I remember the first time I saw an oystercatcher. I was walking on the Ogden Point breakwater in Victoria; it was winter and I had never seen one before. A black bird, the size of a crow, stood on the concrete facing the ocean. Hardly remarkable. But then I saw it had red eyes. A long, narrow orange-red beak. Was there something wrong with my vision? Was it an exotic creature off course and lost? It’s hard to capture the shock of seeing something so unexpected. Or the revelation in seeing what’s always been here.
Now, I see oystercatchers when I crest over the rocky headlands to peer at the Wickaninnish surf at Pacific Rim National Park. I see them on neighborhood beaches near Cattle Point. I recognize their siren cries as they sweep around a bay in pairs, like ambulances, filling the sky with urgency.
When I see them, I feel an affinity with them: I know you! And like my friends, the oystercatchers, I had come to know and expect at Ogden the little black turnstones at the end of the breakwater; the hooded mergansers in the curved arm of the bay, the Western grebe bobbing in the waves of the harbour’s edge.
If you have no idea these creatures exist, they don’t. If you have no vocabulary, you have no language.
I have Syrian Kurdish friends who were new to Canada and impressively learned to speak and read English virtually from scratch. I laugh to think how hard it would be for me to go to their city of Qamashli with my few belongings on my back and settle in; how hard it would be without help to learn Arabic script, among the most beautiful written languages in the world. It’s a different way of seeing. When you begin to sense the ‘shape’ of the written words, you are on your way to understanding, to a grasp of nuance and depth of meaning.
On the Zambezi…
I am ashamed I had the glorious experience long ago of being on the Zambezi River for a couple of days – in what’s now a UNESCO world heritage site, no less. We had slipped toward the end of our canoe journey into the reedy channels and oxbow lakes of Mana Pools, at the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia.
They were there, but I did not know how to see them: the Southern carmine bee-eaters; the African skimmer and black-throated wattle-eye. Pel’s fishing-owl and Lilian’s lovebird. There may have been purple-banded sunbirds and white-bellied sunbirds, any number of storks and cranes. But I had no idea how to see and no vocabulary: I did not know to read size and shape, colour patterns, behaviours, aspects of habitat. I recognized big birds with long legs watching us as our canoes slipped quietly past them. But I may as well have been blind.
I saw an elephant with one tusk cross the river in front of the canoe as I was back-paddling to avoid collision. I saw hippos poke their noses out of the water as, rounding a bend in the river, we drummed the gunnels of our canoes to call them to the surface. Those were the creatures we all wanted to see. It’s what we don’t that reflects the paucity of our curiosity, our imagination, our engagement with the world around us.
A mountain Manhattan…
I’ve met my Virgil in Karl Sturmanis, my guide to the esoteric world of stopping in mid-stride – in the middle of a woodland or beach grove, fen or marsh. When you are still, you can detect movement, read a landscape, hear songs, think how a creature not human might behave. All your senses are on alert. You forget yourself.
For most of the birds I now recognize, I recall the place, the time, the wonder of the first time I saw them.
I still cherish the surreal sighting of an American Dipper in 1992, a small aquatic songbird doing rapid little knee bends in the thick of a cataract of a thundering high-mountain stream. It was during our early hikes to Bedwell Lakes in Strathcona Park. That tiny little thing was under water facing the force of an elemental onslaught, bobbing up and down for aquatic bugs with unswerving focus, almost flying underwater against the surge. I would not believe it if I had not seen it.
Further up, in a small hanging valley, we encountered the Manhattan of cackling Stellar’s Jays, as bold and aggressive as New Yorkers, flamboyant in their blue-black crests and noisy as a traffic jam of taxis on the Cross Bronx Expressway.
On Beechey Head in East Sooke Park in 1992, we saw turkey vultures gather on the high rocks before they cast themselves on thermal currents – hoping to catch a ride south across the Juan de Fuca Strait at its narrowest point for their migration south. Those warm air currents are a major hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, or at least to the Olympic Peninsula, if you are considered a ‘majestic but unsteady’ soarer. As many as 400 can gather for the journey at this particular site on the planet.
Much more recently, on top of the Whistlers at Jasper in the Rocky Mountains, I saw the tiniest of bandits darting amongst the barren rocks : a cluster of black-masked horned larks – that quintessential of seemingly English countryside birds. Larks! At 7,100 feet! Where skypilot phlox flowers, and not much else, are unlikely signs of exuberant life in the high-mountain, brief summer warmth.
At the same moment, we also saw sandpipers skittering on that bleak peak. Their proper place, I had thought, was down by the water’s edge. On the sand. Piping. If I were sitting in a chair, I’d probably have fallen out of it.
While the horned lark is not averse to alpine and tundra, it prefers bare farm fields, grasslands, shrublands and deserts. And yet, to be out of place strikes me, increasingly, as our common lot.
We are all in the wrong place, in somebody else’s place, in a new place, or running out of space. Even being on the Whistlers trail with others of my species – Korean and Scandinavian, Spanish and American, German and French – it’s as if we are, all of us, part of a mass migration constantly moving in a shifting landscape, beating our frail wings against the prevailing winds…
Seeing what is not there…
I am still learning: this week, it was Wilson’s warblers chattering in the woodland alders and aspens on the north-side trails of Simon Fraser University.
Several times this year, we’ve visited the coots, ring-necked ducks and gadwalls at Reifel Bird Sanctuary; the marsh hawks and short-eared owls at Boundary Bay and the herons….who are everywhere. Only this fall, I discovered (how could I be so oblivious, after years of passing the dramatic wooded bluff on my right as I drove off the ferry at Tsawwassen?) that the bluff is the largest Great Blue Heron nesting colony in the province.
Karl reminds me there are many ways of seeing. He’s a biologist; an observer. He can read landscapes, has years of experience. I piggyback on his knowledge; I see because of him.
I am learning – but it is late. This year, the shocking report came out in the fall that in the past half century, the skies are emptying and birds are vanishing in North America at an unimaginably tragic rate. Three billion birds fewer now than in 1970. That’s a 29% loss among some 760 species.
My sojourns with Karl over the years are teaching me to ask where the barn swallows have gone. Why the short-eared owls that used to move like huge silent months low above the coastal grasslands are so few in number? If you look, you will find them now on the list of species of special concern identified by the Government of Canada’s Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Its numbers have steadily declined over the last 40 years, with a drop of nearly 20 per cent in the past decade alone.
I am learning. But now, the desperate skill is to recognize what I am not seeing…and what is not there.
Below are images from the Fraser River estuary – an ecological site of international importance to millions of birds – as well as images from the surrounding region.