Most birders have a “spark bird,” some rare, gorgeous or exotic creature they spot in the wild that hooks them forever on birding.
For Julia Zarankin, it was the common red-winged blackbird.
That lowly bird struck her as magnificent the first time she noticed it. It had “unexpected vermillion patches” on its wings and a sound “so primal it left me marveling: this was as close as I’d ever stand to dinosaurs.”
This sense of wonder in the ordinary permeates “Field Notes From an Unintentional Birder,” a thoughtful, engaging and sometimes humorous memoir that documents Zarankin’s evolution from shy novice birder to confident expert.
Birds and birding are the backbone of this book, but the memoir also traces Zarankin’s metamorphosis from prickly, anxious perfectionist to someone who grew comfortable in her own skin.
“I discovered birds when many things in my life seemed disappointing,” she writes. Her marriage had collapsed, the career she had worked toward for more than a decade bored her, she had returned to Toronto, the city she had grown up in but did not love. She was looking, she said, for “something that will … bring me peace, without having to do yoga.”
Birding was something she tried on a whim. It didn’t take right away — she was intimidated by other birders, some of whom also called themselves beginners but “what they really mean is that they have a hard time distinguishing ducks in eclipse plumage.”
Whereas she was a true beginner, delighted by blackbirds and mallards and referring to a killdeer as a “deerkill.” She mistakes a green heron for a hummingbird — sort of like “confusing an elephant with a marmot.” She can’t find anything through binoculars. But still, she presses on.
Born in the Soviet Union, Zarankin spent her childhood shuttling between Odessa, where her grandparents lived; Leningrad, where her mother studied; and Petrozavodsk, where her father worked. “I was already a migratory species before I knew such a thing existed.”
She did not come from an outdoorsy family — their passion was symphonic music and ballet. She excelled at neither, and so she gave them both up. It was excellence or nothing with her, until birding. Birding, she writes, taught her “to befriend failure.” Nobody cares if she spots the bird she headed out to see. Nobody cares “whether I’ve seen one bird or 150.”
Her bird descriptions are witty and apt. Red-breasted mergansers have “spiky, Edward Scissorhands hairdos.” A cedar waxwing “has a black eye mask — almost as if it’s wearing a fetching pair of Ray-Bans.” The white-fronted goose has a white circle around its bill, “as if the goose had dipped the front of his face in whipped cream.”
Birding, she realizes, is a great instruction for life. “Progress is incremental. … We showed up, we paid attention … we listened, we hoped, we imagined, we waited.”
And if we are very lucky, we might see a hummingbird, or a green heron. Even if we don’t know the difference, we can feel awe.
Field Notes From an Unintentional Birder
By: Julia Zarankin.
Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre, 255 pages, $18.95.