It’s 5 a.m., dark and chilled. The air has that smell like a taste, a fresh salad of trees and bushes and grass, spiced with morning glories waiting in the wings for daylight and rosebuds starting to swell. Strange to be up, nursing a hot cup of tea, waiting on the porch.
Then a heap pulls up — it’s my pal, the veteran birder (“birdwatcher” to the un-cognoscenti), and I climb aboard. By 6:30, after many silent miles in the rising sun, we’re at Point Pelee, the Ontario wilderness park. Almost no one else is up and about, just the entrance guard in her cozy booth — which is the whole point: no boom boxes, no screaming kids, no Homer and Marge.
We park in the nature center lot, where a shuttle leaves for the peninsula tip all day long. But at this hour, things haven’t gotten started yet and we head off with our binoculars into the trees, following the boardwalks laid down for just this purpose: looking and listening and keeping still.
First-time birder that I am, I don’t know much, but my bud mouths instructions at me soundlessly, mostly just pointing and gesturing. There’s some fluttering in the branches off to the left — a red-winged blackbird. The telltale songs we hear mean nothing to me, until he starts picking them out, one by one from the chorus — a tanager, a warbler, a swallow. Since I wouldn’t know a sandpiper from a sparrow or recognize a rare bird if it crapped on my head, I’m just tagging along. Little by little, the hours of paying attention yield something quite intangible, though peaceful and satisfying.
A hawk flies overhead — I notice this all by myself. We come to a marsh. My friend stops, nodding ahead — a large storklike bird, perched at the edge of some water, catches sight of us and swoops up and away. “That’s a great blue heron,” he whispers. I’m stuck in my tracks, watching the slowly beating wings, the shifting colors as it moves past tall trees, the unwavering grace.
Since I’ve brought along the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds (Eastern Region) (Knopf, $19), I figure now would be a good time to study it. Sure enough, there’s the heron, with its black, white and gray plumage. The entry on Page 367 gives its description, voice (“A harsh squawk.”), habitat, nesting and range (“from coastal Alaska … and Nova Scotia … south to Mexico and West Indies.”). What a traveler, what a bird.
The sun is hot now, moving toward noon. We’ve been birding for hours, in the woods and marshes, along the sandy shoreline. Time for a quick dip in Lake Erie and then head back across the border, that line in our heads that birds, fish and other animals ignore every day.
If Point Pelee seems far, try the Birding Club that meets 7-9 a.m., the second Sunday of each month, May-November (excepting July, when it’ll be the third Sunday) at Crosswinds Marsh in Wayne County, corner of Haggerty Road and Will Carleton/Oakville Waltz Road in Sumpter Township. Wear comfortable shoes and outdoor clothes; bring binoculars and bird books. Call 734-261-1990 for more info.George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org