After attending a meeting in Whistler I embarked on the second part of my research into the obsessive world of birders. Flying five hours to Ontario to watch birds along Lake Erie seemed extreme, but, I was told, such effort barely registers on the birder travel scale. It made me wonder over the salient appeal of 'avian reptiles' — as herpetologists call these annoying bonsai leftovers of the great Age of Dinosaurs.
To start, birds are highly mobile, highly audible and highly visible, with no need (other than flightless forms) to be cryptic because, well, they can always just fly away. It's like a superpower. Which partly explains why, unlike other subjects, you "collect" birds without touching or possessing them. This keeps them desirous. Enough that they're the only group of animals we encourage into our lives en masse (bird food and bird feeders are de facto industry); enough that birders refer to them less like the critters they are than preternatural beings.
My photographer/birder buddy couldn't make it so I meet up with a another birder friend, Jen, a Masters student at McMaster University working on toxic load in fish-eating cormorants. Only a year into her research she knows enough to wear a biohazard suit when handling the birds. We head to Long Point, where its world-leading bird observatory is celebrating a 50th anniversary.
— What do I need to know? I ask as we drive south.
— Birders hate rookies. It's like fishermen and surfers: you're a lesser being taking up their spot for a sighting. Also, beginners are loud and scare away birds. They unwrap crinkly granola bar wrappers and stomp around in environmentally sensitive areas.
Perhaps to save Jen some of this embarrassment we pull over at a likely looking forest to "practice." Two steps in and Jen's backback transforms into a ghetto-blaster with speakers pouring forth bird songs.
— This should speed things up. Ninety per cent of identifications in forest are by sound. Beginner's are frustrated by this because instead of relying on their eyes they should be listening to tapes over and over again to learn the songs. It's like beginner rock climbers relying too much on their hands...
The Long Point Bird Observatory is like visiting a Tilley showroom. The models aren't mannequins but close to it, average age well post-retirement. The first thing I notice are the binocular harnesses, which make people look like off-leash kids.
— It distributes weight if you're wearing a big pair of binos, says Jen. Anyone who birds seriously has one and the bigger they are, the more serious you are.
Retired folks clearly have a lot of time and income on their hands. In addition to the hats were uniform-like pants and vests, the latter sporting a massive guidebook pocket. That led to my first question as we moved down the trail.
— Why is everyone stealing glances at everyone else's guidebook?
— A big one means you're less of a crappy birder. A guide to birds of Eastern North America places you above regional guides like Hamilton Birds and... Jen interrupts herself, holding her hand up in silent halt. We'd been just about to pass some stationary birders.
— Etiquette dictates you don't pass anyone looking at something, she whispers.
We approach slowly, stopping a few metres back. Excited, I pull up my binos, pushing back my toque to accommodate the eyepieces.
— You look ridiculous, says Jen.
Good, I'm blending right in. Herding behaviour is rampant in birding. When someone sees something good, word ripples along a trail and it's like ants to a picnic, bears to honey, gulls to garbage... In minutes the crowd swells to over twenty. But when a guy with a big camera on a stick shows up he draws serious stink-eye.
— Photographers are trash, hisses Jen. They do unethical things like bait for owls with pet-store mice. Most aren't real birders and don't even know what they're looking at.
—Oh, I say for what seems the hundredth time, permanently closing the latch on my camera case as chatter erupts.
— All that for a Blackpole.
— What do you mean? I'd do that for a Blackpole!
— Hey, there's a Nashville, too. And a Prairie.
— Naw, that's an LBJ.
Guidebooks may be key to the birding rookie, but so is a dictionary: LBJ — or Little Brown Job, describes a dull bird you can't quite ID; Lifer — the first time you see a species; Twitchers — birders who travel far and wide, convulsing with excitement; Dip — going on a twitch but missing the bird; Stringer — someone who habitually reports rare sightings to gain notoriety; etc. Me? I just press forward, scanning for LBJs
— Keep the brand name of your binoculars hidden, says Jen with trepidation.
— People are rude about binoculars. One guy was like "I can't believe you can even see that Palm with those Bushnells!" Brand matters. Zeiss, Leica, Bausch & Lomb are the bomb. Everything else is... well, everything else.
Despite my lack of experience we do well this day, listing 45 species. I like the Northern Cardinal, Baltimore Oriole and American Goldfinch best because they're most colourful. Jen rolls her eyes. I have a lot to learn, but Jen has to get back to her toxic cormorants and I'll have to do it on my own.
Down the lake lies Rondeau Provincial Park, where I arrive next morning. More spread out than Long Point, you aren't running into people constantly; I actually see more snakes than humans, but of course, I always do.
Cars with plates from everywhere fill the lot. No vanity jobs but plenty of stickers for ornithological conservation groups. Twitchers, I muse. Two guys in front of a beat-up Honda dressed like hunters in matching hats, boots, pants and vests each cradle a giant camera and camo-coloured 600mm lens. I ask how much all that stuff costs.
— A lot. Like, more than this car, eh?
Lake fog engulfs the area, and orange bursts of Eastern Towhees through the open oak Savannah seem like small explosions in the mist. Without seeing them, I hear birds everywhere: a rich soundscape of notes and melodies that don't necessarily fit together but aren't as a whole dissonant. Like an orchestra pit warming up. I pass a knot of birders intently searching for the source of an alto trill coming from a swamp. All have their binos trained deep into the shadows. I don't have the heart to tell them it's an American Toad, but it gives me an idea.
About 30 metres further on I put my own binoculars to my face then stand stock still. Sure enough, as casually as they can, the others disperse to cluster silently around me, training their own glass in the same direction. Random walkers join. Muttering ensues. Finally, when the trail seems as packed as it can get, I pull down my binos and sigh.
— LBJ, I say, walking off.
It seems mean enough to make me a birder.
(For Part I go to www.piquenewsmagazine.com, June 18 edition)
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.