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My unexpected pastime

Posted on January 18, 2018 by Maple Creek

Dominique Liboiron

Birdwatching – it’s a pastime I never thought I’d be interested in. Ever. I used to think you had to be a woman in your 70s or 80s to enjoy looking at birds. It turns out I was wrong.
I was introduced to birdwatching in 1999 by Terra. She was my neighbour and a biology student who took birds very seriously. How seriously? Instead of partying like most university students, she’d stay home Friday night to learn her bird calls. She did this by playing a CD of bird calls and memorizing each species.
To be honest, I thought this was a little strange, but Terra was so passionate about birds it was hard not to be interested in what she had to say about them. I like hearing people talk about subjects they find fascinating so one time when Terra stopped in for a visit I whistled a bird call I couldn’t identify.
“Do you know what species makes that sound?” I asked. “Hmm,” Terra answered, “it sounds like a white-throated sparrow, but I’m not sure. Hang on, I’ll go get my CDs.”
She returned with her collection of bird CDs and quickly determined it was indeed a white-throated sparrow. Then, she played me all her favourite bird calls and told me about her more memorable birdwatching adventures. But I still never thought I’d ever be a birdwatcher.
At the end of the semester, Terra gave me a guide book to the birds of western North America. I thanked her, but deep down I doubted the book would be of any use to me. However, a few years later I got a summer job in the Cypress Hills and for some reason I brought Terra’s bird book with me. That’s when my competitive nature took over.
Most bird books have a checklist at the back where people can mark which species they’ve seen. I noticed Terra had checked off all the species she’d seen and this was no small number because her summer job in high school was to count songbirds in the boreal forest of northern Alberta where she was from. However, I also noticed she hadn’t seen many prairie birds. There were no checkmarks next to species like the sage grouse or the western kingbird. It became my mission to check off more birds than Terra. I figured I could beat her total because of the variety of grassland birds that live in and around the Cypress Hills.
It took almost 10 years, but I finally checked off more birds than Terra. I even sent her an email to brag. She laughed and said birders are notoriously competitive. As proof, Terra said that in the years since she’d given me the book she’d added to her list. In other words, she was telling me she still had me beat.
Out of all the birds I saw during those 10 years, I can’t say I have a favourite. There are some birds I like and others that get on my nerves. I don’t like blue jays. Sure, they’re brightly coloured and interesting to watch, especially the way they stash peanuts, but their high-pitched squawking is loud and irritating.
What I like most about birdwatching is seeing a new species for the first time. I also like taking pictures of birds, but not all birds behave the same way and this can make photographing them difficult. Larger birds like hawks, eagles and owls don’t tend to spook easily as long as you don’t get too close. For example, snowy owls will sit in the same spot a long time without moving, often on power poles. This gives me a chance to take several pictures.
On the other hand, small birds are in almost constant motion. Take chickadees for example; it’s rare for them to sit still for 30 seconds. When a chickadee comes to a feeder, it will pick at the seed, preen its feathers and chirp at another chickadee all in the span of two or three seconds. To complicate matters, a chickadee moves quickly – every motion is done with speed and urgency. For each picture of a chickadee I get there are probably five or six, maybe more, that I miss.
As many of you know, chickadees are friendly birds and will come quite close. Every winter, I see pictures on social media of people who’ve taken the time to get a chickadee to eat out of their hand. My plan is to feed a chickadee that way and to take a picture. I’ll send it to Terra with a note that says, “Try to beat that.”

One aspect of birdwatching I like is taking pictures of various species. This slate-coloured junco spent a few weeks in Maple Creek this fall before continuing its migration south; some juncos will fly as far as northern Mexico for the winter.

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