On Becoming a Bird Watcher

It's hard to miss the iconic crested crane in Uganda.

It’s hard to miss the iconic crested crane in Uganda.

When I was a child, it wasn’t at all an uncommon experience to come home from school and find a wounded owl in the basement. The other kids in our neighbourhood in Lower West Peace were pretty sure my parents were running a zoo out of our small home.

In truth, my dad was a wildlife biologist who worked with the provincial government. Often he’d get a call from a farmer reporting an injured bird on their property. Before finding a suitable rehabilitation home for the creature, the bird would have a ‘sleep over’ at our house.

My dad was a true ‘Birdie’ at heart: he studied the mating behaviors of the ruffed tail grouse, detailing the loud drumming of their tail feathers on hollow logs, a bird warrior’s call to grouse ladies. He took us hunting for the same birds every September. On camping or hiking trips, he’d remove binoculars from his old leather pouch that strung around his neck, identify the feathered being, and then hold the binoculars up to our eyes to see the golden eagle, perched in her nest, on the other side of the river. He loved birds.

My mother also loved birds. She married my father, after all. On their honeymoon, they went on a romantic bear-hunting excursion – ha! – My mother must have known what she was in for. She also developed a keen eye and lens for birds. I can’t tell you how many photo albums of hers are dedicated to stunning birds from our backyard to Brazil to Thailand.

Oddly enough, I’ve never really cared much about birds. I’ve viewed them with indifferent eyes: the chickadees at our winter birdfeeder, the loud raven’s call from the tops of the spruce trees, the pesky blue jay, the robin’s pecking at worms in the spring.

The birds have blended into my worldview and I’ve never found them particularly interesting. Not interesting enough to stop whatever I’m doing and really take notice, anyways.

Fire finch, southwestern Uganda.

Fire finch, southwestern Uganda.

But living in Uganda over the past year, I’ve developed new eyes and a new appreciation for observing the birds. I’ll admit, some of the “exotic” birds – including the Marabou, or ‘Old Man’ stork, a long-legged white and black stork, standing nearly 1.5 meters tall, with a grotesque red throat and baldhead – easily caught my eye.

And take Uganda’s national bird and football mascot, the Crested Crane. It’s a creature to marvel at, sporting a bright yellow crest on its head, red around the eye, and massive silver and black wings that must stretch two meters wide. While digging in my garden, I’ve often glanced up to witness a grey heron stepping silently through the garden, bobbing its sharp beak forward and stabbing at worms or frogs.

Grey heron - a common visitor in my garden.

Grey heron – a common visitor in my garden.

But the small birds are also in plenty in southwestern Uganda. They’re everywhere. I hear them even before I start my day, singing through the morning fog and light, filtering in from the nearby trees and hedges. Often it’s melodic, sometimes it’s obnoxious: a series of HONK-HONK-HONK from the Hadada Ibis or the large Pied-Crow. In my garden, the birds dart in and out of the leafy plantain trees. The sunbirds, tiny things, the males with iridescent chests that catch and reflect the light, suck pollen from the intense ‘flame tree.’

Lake Bunyonyi - the 'place of little birds'

Lake Bunyonyi – the ‘place of little birds’

The best place to do bird watching in Kabale; however, is by far the lake named after them, around the edges and on the islands of the ‘place of little birds’, Lake Bunyonyi. The lake is a geographical wonder: over twenty-five islands rising up like green thumbs on a shapeless body of blue and silver water. The birds are a part of the place: hundreds of them, including the pied and malachite kingfishers, the flycatchers, bee eaters, the cormorants and, of course, the many varieties of weaver birds who, as their name suggests, weave intricate nests from dried grasses along the reedy banks, or hanging from the branches of trees.

Slender billed weaver bird -- a male hanging upside down, weaving its nest.

Slender billed weaver bird — a male hanging upside down, weaving its nest.

A pygmy kingfisher, resting in the reeds along the lake.

A pygmy kingfisher, resting in the reeds along the lake.

A Bakiga legend says that the ‘many little birds’ are actually the souls of those women who were left and abandoned to die on ‘Punishment Island’ – a tiny island in the middle of the lake with nothing but a single tree – because they became pregnant out of wedlock. This cultural practice existed up until the early 1900s when the British missionaries arrived and established a leper colony on one of the islands. Today cormorants are the only residents on Punishment Island, building their large nests in the dead branches of the only standing tree.

Cormorants make their homes on Punishment Island on Lake Bunyonyi.

Cormorants make their homes on Punishment Island on Lake Bunyonyi.

The place of little birds — and big birds, too — has, indubitably, transformed me.

The mouse bird in a flame tree.

The mouse bird in a flame tree.

I’m now a bird watcher, a bird enthusiast, and a ‘birdie’. Like my parents, I find myself stopping dead in the midst of conversation to point to a cluster of ‘cuddling’ mouse birds, or a sunbird sipping nectar in a pink bottlebrush tree.

I read a saying the other day, that knowing a bird by name distances one from the simple pleasure of watching them in flight, or listening to their song; however, I would disagree. Knowing their names, identifying them in a book, brings me closer to appreciating their beauty and behavior. Being able to distinguish between the hundreds of birds on the island requires a constant and curious eye and ear; it requires patience, and mostly, silence. After all, if we are to truly see and name the birds, we must stop and say nothing. We must observe.

Being a writer, I’m constantly drowning myself in words – written and spoken, too. Perhaps, I’m finally realizing that I need a passion that requires no words, at all. One that requires silence and eyes and patience.

Bird watching, I’m realizing, is becoming a sort of meditation, a distraction from the constancy of speech and human communication, contemplation.

Be like the (yellow vented) bulbul - stop, observe and listen...

Be like the (yellow vented) bulbul – stop, observe and listen…

The birds have nothing to say to you and if you don’t care to stop and see, they’ll simply blend into the backdrop of the urban and rural and domesticated and wild landscapes you occupy and claim as yours. But stop and give your senses to their silence: you’ll be rewarded with song and something unnamable, some kind of peace, some slice of satisfaction that’s impossible to experience when you put yourself at the center of attention.

So let the birdsong replace what you were thinking, or saying – sit and observe and appreciate and focus your thoughts on nothing else at all.

And learn their names and teach your children their names because, well, one day others just might forget.


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