The call of the birder

Mom loved travel.  She loved meeting people in her travels.  I’m much more shy than her, she’d be openly stepping forward, saying hello, talking about shared interests and being her gregarious self.

I really liked Costa Rica and the people I travelled with were all incredible.  I feel a little strange since my daughter and I tended to sit by ourselves more than I would have chosen in retrospect.

One of my best social moments of the trip was when we were riding up the escalator in Houston about to go through screening and some of the kids from our tour spotted us and waved goodbye furiously.  I’m sure I was waving back with an equally huge grin on my face.  What a great way to end the trip, eh?

I find that one of the best things about meeting new people is they teach me so much about old friends.

I view my relationships in the light of new details.  I discover more interesting aspects about people I may have glossed over.  In the process I learn things about myself and who I am as a person.  Meeting new friends, being open to new experiences makes one capable of personal growth.  For a shy guy, that’s a remarkable discovery.

So one of the things Mom picked up on after one of her trips - upon reflection it’s quite likely to have been her trip to Costa Rica - was a newly discovered love of bird watching.  We were driving to the mountains for a picnic with my kids when she was excitedly pointing out a couple of birds on fence posts beside the road.

“Yeah, it’s a couple of hawks.”

“That one’s a Red Tailed Hawk, and the other is a Swainsons Hawk.  Look, they’re side by side!”

To this day I have no idea if that’s a big deal or not.

For the life of me, I don’t know if she actually knew which of the birds soaring way above us were Golden Eagles and which were Bald Eagles, but she was sure excited to point out the Bald Eagles to me.

Maybe it’s too much taxonomy in school and never really being good at identifying species.  Maybe it’s just a general hatred of being pigeon holed.  But I’m happy enough to see the bird, I don’t feel like I have to know it’s name, rank and serial number.

Those people that go chasing around the world to find a rare species of bird and add it to their catalog of birds spotted – well, I suppose there are worse hobbies to have.  But I don’t get it, it’s not really for me.  I remember hearing a story where they were called “twitchers,” just being close to a bird they’ve never seen before sends them into apoplectic fits to log the find.  I giggle every time I picture it in my mind’s eye.

Until we were taking the boat to Tortuguero.  By luck, one of the birding enthusiasts sat behind my daughter and I.  “See over there?  That’s an egret.  But just to the right, that’s an immature blue heron.”

Damn her.  She just activated the scientific part of my mind.  Immature blue herons appear white, they get their characteristic blue colour from eating shellfish, don’t they?  Or am I mixing that up with something else?  Well, that’s part of the reason I have the binoculars and the camera, so let’s start figuring this out and learning something while I’m down here.

The next day we were taking boat tours up and down the river looking for wildlife.  I saw Phyllis in the middle boat and whispered to my daughter to get into that one.  A few minutes later Sarah came up and asked if she could get in too.  Awesome, you two are one of the reasons I chose that boat.  It was great to be out looking for wildlife, it was doubly good to be with the guys that brought us up the river in the first place, it was glorious to be with the ‘serious birders’.  I knew we were going to spot a lot along the way and I just knew that I’d be actually learning while we went, not just a “hey look at that one over there.”

The next two days were my favourite of the trip.  Spotting the wildlife was fantastic.  If you look through my pictures you’ll realize that I tried really hard to capture what I could.  I was so excited to see what was there.  There are a few things I’ll need to point out for you to spot.

First, if you look carefully at what I took photos of, you’ll be able to notice that I got more and more selective in my shots.  Early in the trip I shot a bunch of birds side by side.  Wide shots with multiple birds became unacceptable very quickly.  I needed close ups of one bird early on.  That was for two reasons - usually so I could look it up and identify it later and so I could remember the story of when I took that photo.  Just about all of the photos have a story behind them - if they didn’t I tend not to open the shutter!

The next thing about my photos you’ll notice is that I took less replicative photos as the trip went on.  For instance, I took an awful lot of photos of anhingas early on, and then less so as the tour went on.  Part of that is getting better with recognizing species of birds and remembering that I’d already seen one of those, I didn’t need another photo.

Third, when I did take another photo of an Anhinga later, it was to show something amazing.  I took that photo because I saw a a female atop a branch or a male drying his feathers.  This was from learning about the birds, from feeling more comfortable with taking shots, and from feeling more trust that I was going to be able to learn from Sarah and Phyllis about what I was seeing and they’d point out great moments I could shoot.

While we were staying in Fortuna near the Arenal Volcano, I woke up early just before sunrise.  I went out on the balcony - partially to not wake my daughter and partially to enjoy the lovely weather - and heard bird calls.  I snuck back into the room, grabbed my binoculars, and slipped through the sliding door again, peering through the dim light to spot what I could see.  Minutes later I snuck back into the room, pulled my camera out of my bag, and snuck back to the balcony to start taking photos of the dozens of birds that I was seeing.

An all-green parrot-like bird, yellow rings around its eyes, a red protrusion on it’s beak.  Yellow and black birds, almost a skull cap over it’s head.  My second and third hummingbirds spotted!  Soon it was mayhem, trying to see new birds, new things, hopefully get them on camera.

Oh.  My.  Ghod.

I have fallen.  I have become…  A birder.

I think Sarah and Phyllis were sitting together, talking with each other at breakfast.  I felt too embarrassed to interrupt with my horrible realization.

Right then I suddenly understood something significant.  Quite possibly one of the most important lessons of the trip.  I finally understood just why Mom had seemingly become a birder overnight after she had been on a trip.  It’s addictive, it’s interesting.  The birds are so showy, it’s so exciting to see something that’s new.  Even when you see a species you’ve seen before, you begin looking for behaviours and actions that help you understand why it lives the way it does.  I understood a little more about the world around me.

I understood a little more about my Mom.

For the remainder of the trip, I imagined my Mom wedging herself in with the “serious birders” and having endless conversations.  I imagined her talking about when she saw a Quetzal, giving tips on how to see them, learning from Sarah how to be a better spotter.  I can say without hesitation that Sarah and Phyllis would have been great friends with Mom.  They were great friends to me.  Through them I learned a little bit more about who my mother was.

Mom would have been ecstatic to have taken the picture of the butterfly on Clara’s arm.  So was I.  Mom would have loved to chat with the guys looking over the ox carts.  She would have adored spending time talking with the families, feeling energized from the kids, interested in the parents, share tales with the grandparents.  She would have loved telling stories of Winnipeg with Giselle and JP.

The trip was about loving Costa Rica.  But also about loving the people we shared it with.  This is my thanks to all of you.  You taught me much about Mom and me, about my daughter and me, about Mom and my daughter.

Oh, and yesterday I spotted a couple of magpies playing in the snow, and a swarm of chickadees, and a V of Canada geese…