Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Evolution of a Birder

It all began as a high school science project in which our assignment was to research and write a report on an animal of our choice.  I must have seen an article in a wildlife magazine on Whooping Cranes and I immediately know what my subject would be.  I remember spending many happy hours research my chosen birds.  I had never seen a Whooping Crane--not unusual really, as they are highly endangered and don't migrate through the section of Alberta where I grew up.  However, I had seen Sandhill Cranes flying over our farm, heard them making their soft little crane flight calls.  They were enchanting and I was hooked.  [Looking back, I realize that I had also discovered a love of research, not a bad quality for a birder to have].

This all took place in the days before I became a dedicated birder, back before I even knew what a field guide was or that some people identified birds for fun.  I distinctly remember, in my early twenties, discovering a field guide to North American birds in the university library [another foreshadowing of things to come] and having an epiphany:  the birds that I see everywhere can be identified, named & noted!  But I still didn't quite know what to do with than information.

Eventually, I discovered a naturalist society here in Calgary and was initiated into the cognoscenti.  I felt like I had discovered a gold mine of information and experience.  Bird walks every week helped me find and identify common birds in the area.  Classes at the local bird sanctuary added to my pleasure.  I was building my basic knowledge, honing my skills and starting to understand this mysterious practice called birding.  [I also remember telling my father that I was taking up bird watching and him replying, "But you can't see large highway signs!"  And it is true that I have vision problems, but birds interest me a great deal more than highway signs, so it all works out].

In time, the city wasn't large enough.  Field trips were planned within a day's drive of Calgary and I explored new habitats with bird field trips of various kinds.  My horizons expanded as I went to areas of Northern and Southern Alberta where I had never ventured before. Neighbouring provinces called my name--I went to Saskatchewan for the fall migration and saw hundreds of Sandhill cranes, geese and swans, amongst other goodies.  British Columbia was next, in the gorgeous Osoyoos area, where Lewis' Woodpecker and Bullock's Oriole were added to my burgeoning list.

All the birding magazines that I picked up had exotic pictures in them of fabulous birds, living in far-flung places, but I had never imagined leaving Canada to see birds.  In 1999, my dear friend Jean approached with a proposition:  she was looking for people to go on a birding tour to Britain--would I like to go?  Would I? YES!  I began making the plans--applying for my first passport, arranging flights, paying a bill issued in foreign currency--it was all new and exciting!  Little did I know that it would be a fateful trip!  Not only did I meet four of my closest friends, with whom I still go birding regularly, but I began a determined quest to go to all seven continents before I turned 50. [I accomplished this feat by age 48].

That first foreign trip was magical--we sang our way around Britain, saw a "dancing" Black Grouse on Tullock Moore in Scotland, savoured summer pudding at a fabulous B&B in Wales, were awed by Red Kites in flight, spied a Capercaillie early on morning, problem-solved when one of our hotels suddenly cancelled on us, and consumed numerous servings of sticky-toffee pudding!  I was smitten.

The experience of birding travel hasn't lost its appeal--trying new foods, seeing new geography, attempting new skills. And of course there are the birds!  Toucans, penguins, parrots, tanagers, warblers, shorebirds, even gulls.  Some colourful, some dull.  As big as Ostriches in Kenya, as small as the Bee Hummingbird in Cuba.  Some trips have been easier than others, several have posed big challenges to me, but I am always pleased when I return home having stretched myself in some way.

The next frontier is to move from a life list on paper to one in software.  Life lists are the tally of all the bird species seen by an individual--made complicated by the continual change in taxonomy of the birds of the world [approximately 10,000 species, more or less].  The software is ordered--the quest to get the data entered will begin in June.  This will be a big challenge for me, as the record keeping is my least favourite part of the whole hobby.  I love being able to identify a birds without assistance, to hear a song and know which bird is singing, to know where to go to find a particular bird.  The numbers games [as in how many species I have seen] is of much less interest to me--but if I'm going to see them, I might as well keep track of them!  And remember events like my first Snowy Sheathbill, an Antarctic scavenger bird, which landed on my sleeping bag at two in the morning during a one-night camp-out on the Ice--what a great way to meet a brand new bird species [even if it was hoping that I was dead and scavengeable]. 

I still marvel at the beauty and toughness of birds.  The more I learn about the, the more I realize I don't know.  For a life-long student such as myself, this is why birding is a perfect hobby--there is always something new to learn.  So I guess I'll put up with the record keeping!