Showing me the bird

I keep hoping that Birding for Dummies might come out one of these days. It would be exactly the kind of bird book that Sam and I need.

I keep hoping that Birding for Dummies might come out one of these days. It would be exactly the kind of bird book that Sam and I need. Now that our clearing is rustling, fluttering and chirping with whole armies of birds, we’d like to be able to tell who is who. Otherwise, it’s a bit like watching a movie and not knowing what roles the actors are actually playing.

Yesterday, a whole flock of small birds hopped around the bare shrubs right by the cabin, making for an easier than usual birding session. There are not too many blinds out there with such comfy furniture. Sam and I sat on the couch, clutching our two fairly useless bird books, and craned our necks to get a good look at the little critters. The juncos and white-crowned sparrows were easy to identify. Even we can tell who they are without consulting our guide books. It was the pretty stippled one though that was a bit of a mystery. Brownish, with a reddish tail.

“Oh, that’s a thrush,” I said confidently, then added cautiously: “I think.”

“But there’s quite a few of them. Aren’t they a bit small for a thrush?” Sam pointed at the thrush picture in my book, which bore a fleeting resemblance to the birds outside. The thrush-like birds hopped and kicked at the dirt with the same hectic movement as the sparrows. Do thrushes do that? Our bird books were silent on this point.

“Maybe they’re sparrows? But what kind?” I looked at the colour pictures of sparrows in my book, none of which looked even remotely like the reddish-tailed birds outside. Who had a greyish head with almost yellow spots on the cheeks, it seemed.

Sam consulted the pictures in his bird guide. It is a much better book than mine, its only disadvantage being that the colour plates are sprinkled in here and there, so that by the time we’ve found the pictures we’re looking for, the bird is usually well on her way to the central Yukon. This time, however, the birds co-operated.

“Fox sparrow – that’s him!” Sam pointed to the picture, which showed three varieties of fox sparrows.

“The rusty one, maybe. But the cheeks look different.” I shot another look at the twitching bird outside. “He’s moving his head too fast, I can’t really tell if he has yellowish patches on his cheeks. Something light-coloured.”

“Ah, here we have it: the Yukon fox sparrow. The only race of fox sparrows readily identified, bright rusty coloured … no mention of the cheeks. On the picture, it’s light-coloured more towards the neck.”

Disgusted at us, the books that never mention the particulars that I notice, and the birds for sporting particulars in the first place, I closed my book. “OK, sounds good enough. Yukon fox sparrow it is. Let’s go and see what else is flying around out there.”

The snow has almost gone in our south-facing meadow, which looks like hair does when you first get out of bed. Everything is limp and matted, plastered down, except for the perky stonecrop that points its fleshy leaves up at the sky. Ants were crawling around, looking slightly confused and befuddled. Maybe their first outing after the winter? I squatted down and broke off a few fat stonecrop leaves, put them into my mouth. Not much of a taste sensation, maybe slightly reminiscent of cucumbers – but at least, at long last it was something fresh.

I scanned the vegetation for anything else to munch on. The alder catkins I had already tried before. Too much like eating wood for my taste. A cloud of yellow pollen released as I tapped them with my finger, while on the ground, rustling between decaying leaves, the flock of sparrows was looking for – what? Old seeds? It always amazes me that they time their migrations just so, that they are able to find enough sustenance in this still largely snow-covered landscape.

Kick, hop, look u p and down, peck, kick, hop. It looked quite similar to Sam and I leafing through the bird book, I thought. Busily, the small birds ate the things the land offered to them as it awakened slowly, stretching itself after its long sleep.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who

lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.

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