Confessions of a Nascent Birder: It’s more like hunting than doll collecting
The call of nature visits suburbia.
A strapped stack of free local newspapers functioned as a doorstop for the main entrance, and with each moving–day load I carried past, I noticed the top paper’s front–page story: a rare bird—a red–flanked bluetail—had just been spotted in 30–hectare Queen’s Park, across the street from our brand–new home. This scrap of ecological detail gave me hope. I’d never been a birdwatcher, and had generally miscast those who spent their time separating wigeons from gadwalls as nerds of the first order. But the headline held the promise of natural mystery within this new big–box suburban landscape that was overrun by truck traffic from the Fraser River industrial zone.
The term birdwatching does not quite describe the thing itself. It sounds passive, like people–watching or trainspotting, and it calls to mind retired folk in zip–off pants and floppy hats, toting around tripoded 500–mm lenses that look more like amateur astronomy gear than something to lug into a wetland. To me it always seemed a hobby for people of a certain generation and list–ticking sensibility, who would otherwise be filling shelves with porcelain figurines.
The truth is that birding (the more direct, preferred term these days) is more like hunting than doll collecting. The most recent American Birding Association checklist for North America gives tick–boxes for 976 birds. Checking off a tenth of this list would require (and develop) a monastic’s patience, while potentially imparting the sort of local knowledge–awareness of habitat, geography, predator–prey interaction and diet for the quarry in question—usually held only by expert foragers and outdoor survival nuts. In short, birding is one way to become ecologically literate.
If birders are nerds, they are the kind the world needs right now.
So the bluetail got me curious. I picked up Birds of Coastal British Columbia by Nancy Baron and John Acorn and started learning the differences between phalaropes, scaups and alcids. Halfway into the book I lingered on an illustrated page of Butorides virescens, the green heron: a compact wading bird about one–third the size of the great blue heron, and one of the few birds in the world to use tools. “A green heron will sometimes throw an insect, or even a berry, leaf or twig, on the water and wait for curious fish to come by to examine the lure.” I liked a bird that knows how to fish. I also liked the idea of standing in a marsh trying to identify whatever I could see with my new, modestly priced binoculars—but I liked the idea of a quest even better.
I needed a quarry, and the green heron was it.
Green herons range between the coasts and as far south as Colombia. The more I learned about them the more I admired them. Their undersides, as Baron and Acorn put it, are “cryptically coloured” to confuse prey; another birding site described them as “a striking bird with a velvet green back, rich chestnut body and a dark cap often raised into a short crest.” William Brewster, a 19th–century Massachusetts birder, wrote that a green heron “is at once a wary and venturesome bird, endowed with sufficient intelligence to discriminate between real and imaginary dangers and often making itself quite at home in noisy, thickly settled neighbourhoods where food is abundant and where it is not too much molested.” An adapted tolerance for loud neighbourhoods, an ability to discriminate between real problems and imaginary ones—a totemic bird for a recent migrant to the industrial–edge suburbs.
I’ve been seeking a green heron in shallow–water habitats ever since Acorn and Baron introduced me to them. My most recent effort was a birding–by–bicycle expedition with my wife and 11–month–old son to Burnaby Lake Regional Park, 300 hectares of marshland habitatâ€”complete with beaver lodges and the largest population of Western painted turtles in B.C.—smack in the middle of Metro Vancouver. It was scoured out and filled about 12,000 years ago by the retreating southern edge of the Cordilleran ice sheet that stretched from Alaska to Washington State. Now it’s a destination for shorebirds, ducks and waders like the green heron—and for birders, who have the advantage of a viewing platform to scope both shores.
We mostly saw LBJs (“little brown jobs”), pejorative birder slang for common, hard–to–distinguish perching birds like sparrows and wrens. We spent a fair bit of time determining that what we thought was a dark–eyed junco was actually a spotted towhee. Duh. From the viewing tower over the lily–padded marsh we saw pigeons and crows, a species of duck we couldn’t pin down, and three great blue herons. But no Butorides virescens. Since that day I learned that B.C. is the northernmost reach of their range, and that they have been gradually creeping north over the past 80 years. In Brewster’s day they weren’t seen north of California. By 1927 they were in Portland, in Seattle by 1939, then Chilliwack, B.C., in 1953.
Green herons don’t tolerate cold well, so rather than being the story of a successful and adaptable species, their expansion may be a clue that global warming has been shifting habitat for southern birds northward for longer than we think. The red–flanked bluetail that started my birder career is native to Asia, ranging from Finland to southern Japan. It was the first time this bird had been seen in Canada, and no one could figure out how it got here, or why; the sighting was part of a pattern last winter remarkable enough to spark comment from the American Birding Association. “Things are getting crazy in British Columbia,” wrote rare bird reporter John Puschock, noting that four rare Asian birds had shown up here in the space of a few months.
I’ve been birding several times since then and added some of the basics to my list (for starters, I now have a list): redhead and goldeneye ducks, northern flicker, belted kingfisher. Each time I’m able to identify a new bird I feel an outsized satisfaction I can’t quite explain, so I guess I’m hooked. List–ticking, at least for me, turns out not to be the nerd’s desire for a complete set, but something more like a kid’s petting–zoo thrill at making a new friend. Still, no green heron. But I’m a birder, and the quest goes on.