A Concise Guide to Birdwatching
What to know before you go
FOR the past three springs, at the invitation of a friend, I’ve joined the throng that travels to Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park to watch the bird migration. Somehow, though, I have failed to catch the “birding bug.” And at least one birdwatcher has suggested that I was disappointed because I’d come to the pastime with false expectations.
Perhaps so. For beginning birders, then, I offer the following.
First of all, there are hardly any birds.
Chances are you’ll get the most from your first time out if you come armed with the knowledge that there won’t be very many birds.
Certainly there are more birds at the tip of Point Pelee than you’re used to seeing, for example, in your apartment.
But on the first rainy pre-dawn that you arrive at the park you will hear this: “They say last week was fabulous,” or, “Maybe it’s too windy today.”
The point is, the birds are not there now.
Where are they? Let’s go look!
As a novice, you might imagine that you’ll be spending your days in leafy glades and sunny meadows. Surely, you’re thinking, the pleasures of birding are bound up in the enjoyment of the natural landscape. This might once have been so.
But the bird of today is partial to motel parking lots and garbage dumps, and to something called a . . . sewage lagoon. And once you’ve exhausted the sights in the park, this is where you’ll be going.
A word on sewage lagoons. For those of us for whom a little sewage goes a long way, this might seem a strange spot to pass the time. But nothing can spoil the pleasure of teetering on the edge of a lake of human waste faster than clinging to narrow human notions of natural splendour.
Do your best to maximize your time sewage-side. One suggestion I can offer: rat watching. (“Hey! Did I just see a Norway?”)
Before we move on: however empty the skies, what you will see plenty of, out there in the wilds, is birdwatchers. There they are, pointing up into the empty trees!
And birders, unlike their quarry, are easy to identify. They will look just the way you expected.
You’ll see, too, that you needn’t spend a fortune dressing for birding. In general, anything that makes you look like a gym teacher will do.
As for rainwear, birdwatchers have discovered that plain green garbage bags make handsome and affordable raingear, which can be counted on to let rain in only through the openings cut out for the head and arms.
Most of the time, the birds are too far away to see.
Nothing dampens the pleasures of that first outing more than the notion that the birds will be visible to the naked eye.
Do you remember our birders, pointing into the empty trees? Well, these birders might indeed have seen a bird. But know in advance that the bird might easily be in the next township.
“Now hold on a minute,” you may say. “Surely with a good pair of binoculars you’ll see the birds just fine.”
But there’s a funny thing about binoculars. The more powerful they are, the smaller their field of vision.
This makes the birds hard to find. And if you do find one, so much as move a muscle and you will suddenly (with truly first-rate binoculars) be enjoying the view of an abandoned strip mall down near Windsor.
Think of it this way: imagine you’re at an art gallery. You are told that the only way you’ll be able to view the work you’ve come so far to see is from several football fields away and through a spyglass.
But there’s another thing. The painting isn’t on a wall. It’s going to be held up for you. And the “painting holder” (if he shows up that day) is going to jiggle the canvas back and forth, up and down, and then, with no warning, run away.
(On the subject of equipment: telescopes, although large and unwieldy, offer long-distance views with the stability of a tripod.
Telescopes, incidentally, offer a further advantage. It is only male birdwatchers who carry telescopes. I will leave the theories on this up to observers of human behaviour, but this oddity turns out to be quite useful. Given birding attire, the telescope provides the only reliable way of discerning the sex of birders on the trail.)
There aren’t very many kinds of birds anyway.
An irony of birding is that the notion of species variety is at the very hub of the birdwatcher’s devotion to the hobby. No happier birders can be found than those gathered at the end of a long day, enjoying lukewarm nachos in a dank family restaurant, making lists of the many “varieties” of birds they’ve seen.
In fact, most birds are exactly alike.
They are small and brown.
Knowing this will spare you all sorts of frustrating forays into the field guide.
And the field guides, as it turns out, will confirm how few varieties there are, offering up page after page of obviously identical creatures, with their wonderfully fanciful variety of names.
It’s as linguists that ornithologists truly shine.
So off you go to hedge and hollow! I pass you the torch and leave you with the best advice I can: if you want to get a really good look at a bird close up, try the Swiss Chalet.