Epiphany

A world opens up, a world beyond the commonplace, a wild world.

I am ten years old, or maybe eleven. No older. I am wearing green shorts and a yellow shirt. I am alone; I often am: this is another time, another world, southern Ontario in the late 1960s. I can smell the dust of a July afternoon, feel the heat of the sun, see the purple of the vetch that lines the farm lane: the moment is fixed in my memory.

I’ve been out in the fields and woods, exploring, pretending, observing. The woodlot lies a quarter mile directly south of our house, twenty acres or so of field between the Norway spruce that line the southern edge of our yard and the woods. This is my world, and I share it with animals and birds I know: rabbits, groundhogs, the occasional skunk; crows, sparrows, robins.

I have – or rather my brother has, because this is meant to be a boy’s pursuit – a bird book written for young people. I look at it often; I like knowing the names of things: trees, birds, flowers, rocks. Even then I find my place in the world through its landscape – or, more precisely, although the word is not widely in use yet – the ecosystem that surrounds me.

It’s midafternoon, and I’m hungry. I’m heading home for a snack. Am I running? I think I might be. A bird flies up from beside the lane. I stop, in a moment of recognition and delight: a bright yellow breast, a distinct black V. A meadowlark, I tell myself. I’ve seen a meadowlark. Wonder suffuses me. They live here. They are real. A world opens up, a world beyond the commonplace, a wild world.

I will go on to see hundreds, if not thousands, of meadowlarks across the Americas, to recognize their whistled, flute-like song as a harbinger of spring, to mourn their decline as a grassland bird. As agriculture in southern Ontario changed, fields that were once pasture now grow corn and soybeans; hayfields are cut earlier, destroying nests; old fields on the edges of towns become housing developments. I have to look for meadowlarks now.  But every first meadowlark of spring takes me back, just for a moment, to that ten-year-old realizing a world of wild beauty lay both beyond and within the familiar one, if I had the eyes to see.

Featured image: By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62440

The Thing with Feathers

Sometimes birding brings back a strong and immediate sense of place from another time or another country.

The Cooper’s hawks have fledged two young: I see them every few walks, never (yet) very far from their nest, and always together.  There’s a noticeable size difference between them, but as they are still in juvenile plumage, I can’t tell if that’s a gender difference–females being noticeably larger than males–or if it’s just hatching order.  By now, they should be hunting independently; the rich bird life of summer likely providing sufficient prey. If they survive through to the winter, they may well become one of the birds that swoops around the corner of our house to take a bird from a feeder.  That between-houses and around-corners dash is characteristic of the Cooper’s Hawk (and its smaller, almost identical cousin the Sharp-shinned Hawk): Cooper’s Hawks were once called ‘chicken hawks’ because they used the same techniques in farmyards, using buildings as cover to grab a foraging chicken.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

The thistles have gone to seed, and there seems, some mornings, to be a goldfinch feeding on almost every thistle head.  They are nesting now, timed to coincide with the thistle and milkweed seed crops. They are by far the most common bird I see–and hear–on any walk. Right now, I’m seeing far more of the bright males than the olive-drab females, who are likely sitting on nests. As goldenrod comes into flower, I find it just a bit harder to find the males in the fields: not everything bright yellow is a goldfinch now!

In among the chipping sparrows this week was a cowbird chick, twice the size of its unknowing foster parents, actively going into begging mode – beak open, tail and wings quivering – each time its parents approached.  Mostly, they ignored it: it could fly, and it was time for it to learn to feed itself.  The chipping sparrows that nested in the forsythia hedge at our house raised a cowbird this year too: at first, of course, they fed it constantly, and then less often, and then not at all.  For a day it sat on our deck railing or on top of a garden ornament, looking disconsolate, occasionally flying up to the feeder but not feeding, and then it vanished.  But if it lives to adulthood, and it was a female, it will choose chipping sparrow nests to lay its eggs in too, because it was raised by them. 

Sometimes birding brings back a strong and immediate sense of place from another time, or even another country.  Juvenile American robins are everywhere: I must have counted over two dozen in one six kilometre walk the other day. But for some reason, every time I raised my binoculars to look at one, my brain said “Fieldfare”. Fieldfares are a European thrush, fairly closely related to American robins, and not dissimilar in appearance to their juveniles. But I’ve been looking at juvenile robins (consciously) for about fifty-five years. I’ve only been looking at fieldfares for about twenty-five, so I’m still trying to work out why I was so convinced I was not in North America: the day was classic Ontario high summer, and everything should have said ‘home’ to me.

Fieldfare

My first fieldfares were in an old orchard at Leighton Moss RSPB reserve, on Christmas Eve of 1991. We  were driving to Scotland to spend Christmas Day with my husband’s cousins; Leighton Moss is in Lancashire, more or less on the way. I remember the day as changeable, cloud giving way to brilliant low sunshine, the light winking in and out. We were walking from the visitor’s centre along the lane that borders the reserve, making our way to the footpath that runs out into the reedbeds. A rush of wings, and thrushes exploded into the old orchard: fieldfare, and their cousins the redwings. Both were new to us, and in the winter light and bare trees they were a delight of sound and colour. I’ve seen both species many times since then, but I remember them best from that first sighting.  Emily Dickinson wrote ‘hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul…’ but for me, ‘the thing with feathers’ is a time machine, one that, in the time it takes to raise my binoculars, can take me from an August morning in Ontario in 2020 to a mid-winter afternoon in northern England in 1991.

Photo credits:

Cooper’s Hawk: Pauk, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC 2.0;

Fieldfare: Teresa Reynolds, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC 3.0

Featured Image: Goldfinches on Milkweed (C) Marian L Thorpe 1994

One Small Thing

I was mildly conscious there was some danger in my solo birding trips. There always is, for a woman travelling alone.

This is a very different blog post than I usually write, but it’s what I was thinking about for much of the day. I woke up yesterday mentally exhausted, from editing and book launches and promotion and marketing and my community newsletter responsibilities and reviewing and…..just too many words. My wrists ached from typing. My eyes were dry. My creativity was missing. So I went birding instead.

Alone. I needed space and silence. I drove up to a lake about an hour north of us, and walked around a pond and then along the lakeshore, and looked at trumpeter swans and blue herons and pied-billed grebes, and the osprey overhead and the swallows chattering over the water, and listened to yellow warblers singing. I took pictures of wildflowers. I startled a white-tailed doe, and a lot of turtles. And I thought about my two solo birding trips: one a week in the High Island area of Texas; one a road trip out across the Dakotas and up into Saskatchewan.  

Luther Lake, Ontario

I was in my 50s, for both trips. In Texas I stayed in one place, and did day trips to the local wildlife refuges. On the road trip, except for three nights at Grasslands National Park, I moved every day. I drove back roads; I stopped at ponds and potholes and rivers; I hiked into prairie. I had no phone reception, much of the time, and anyhow, my husband was in Peru when I was in Texas, and in Papua New Guinea when I was on the road trip.

Nighthawk roosting, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan

I was mildly conscious there was some danger in what I was doing. There always is, for a woman travelling alone. I was always alert; not on edge, but alert. Once or twice I returned to my car earlier than I’d planned, because something made me nervous: a pickup truck stopping, its driver watching me, that sort of thing. Once or twice I didn’t stop at a location I’d meant to, because who was already there concerned me.

Then this week I read stories from birders who are black, men and women, about their experiences in the field: about the suspicion they often are met with. How they are watched, and sometimes followed, and challenged. How having the police called can so easily outweigh the pleasure of birding. What are they doing, with those binoculars or spotting scope or camera?

I thought about the slight extra alertness I had on those trips, and the few times I listened to instinct and didn’t bird. What if every day was like that? How many challenges or scrutiny would it take to stop me birding entirely? How much fear?  I think of the joy and delight birding has brought me in the fifty years I’ve been consciously doing it, and what I would have lost if I’d been driven away from it.

Racism mars lives – destroys lives – in worse ways, without a doubt. But the scream of an osprey or the chatter of tree swallows – and the ability to stop and watch and listen– should belong to everyone. I am doing my best to simply listen to and learn from the voices calling (again) for change, because I know much of what is behind these valid and overdue demands is outside of my experience. But this one small thing isn’t.

I don’t know, yet, how – or if – I can help bring about change. But I can ask how. I can try. That’s what I thought about today, while the yellow warblers sang.

Catching Up

“Retirement” still seems to involve twelve-hour days.

Posts have been few and far between recently….my apologies.  Here’s why.  I’ve just finished printing and framing twelve new versions of graphic prints, to be included in atepsave1 cutout351 display of eighteen of my works that I’m hanging next Wednesday.  I also completed Empire’s Hostage, Book II of the Empire’s Legacy Series, this week, prepped the files for printing, and sent them off – just waiting now to get the first proof edition. cover ebook under 2MB smaller This was also the last week of the on-line university course I’ve been taking, on the landscape archaeology of Britain…and then there’s been the community newsletter, the community herb garden, retirement parties to attend, books to edit, the kitchen cabinets to prep for painting (next week!), and all those little things – like grocery shopping and meal prep and time with friends – in-between.

“Retirement” still seems to involve twelve-hour days – I’m usually started on the day’s work a bit after 7 a.m…..and it generally continues on to about 7 p.m.  I’m still fairly reliant on my on-line calendar to remind me what’s next to be done. The huge difference is that I’m doing exactly what I want to, most of the time, and an hour-long bike ride to pick up my library books and a liter of paint is multi-tasking – exercise and errands in one – but it’s FUN.  And if I feel like taking a day (or more) off, there’s no-one to tell me I can’t, or shouldn’t…hence our week in Cape Cod and the White Mountains at the beginning of the month, a fairly last-minute decision. (But if we were ever going to see Bicknell’s Thrush, it had to be done. I’m pleased to say we were successful.)

I’m going to drop the pace for a few weeks, though: it is, after all, summer.  There are outdoor concerts to attend (weather permitting, in  changeable and stormy Ontario this year), books to read….and cupboards to paint. I need a break before I start writing Empire’s Exile, Book III, plus there are a few other projects that have been on the back burner…and in the fall I start a new university course that will help with the background for Exile.  I will, of course, keep everyone updated on the release and promotions for Empire’s Hostage, but also, I hope, some other posts…I miss it!

To my Canadian readers, have a safe and fun Canada Day weekend, remembering that Canada 150 is also Turtle Island 15,000. We have a lot to celebrate, some things not to, and a lot of work to do.  Happy July 4th to my US readers: stay safe:  Nolite te bastardes carborundorum; and to the rest of the world, whatever season it is, enjoy!