Your average North American can recognize 150 corporate logos without practice or effort, a statistic made especially sad when you consider this same person can’t name most of the trees or birds or insects which make up their world.
This was brought to my attention by a retired biology professor from Acadia University. Among the myriad reasons we’re causing mass extinction, he said, is the towering ignorance with which we approach the natural world. How could we possibly care about the biosphere if we can’t name its denizens? All of us can spot an ESSO sign on the highway, but do we have the first clue how wonderfully diverse our local forests or shores or watersheds truly are? Our evolutionary gifts for pattern recognition and the full comprehension of our surroundings are being wasted on Wal-Mart, while our remaining wilderness becomes a little more fragmented every day, its dwindling diversity going entirely unnoticed by a blind society.
These thoughts stuck in my mind like a splinter, reminding he constantly of my modern disconnection from the natural world I love so unreservedly. Damned if I wasn’t going to fix it.
When 2018 got going I resolved to expand my mental list of identifiable species to 150 by the end of the year, combating and hopefully displacing the corporate logos littering by underused mind. Originally I had my eye on the kingdom of trees making up the Acadian Forests of the Maritimes, but as winter wore on I became bored. It’s difficult for a novice to identify hardwoods without their leaves, so entirely by accident I began identifying birds instead, discovering to my surprise a challenging and delightful hobby. Trees would have to wait, I realized, when every spare minute was spent in my local woods, my head craned back and my camera at the ready. 2018 would be the year of birds.
I began with the easy species - those willing to eat from a bird feeder, and others so common they could be reliably spotted on short walks near home. These were the Black-Capped chickadees, American goldfinches, Song sparrows and Northern Parulas. But then spring arrived in full force it brought the warblers who would promptly fill my list. The Yellow, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Black-Throated, Blackburnian, Yellow-Rumped, Palm, Bay Breasted and Black-and-White warblers brought me a great deal of joy with their ethereal songs and explosive colours.
A curious thing happens when you start learning species names — you begin to pay attention. After a month or two of diligent study I couldn’t step outside without perking up my ears at every song, or following ever burst of birdy motion with eager eyes. This epic of life had been playing out in front of me my entire life, but never had I seen it. Sure, you hear bird songs, but often it’s white noise, audible only when someone points it out. I’m still very much an amateur in the arena of birds, but while walking or driving I’m brought to a dead stop when something interesting crosses my path. My long suffering fiancée has endured hour-long hikes that should have taken 20 minutes because I was moving at a birder’s pace.
My first 50 birds came easily, mostly uncovered near my home, but then began a summer of outdoor adventure. Even while travelling to Vancouver Island on work, I ignored Victoria City to track down the Bufflehead, California quail, Anna’s hummingbird and Band-Tailed pigeon. While alongside one of this island’s largest trees, just shy of 12 metres in circumference, I was distracted by a passing Wilson’s warbler, hundreds of thousands of times smaller than my arboreal giant and yet entrancing in its chirps and hops.
In Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, I scoured prairies of an otherworldly feel for Sharp-Tailed grouse and Western meadowlarks, Bobolink and Killdeer. In Point Pelee National Park, Ontario, I muscled my way through Carolinian jungle to photograph the Black tern, Prothonotary warbler, Barn swallow, Indigo bunting and countless others. By July, I’d hit 100 species.
Not all of these birds came easily, mind you. My first Roseate tern required a boat trip to the Tusket Islands off Nova Scotia’s southern shore. I followed researchers into the heart of their colony and sat as dozens whirled around me, some diving so close to my head that I fully expected collision. My first Hermit thrush took four hours of gruelling slog through a Prince Edward Island swamp. Its song was so melodious and beautiful that I couldn’t give up my search, even when it flew off every time I drew near. I snapped a bad picture just before sunset, elated to have finally snagged it. I was covered in mud and ridden with mosquito bites, but I can recognize that song anywhere now. It haunted my dreams for several nights thereafter.
The Common loon required a thorough survey of Mount Carleton Provincial Park, New Brunswick, and the Hooded Merganser demanded light steps through reeds and tall grass.
And then there are the ones who got away. Because this was my first year of birding, and I could not be trusted to identify birds by song alone, I only counted species I photographed. This left two birds I heard but did not see.
The first was the Warbling vireo, which I heard in several canopies of Fundy National Park, but because it prefers great heights I could never line up a shot. Even though I’m certain of what I heard, this vireo did not grace my list.
The second escapee is one I’ve wanted since my first day of birding, a species so large and noble that it was an obvious candidate for my budding obsession — the Pileated woodpecker. I searched all three of the Maritime provinces for it, even paddling to insect ridden coastal islands and enduring hours of outstanding discomfort, but time and again it didn’t show itself.
Imagine, then, the August morning in a campground of the White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire, when I awoke at 6:30 a.m. to the regular cackling of this very woodpecker. I abandoned my tent and stormed the woods in pyjamas, searching frantically and listening for another of its calls, but there was nothing. I continued my trip through these mountainous marvels with a chip on my shoulder, bitter than I had come so close.
The remainder of the year proceeded slowly, as I reached 120, 130 and, thanks to a day of competitive birding with the Island Nature Trust, 140 mid fall. Thereafter the well dried up, as the seasons turned and the bulk of our birds migrated south. My local birds were so thoroughly counted that finding 150 would require long road trips in pursuit of singular rarities, something my work schedule could not accommodate.
I finished the year with 143 species, my last being the Snow buntings soaring over our fields, their songs charming and their colours cute. I should be disappointed but frankly, I never thought I would get this close on my first try. My mission to identify 150 of the species making up Canadian ecology sparked a great many adventures and has transformed my view of the natural world. The next time you leave the house, on a drive or a hike someplace wild, take a moment and consider your surroundings. Don’t just look; see, and don’t be afraid to bring a field guide.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance conservation journalist, author and writer based in the Maritimes.