Of Birding and Writing

May is the month when my two avocations – writing and birding – compete for my time and attention. For most of the year (or at least my Canadian year – our English months had a different rhythm), I write in the mornings, and do everything else in my life in the afternoons. But birds – especially songbirds, migrate primarily at night, dropping down into woodland, hedgerow and grassland to feed in the early mornings. So morning, during migration, is when to be out.

I’ve been birding at some level for over fifty years. I’ve been writing for at least as long. Birding keeps me in touch with the rhythms of the earth, and the non-human lives that we share it with: I may be primarily looking for birds, but I’m also seeing and paying attention to reptiles, amphibians, mammals, insect life – and plants. Honing skills of observation, layering experiences of sight and sound and smell – and even feel and taste – into my day and my memory, often to reappear in my writing.

I’m always birding. If there’s light in the sky, whether outside or near a window, if a bird moves, I look at it. Reflexively. (Not always the best reflex, when you’re having a serious conversation with your boss in the parking lot, but, there it is. They were all remarkably forgiving.) I’m always writing, too. Words move in and out of my conscious mind: description, conversation, mood. Sometimes I even write about birding.

Regardless of my respectable list of birds seen, garnered over seven continents, I’m not a world-class birder, and I never was nor will be. I have no ear for song, a requirement to be really good, and, at sixty-four, my eyesight isn’t what it once was. The details are harder to distinguish now. But I was at my best a solidly good birder. But I didn’t get there overnight. It took a lot of work, birding with people who knew far more than I, studying books, making mistakes, learning from them: hours and hours in the field and analyzing that field work afterwards. A lot of work for a ‘hobby’? But a discipline that overlaps with that of writing. I’m not a world-class writer, either. I’m probably a solidly good one. But I didn’t get there overnight. It took all the same steps, the same discipline, the same willingness and drive to learn, and keep learning.

As I walked the familiar paths of my birding patch this morning, I thought about how these two parts of my life complement each other. Birding taught, and continues to teach, lessons far beyond that of identification: patience, for one. But more subtle ones, too: yesterday I watched a bluebird hunting insects. Except I didn’t have my binoculars, and the position of the sun meant the bluebird was only a silhouette. How did I know it was a bluebird, then? From all the things it showed me: its size and shape, how it flew, how it returned to the same branch over and over – all these things said ‘bluebird’, without me having to be told, by an in-your-face, look-at-me view, that it was a bluebird.

Birding taught me, too, about glimpses, how to construct a whole from pieces. Tapaculos are small birds of the undergrowth of central America. They are, most of them, very hard to see, because they skulk under thickets. But if you see enough pieces of a tapaculo: an eye, a beak, the tail feathers – they add up to a whole bird in your mind. Just like worlds and characters are best built in the mind of the reader from pieces, hints, brief views.  

I could keep drawing parallels; I won’t. But this morning, as I left the coffee shop downtown where I’d had breakfast, still early, and stepped into St George’s Square, a raven flew low over the space, calling. Unexpected, delightful, (and perhaps portentous for some). I’m still thinking about it.  A plot twist, if you like.

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