In Fairbanks a few weeks ago, I spent a morning walking through Creamer’s Field with other board members of the Alaska Wilderness League. Several other board members were birders and brought fancy binoculars and cameras. Early July is quiet for Creamer’s Field; it is the several weeks between migrations north and migrations south. Still, there is a handful of resident sandhill cranes, and we watched them through our lenses, and listened to what I learned was a yellow warbler, watched sparrows fly, and found a Savannah sparrow sitting on top of a flower.
For those of us who are not birders, or who only aspire to be birders, the classification was more challenging; we relied on the trained eyes among us. Ive found the idea of birding difficult. Birds come and go quickly, so often at a distance, and I don’t know what I’m seeing unless it’s at the feeder outside my window, or it’s large and iconic like an eagle, a seagull, a raven. The birders even pulled out their iphones and opened up the iBird app to call the birds using the sounds recorded on their phones.
We took a detour into the Alaska Bird Observatory and by chance had the chance to listen to Sue talk, a woman who has been birding and banding birds for fifteen years. Her enthusiasm was contagious. She talked of the banded godwit she has seen return each year to within a ten meter area in the Arctic after flying non-stop each way from New Zealand (in only 8 days). She told us about the chickadee she banded that has lasted at least ten winters in Fairbanks, winters with only four hours of sunlight and temperatures regularly far below -50F. The chickadee, she explained, is a 10 gram bird which must add 10 percent of its body weight every day to survive. Toward the end of the summer, the chickadee’s hippocampus, the part of the brain related to memory, doubles in size as the chickadee stores away food throughout the forest to retrieve throughout the winter. This is its survival technique. Astonishing. I will never look at a chickadee the same way.
Sue told us of the birds who, according to their published ranges, shouldn’t be anywhere near Alaska or Canada but which are regularly appearing each year, first responders to climate change.
Probably some of my memories of her facts are a bit off, even an hour after leaving the center. But I left wanting to know more. The moment I came back to my hotel room I downloaded iBird and committed myself to reading Sibleys when I get back home.
And it occurred to me, as it does every time I encounter information like this, how important it is to spend the time to learn these things so that we can have the appropriate reverence for this bright world all around us that takes learning to see. If we do this, we will see the shimmering of beauty that is ongoing creation, and we will not be able to help ourselves; we will walk in amazement.
Do you have favorite photos or memories from your walks in nature?
Polson’s memoir, North of Hope, is out March 2013, including a lot of time in nature and a journey of music, family and grief. Pre-order your copy today!