A “birder’s jackpot,” the front page of The Vancouver Sun recently proclaimed. There it was, in bold colour, a picture of the Holy Grail of birdwatching — a new species never before recorded in North America.
And it looked like a sparrow.Granted, it was a pretty little sparrow; it had a splash of yellow across its sides and big eyes. But aside from that, the red-flanked bluetail (a species from Asia) looked a lot like the common little brown birds that flit about our homes.
Yet, word of the sighting drew birders from across western Canada, all vying for a glimpse of the little feathered beast before it flitted off. Or got eaten by a merlin or a cat. Those sorts of things happen, I would suspect.
I have to admit, I was baffled by the excitement. No talons or sharp beak. No fiery gaze or strange ornamentation. The bluetail seemed a letdown, in my humble opinion. But what do I know about such things, I admit I’m bewildered by birdwatching.
I’ve long been intrigued by birdwatchers, though. The intensity with which they engage their endeavour is impressive. The only trouble is, I’ve not yet learned what the payoff is, the driving force that motivates birdwatchers to get out and watch.
I’ve seen groups of birders around Kamloops, slowly stalking along the South Thompson River, cruising the Knutsford grasslands or staked out by the wildlife reserve near Tranquille on the Lake. They are usually equipped with various kinds of visual aids, from binoculars to high-powered spotting scopes mounted on tripods. It’s clear they mean business. But why do they do it?
I’ve tried birdwatching. One year I decided it must be an activity worthy of pursuit, mostly because I love nature and nature is full of birds and it gets tiring calling every hawk you see a hawk and every duck a duck. It would be nice, I thought, to be able to distinguish the hawks and ducks, and perhaps get a couple of cool pictures along the way. What I found was that Kamloops is stuffed with crows, ravens and geese as well as robins, starlings and of course, sparrows. Yes, I found some hawks and ducks too, and spotted a few bluebirds.
But the “cool” birds seemed far fewer than the others and defied any attempt to be captured photographically.
And I could never remember which duck had green bits, or which hawk had white bits. My checklist of birds seen remains pretty short. Despite that, I think I get, at least a little bit, the allure.
Birdwatching must have an element that seeks that momentary rush that comes in instants of high achievement. So many human activities, from golf to fishing to music to coin collecting, are like that. We engage in repetitive (often frustrating) effort in search of moments of grace, split instants when it all comes together and we are rewarded with a swoon of giddiness. A wow moment.
The quest for such achievement seems universal to humanity; perhaps it’s what drives us as a species. It’s in the quest for divinity that we achieve great things. I suspect birdwatchers are doing just. They are searching out moments and that search creates reward, for both them and us. Birders are stewards of the environment, quiet champions for the planet. We learn through their watchful eyes; their effort benefits us all.
Although I still don’t get the fuss about the bluetail.