Friday, May 14, 2010

Field Notes

Where have I been? Birding, mostly. May is the month for migrants, sweeping through the woods, fattening up on grubs and seeds. And waiting for them with mental checklists if not real notebooks are the slightly obsessed legions of birders who need to be out there tallying an indigo bunting, an orchard oriole, a veery, a night-heron, and as many different warblers as the canopy will divulge, especially today, Bird-a-thon Day, the big May fund-raiser for Mass. Audubon. So for the next week or two, at the risk of boring the uninculcated, I will send dispatches from the field, or from the bivouac, beginning with one I’m still looking for.

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O Canada

What is it about the Canada warbler? It’s elusiveness, for one thing. So far, it’s looking like another spring without seeing one. Friends have seen them. Peggy saw one that made her gasp. In a jealous pique, I accused Ed of seeing one, even though it was probably a Magnolia. Bernie, a birder I’ve been running into at Brooks, tells me where he saw one: take the dirt path along the back of the pond in the cemetery. I go. I listen for that explosive burst of sound. I stare intently for a movement in a bush. None.

In the bird book it doesn’t look any more spectacular than the Magnolia, which also has a black necklace, plus other black streaks on bright yellow. But the Magnolia is much more available than the Canada.

Then there's the Blackburnian, which is just as elusive, and even more gasp-evoking with its fiery throat, but it’s more famous, a matinee idol, a flash in a treetop; please, no autographs.

We concoct these personalities for birds—polite waxwings, affable orioles, madcap mockingbirds—and to me the Canada seems intriguingly moody, not just shy but difficult. Its song has a random quality, a jumble of notes that other warbler outbursts seem to resemble but turn out not to be.

I cling to the memories of ones I’ve seen in the past. One in a certain bush near Halcyon Pond in Mt. Auburn, pointed out to me by a birder in a satin Celtics jacket. One I stalked myself in the meadow behind McLean Hospital in Belmont. I think I spished it out—faked an alarm call, which should be against the law, but isn’t.

What is it about the Canada? It’s the only bird that makes me ask what is it about it. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get lucky.

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