My new ‘patch’ is the Arboretum of the university, 400 acres, more or less: a combination of wild woodland, old field community, mostly at the shrub stage of succession, hedgerows that have grown up along old fence lines, and managed plantings. There are many, many ecotones, which are usually rich birding; there is a small pond, a couple of small streams, and a lot of trails. On an early May day, it takes me between two-and-half to three hours to walk my route.
One hundred and eighty-seven species of birds have been seen here, according to e-Bird. I’ve seen forty-four, so far, this spring, and migration has barely started. Long ago, in another life, my husband and I were young birders with flexible work-weeks: we could take a couple of days off in the week if we worked on the weekends instead, and so for much of May, for several years, that’s what we did. We’d spend those two days mid-week at Ontario’s birding hotspot, Point Pelee.
And I am very glad we did. We learned so much, from some of Ontario’s premier birders – Tom Hince, Alan Wormington, Paul Pratt. We saw the fall of warblers on the trees at the tip, birds almost dripping from the trees, back in the days when that happened, before habitat destruction in the wintering grounds and climate change altered the numbers and timings of migrating passerines. One cold May morning, we walked through the woods surrounded by ruby-throated hummingbirds at ankle-height, exhausted birds feeding on the flowers of Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), the only food source available. It felt as if we were wading through hummingbirds.
But then we changed our professions, and could only bird Pelee on the weekends. Birding changed, too: more photographers, unfortunately sometimes too focused on the shot to be careful of habitat or bird; more technology – first it was pagers, to alert the holder to a ‘good bird’; then cell phones. The crowds got larger as the birds became fewer. We stopped enjoying being there, and so we stopped going.
My husband – as in my other blog Two Simple Lives I’m just going to refer to him by his initials, BD – has concentrated his Ontario birding on a local conservation area for the last twenty years. That’s his patch, and he’ll keep going to it. I birded our home province a bit more eclectically, sometimes with BD, sometimes not, sampling a wider range of sites and habitats, locally and a bit further afield, even venturing back to Point Pelee occasionally.
And then we started to spend parts of the winter in England, returning always to the same little Norfolk village and the same cottage. From that cottage, we can walk out our front door to a wide range of habitats: pine plantation, open fields, deciduous woodland, heath and fen, and the sea. I became intrigued by this type of birding: not only is it car-free, but over time, if you are paying attention, you begin to understand the relationships at play, the effect of wind direction, cloud cover, woodland management, elevation, crop rotations, predator species, other birds, vegetation type – all the natural and human influences on a biome – and how what you see (or don’t see) starts to make a pattern.
In his marvellous book A Patch Made in Heaven, author and birder Dominic Couzens says “a patch needs to be local, preferably a few minutes by car or foot….” It takes me five minutes by bicycle, twelve minutes on foot, to reach the start of the first trail in the Arboretum from our new house. It’s why, mostly, we bought the house we did. I’ve seen almost all the land birds of North America, and it makes no difference to me where I’ve seen it – if I’ve seen a golden-crowned sparrow in California, I’m not rushing off to see one in Ontario. What I want now, what I’m ready for, is a detailed and intimate observation, understanding, of one area. To contemplate what brought this morning’s juvenile red-tailed hawk into the maple swamp, where, from the boardwalk, I watched it being harassed and finally driven away by a blue jay. To consider how the nesting Canada Geese, who yesterday had five goslings, had apparently lost them all by this morning. (Mink is the probable suspect, out in the swamp.) To wonder what the black-capped chickadees were mobbing, high in the trees: nothing I could see, but possibly a small owl that had retreated into a hole. To finally see the white-tailed deer whose tracks in the mud I have noticed for days. To feel the rhythms of this piece of southern Ontario in a way I haven’t felt them since childhood, wandering unsupervised in the fields and woods with my dog, watching, listening, learning.