Two years ago, while walking near the ocean, I heard a noise that sounded like someone prying open an old screen door. I knew it was a bird, but I couldn’t see it, nor could I identify it by its strange call. Once I got home, I did a web search. What I’d heard was a varied thrush. And from that day forward, I was a birder.
I find myself drawn in by birds wherever I go—their plumage, their calls, their flight patterns, and their personalities all intrigue me. To learn more about my newfound passion—and where to find some of the province’s best birding spots—I travelled last summer to Penticton. There, I spent a glorious day with biologist and writer Richard (Dick) Cannings, one of the country’s pre-eminent bird experts, and Dick’s son, Russell, a field biologist and writer also specializing in birds.
From Dick’s charming book, An Enchantment of Birds: Memories from a Birder’s Life, I knew that he and his two brothers, also biologists, had been born into a family of naturalists.
After rearing his own family in nearby Naramata, Dick returned in 2009 to the bungalow on the West Bench built by his parents. We gathered there, at Dick’s childhood home, after spending the morning watching Russell count birds at Vaseux Lake.
The 25-year-old has clearly inherited the family’s genetic predisposition towards bird-watching. “Birding allows normal people to make surprising discoveries on a daily basis,” he said. “You just never know what you might find on any given day.” Although he now lives in Vancouver, Russell visits the South Okanagan whenever he can. “Our place in Naramata was fantastic, but this house feels like home, too,” he said. “It has a long history of putting up bird bums like me. The old guest book reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the Canadian birding scene.”
The hot sun bore down on us as we chatted in Dick’s backyard garden. A Steller’s jay caught my eye as it hopped around on a low stone wall. Its blueblack feathers gleamed as it tipped itself over for a sip of water from the pond. Suddenly, another bird flew overhead, projecting its shadow across the lawn. Dick stopped talking, mid-sentence, and both he and Russell turned their faces skyward, spellbound. A lively debate ensued about what they’d just seen. These are serious birders.
Later, Dick and I walked through the dry grasslands beyond his garden gate, where wild horses, black bear, and deer sometimes roam. “Why have birds held your attention all these years?” I asked.
“Well, once you get to know them intimately, it makes a huge difference in how we see the world,” he said. “I love birding because it opens my eyes and my mind to the world beyond humans.”
I nodded in quiet agreement as I bent down to extract a downy feather from a patch of tiny cacti. “That’s from a great horned owl who roosts over there,” he explained, pointing to a mature weeping willow tree. As I asked father and son to tell me some of their favourite birding spots (see page 26 in the Spring 2012 issue for their answers), I realized that I, too, had become a “bird nerd.”