Bird by bird

Tonight we’re somewhere in Alabama—it hardly matters where. We’re now driving north, backwards in time from summer to early spring. Lush greens in Louisiana giving way to a fresher, earlier-spring palate in Alabama.


We spent Monday afternoon and Tuesday in New Orleans, where it poured rain the first evening and was cold and windy much the next day. But we had a nice time anyway, walking, eating, finding lots of things closed (it seems Tuesday’s the down-day there), listening to music in the park, spending a delightful couple of hours at the New Orleans Art Gallery, which has quite a fine collection.

But you can read about New Orleans in a tour book. I want to write about birds.

For some time now, I’ve thought about taking up birding—in a casual way. Some of the most interesting people I know are avid birders, but I can’t tell a sparrow from a wren. Last fall, when I wrote an essay referring to snowbirds, I realized I didn’t actually know what they were—confusing them with snow buntings. So why now, when my “life list” is bound to be short because—well, you know, life—and when my eyesight is compromised by slow-growing cataracts that refuse to justify surgery, but nevertheless obscure all sorts of small moving objects? Like birds.

The first objection is akin to many hesitations I’m determined to overcome. Sure, there’s less time than there used to be. But still, there’s all the time I’ve got. Why not learn a thing or two about birds? The eyesight—well, that’s more than a matter of attitude. But big birds are no problem; I’m good with pigeons and geese. I’m going to work on using binoculars. I’ve never had a good relationship with binoculars, but the other day I tried some that Jack bought a couple of years ago. They’re so much better than the ones I’ve been using that I’m going to adopt them and wear them around my neck when I’m out walking and hiking. And some day, surely, my eyes will deemed ready for cataract surgery.

Of course, these are late-life concerns. The main impediment has always been the same: the daunting prospect of learning about all those birds. Their names. Their sizes and colours and what kind of beaks they have and whether they perch in trees or hover in the grass.

IMG_2337A few days ago, walking along a boardwalk over a saltwater marsh in Port Aransas, Texas, I was struck by a  black bird with an orangey-red beak and brow, and green legs. I asked a woman standing nearby, and she identified it as a Gallinula—formerly known as a moorhen, she said, implying that “moorhen” might have become politically incorrect. (Wikipedia still calls it a moorhen.) I had just seen half a dozen different waterbirds, and felt overwhelmed by their numbers and their differences. Were they males and females of the same species? Different species? When is a duck not a duck? I knew the cormorants and the pelicans, of course, and I had no trouble identifying the cardinal perched in a tree along the walkway—who would? Why did this rather homely moorhen stand out?

That’s when the name of a book that’s been recommended to me more than once popped into my head. “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” It’s more the life part I’m thinking of at the moment. I understand that the author, Anne Lamott, chose this title after her son resisted a homework assignment on birds until the last minute, and then bemoaned the lack of time. Time is an issue even at eleven, it seems. His mother encouraged him to break it down into manageable pieces. “Bird by bird,” she said. “Just do it bird by bird.”

Looking at the moorhen aka Gallinula, I thought, yup. Bird by bird. This is the one I’m going to remember today.

IMG_2344The next day, it was a group of avocets, standing one-legged in the shallow water—a handsome group, again, identified by a friendly birder sharing the platform, who explained they might be arriving from farther south, or they might be year-round residents.

New2417b (1001 of 1)When I get home, I’m going to work on the wren/sparrow thing. And I think I’ll read Lamott’s book, though it’s not really about birds. Maybe I’ll even start a life list.



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4 Responses to Bird by bird

  1. Marilyn says:

    Good for you! Ducks and shorebirds, like avocets and moorhens, are a good place to start. They don’t flit about so much. Going on bird walks is also great. Everyone is eager to point out and identify birds for you – as you’ve seen.

  2. Lynn Campbell says:

    Ric and I have friends that are enthusiastic birders, and have been for many years. They often plan their holidays in more tropical locations to seek out specific birds of countries and regions. They hire a guide to take them to where certain birds “hang out”. I’m not sure of the exact number of bird sightings they have gathered to date, but I know it is in the thousands. The Gallinula is a very interesting bird particularly its colouring… green legs!

  3. carolynrmiller says:

    I’m terrible with ducks and shorebirds. I know only the birds that come to me. If you “friend” my brother Craig on FB, you can see the bird photos taken by his wife Jean on their many birding trips. They were just in North and South Carolina a week ago and she got some great shots of warblers. (She has a camera with a huge lens.)

  4. Janet Inksetter says:

    Love this episode, Paula. And I heartily endorse Anne Lamott and Bird by Bird.

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