of birds that got me hooked. It felt like learning an entirely new language, with a grammar and syntax (and even regional dialects!) of its own. Some birds looked like their name (Red winged blackbird being the most obvious example) and others one just simply had to commit to memory, like in German class when a noun’s gender rarely made any sort of logical sense. I didn’t remember what a Red-necked Grebe looked like, but remembered that the meter of bird’s name was a perfect anapestic measure (short, short, long): red-necked grebe. I knew that birding would teach me patience and that I’d learn more about the natural world I’d always been curious about but never bothered to take the time to look closely. I also knew, from Phoebe Snetsinger, Jonathan Franzen, et al, that I’d love the listing part of birdwatching, since I’m a list-er by nature. But I could never have guessed that I’d fall for the poetry of bird names.

Am I a good birder? No, not at all. Am I improving? That’s a hard question, since the ducks and hawks really do all look the same to me, still. What I lack in skill (which is pretty much everything, at this point), I make up for in enthusiasm. I’ve taken a liking to extreme-weather birding — looking for owls in -20 degree (celcius!) weather only to find they’ve been scared off by bald eagles, or that 2011 just happens to be a lousy owl year, watching tree swallows fly backwards in spring’s worst wind storm (and seeing the most robust beaver ever), nearly getting blown over at Presqu’ile Provincial park in search of sandpipers.

I’ve also learned another curious thing about memory. My memory is very spatio-temporally oriented. I don’t remember what birds necessarily look like (which makes the whole “improving-as-a-birder” thing rather problematic, and which is really why I keep calling myself a “somewhat” birder), but I remember, with surprising precision, exactly where (and when) I saw the bird in question. It’s almost like my memory operates in its own little chronotope (finally, Bakhtin is coming in useful again…). I’m definitely not a visual or aural person — all the sounds and images blend into one, but the names immediately conjure up a specific time and place.

I’m glad I came back. I love the bird outings, the coffee breaks, the chance to wear my Tilley hat, the process of looking closely and observing, wrestling with my binoculars, and the new language of bird names that I’m (ever so) slowly learning to master.

Happy Birthday Blog! Happy two-year anniversary, Avian Friends!

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2011 11:50 am

    Congratulations! We have to get out once Alison and I have made the move back east this fall.
    It’s funny that you say “red-necked grebe” as an anapest; for me it’s a molossus. But the best anapestic foot of all is the okaleeee of a singing Red-winged Blackbird.

  2. April 11, 2011 11:47 am

    Happy anniversary! If you happen to be browsing in Book City, check out a book that made me think of you: A Tern of Phrase. Hillarious pictures of terns illustrating various words and phrases: cons-tern-ation!

  3. April 11, 2011 5:07 pm

    Montclair, NJ, end of the summer–and one hopes permanently.

  4. April 12, 2011 8:27 pm

    Or rather Richard in ours–

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