by little red pen
Occasional notes on what I’ve read.
Steve Braunias, How to Watch a Bird
The Cat was a fully-fledged birdo by the time he was one. I don’t know why — I was a brand new and desperately sleep-deprived mother, so who knows what I was thinking, every thought was of shining, crucial importance, shimmering with light and meaning, ungraspable, everything and nothing, over and over and over — but I spent hours sitting on the sofa with him flicking through bird books and telling him the names of the birds. He even had a bird book for meal times, which became so thoroughly encrusted with food that we had to buy a new one. We went on outings to places where we could see birds, we kept lists of birds we had seen, we bought binoculars and guides and found websites and painted pictures and basically it was birds birds birds until he discovered bus routes aged four or so. After that it was maps and bus journeys and bus poems and bus games and visits to the bus station, and then it was briefly dinosaurs and a short stint of car names, and then geography, and now soccer. Each time, his interest has been total, comprehensive, encyclopedic and consuming.
We eased off on the birds for a while, but the interest is still there in the background, as are the birds ever and always.
Somewhere in all that birding time, I read How to Watch a Bird by Steve Braunias. Before that, I’d read his Listener columns on birds and I’d started to notice birds, to see them in all their strangeness and familiarity. Australia helped, with its pelicans and parrots and fairy wrens and crows and magpies. You’d have to be blind and deaf to not notice the birds in Australia; they’re all colour and noise and foreboding and joy, and they’re right there every time you step out the door.
So I had those two birders, Braunias and my boy, reminding me to look, to be still, to wonder, to observe. But I didn’t think to bring them together until I heard Braunias talk at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival. He was funny and cogent and even wise, and I realised that I wanted my son to read his book. I wanted the Cat to have stories and people to go along with the facts and numbers and maps and descriptions, and I got them for him, signed and inscribed by the author himself. It’s a lovely book and if you don’t have it on your Sunday afternoon bookshelf already, then your Sunday afternoons are not everything they could be.
The Cat’s verdict: ‘Pretty good, actually.’ The Cat never sugar-coats, so I’m taking that as high praise. Plus he’s quoting from it, which is the better sign really. A sample, to convince you:
Keith was very nearly a classic New Zealand birder — long and loping build, wears a beard, but came from Invercargill. He’s an accomplished artist. He lives in a house right next to the centre. It was a rather desolate spot, a sea breeze stirring the flax, and his only neighbours were birds; and yet, like me, he couldn’t drive. He hosts 12,000 visitors a year. There is a lodge at the centre for overnight accommodation — the day I arrived, a merry group of Lionesses were drying dishes and making lewd jokes.
Keith walked me towards the shore. As a bonus, there was a single white heron, white and absolutely enormous, reaching to the sky on its slender black legs. I could add it to my year twitching list of the black stilt, the terek sandpiper, and a very weird sighting of an albino oystercatcher. Feeding on the tide were 300 wrybills, about 500 red knots, and 1500 to 1800 bar-tailed godwits.
The godwits were slim — they lose drastic amounts of body fat on the long voyage to New Zealand — and small, and slow, and dazed, and greedy. Their sensitive bills probed the sand for movement. They feed on crabs by shaking the legs off one by one, and then scoffing the body whole. For dessert, they eat the legs. They had come all this way — light, precious things that witnessed cataclysmal horror, curdling temperatures, terraqueous distortions, all the rest — and I stood and watched them on a white-shelled shore on a cold afternoon. It was Friday, 15 September.
Braunias writes about birds and birders, and about himself and New Zealand too. It’s like an avian social history ethnologico-geographico-zoological guidebook memoir, but really more like a rambling walk on the seashore with a kind, wonderful, sharp-tongued friend, and what better for your nine-year-old son as he figures out who he wants to be and what he knows and what he needs to learn.
After reading the book, we took the Hoopers Inlet road home from a soccer match at Portobello. We dropped over the hill and saw the inlet plunk down in front of us, curved and graceful and quiet and full of birds. Swans, herons, kingfishers, pied stilts, spur-winged plovers, oystercatchers, paradise shelducks, ordinary ducks, pukeko, the lot. The Cat’s antennae lifted, he named each bird he saw, told stories, showed his little brother this feathered, mud-shanked, fish-catching, sand-probing, greens-foraging world. He became a birder again, and his own gentle, clever, funny self. I ruffled his hair, looked at the water, drove home.
* The pictures and captions are from a calendar the Cat made for Christmas 2009, and he would like to point out that he was not yet four at the time.