Above: One of my favorite sketches from my 2009 Fake Journal (see it all in a video clip, and in posted scans here). Schmincke pan watercolors over Ziller Glossy Black Acrylic ink (dip pen), on water resistant pages in an Alvin Field Book.
The other day, after seeing my bird-filled 2009 fake journal online someone asked me where I found all those birds to draw. (The person was from Minnesota.) I wrote back telling her my some of my favorite places to go and look at birds in the Twin Cities—places where I can always count on a bird being present when I need a bird fix, which is actually at least once a day.
But her question made me think about the issue of "finding" stuff a bit more. My friend Linda once told me about a part of the brain (can't remember what it is called) where you can actually input things you want to look out for and it will hold "that thought" and see that item EVERYWHERE. So maybe you are looking for 66 Mustangs, or fire hydrants, or odd typographical signs, or, in my case BIRDS. Because you have set up your internal spotting engine to see those things you'll find an abundance of them. (You can actually do this in a general way too, by just suggesting that your brain look for visual journaling options and voilà—everywhere you look!)
The inescapable truth is that I am incapable of inhabiting the earth without being on bird watch. The other day, walking down the deserted streets of St. Paul (it closes down after office hours) to Pop! with my friend Roseanne I had to stop and take photos of a pigeon. (I didn't stop and sketch it because I didn't want to subject Roseanne, or the friend we were meeting, to a wait; and I was hungry for my pulled pork sandwich with citrus barbeque sauce.)
It is true I have about me the air of an ever hungry carnivore and any slight movement might mean food. (That part of my primal brain is definitely alive and kicking in overdrive, in part because of early priming for a life of observation.) Every little flit and flutter can draw attention. But I look at birds for other than gastronomic reasons (or reasons in addition to those). I have always found their ability to fly mesmerizing. I have always found their fluff to weight ratio intriguing. They are soft, delicate, and yet very sturdy (one can always count on them for metaphors because of that).
I had a budgie when I was a pre-teen. (Boy I loved that bird.) To hold a bird is to hold something greater than the bird. It's like holding the whole sky—the promise of another possible existence. (This works best with songbirds, but it also is true of ducks, geese, and of course raptors.)
And then there is their dinosaur past. Can anything be more compelling? Look in their eyes, look at their heart beating, look at the engineering of their skeletons. Birds make sure we never forget wonder. Let's not even start talking about feathers.
So now you can begin to see why the other day, walking through the construction zone that has become downtown Minneapolis, I didn't stop to sketch any of it, but when a small sparrow darted past and balanced for a few moments on the edge of a cement divider I stood captivated, soaking it all in (no time to get the book out), while people everywhere walked around me. No other creature can hold motion still like a bird that second before flight.
I feel a metaphor about life coming on, but I'll breathe instead.
With this background, this habit, how can I not see birds everywhere? If you want to see birds everywhere you can too. You simply need to look. And you need to be willing to stop.
The next time you go to a grocery store, get out of your car and scan the parking lot. Where is the garbage dumpster? Are you anywhere near a body of water? You should find some gulls. Gulls are infinitely interesting, and because they hang out as survivors, scavenging what man has left, they are often injured and adapted in ways that are (well, here comes another metaphor)…
Zoos. Sure there are birds as constant residents at Zoos, but if you go to the outdoor enclosures where the other residents live you'll find local birds stopping by for free meals from the remnants of the residents' meals. Brave little sparrows, cheeky blue jays, and brainiac crows.
Golf Courses. When I was a child my father used to take me golfing with him. I would go to a later hole (I don't recall the number) where the Yarra River bent into a nice dimple of marsh. I'd sketch Ibis (3 or 4 types), moor hens, and willie wagtails until he showed up again. Then it was off to school.
Paris. The best pigeons in the world live in Paris. I used to think the best pigeons lived in Milan or some other Italian city. In 2006 I learned that the best pigeons live in Paris; oh, yeah, there are some neat buildings in Paris too, but the pigeons—oh, the pigeons.
When I walk to the local Vietnamese restaurant for take out (or to eat in) I am always looking for birds, always willing to stand and watch, and sketch.
That's all it takes to find birds: a willingness to stand and wait. They will come. And if they go, they come back. It just takes a little bit of patience. And a willingness to wait. Where else in your day can a few minutes of waiting produce such joy, activate so much wonder? It is so worth it. Leave 10 minutes early for every meeting and you will always have a cushion for birdwatching. You will find your favorite spots because you watch and remember.
One of the saddest things to see on my walks or bike rides is a person talking on a cell while pushing a child in a stroller and walking a dog. That person is missing out three-fold. That plugged in walker misses nature on a personal level, misses nature on a child's level by not interacting with and observing the child, and misses nature on a canine level (everyone knows what I think about that!). We all need to cultivate a willingness to stand and wait, or even walk and watch.
Below is a short note I wrote to my update list in 2006. It will show you even more clearly how my every moment is about birds. (Oh, I do notice dogs too, but that's another story.) Read it and then go find some birds. You'll find that you walk with a lighter step and better posture afterwards. And you won't be able to stop smiling.
October 25, 2006
I have been smiling all evening. I cannot stop smiling.
I do not keep a bird life list (I did when I was about 12, but when you live in Australia and every tree holds 43 new species it gets a bit overwhelming, even for the great list keeper!), but if I did this sighting would be a new one. And an exciting one.
Today I was walking along the West Bank of the Mississippi River just below the West Bank Campus of the U of M. There were about 60 Canada Geese on the walkway and bike path, and ONE adult blue morph Snow Goose.
At first I just thought, hey that bird's got a funky face (white), but instantly I was struck by the pink bill and pink legs (which in a crowd of Canada Geese really stands out!).
The fact that it was mostly brownish gray threw me because snow geese are supposed to be white. But then I remembered that they have different plumage when young. I thought it was a bit big to be young. And the bill was already pink, and, and. . . But I figured all would be explained when I got home. (And it was, my guides reminded me of the blue morphs.)
I have not seen a snow goose of any sort in the wild before, so I was quite excited to see it. It was feeding with the Canada Geese and very testy if they came within its comfort zone, which seemed oddly shiftable.
Happily it was with some of the younger Canada Geese from this year's crop and they are all used to me so I was able to stand within 6 feet. Right there, two Canada Geese away from a grumpy adult blue morph snow goose. 15 minutes. I could have stayed longer but it was cool today and the West Bank is in shadow late in the afternoon and finally I had to walk away.
People were speeding by on River Road (and they are only supposed to go 25 mph!) not even slowing down to see it! I wanted to stop people and shout (which the geese wouldn't have liked at all).
When I told Dick about it he mocked me, mimicking me: evidently I was so excited that I was talking with my cartoon voice in hyperspeed. But I kept smiling. I'm still smiling.
This goose has been really traveling (probably part of why he was grumpy!) Just the thought of this bird flying all that way, probably from Hudson Bay, it's so amazing.
OK so some of the Canada Geese have come a long way too, but I see them all the time. And OK I probably have bird flu all over my shoes, but isn't it wondrous? I don't even know if I'll be able to sleep tonight.
OK, so now I'm beginning to sound like a nine year old working on a life list, but it has been a very good day.
Before I got to the geese I spent 20 minutes standing on the Washington Avenue bridge watching the gulls circle and spin in the late afternoon sunlight (which was BRILLIANT today).
I didn't tell you yet that last week, on my side of the river there were two turkey hens! They were just walking down River Road (part of which is shut because of the Bridal Falls bridge renovation) and a man came barreling by on his bike with his phone to his ear and didn't even miss a beat or notice, or stop, or anything, I just heard him keep on in his rather boring conversation.
Do you know how big wild turkey hens are????? Some people need to take a breath and disconnect from the digital!
Additional tracking and research (talking with neighborhood dog owners) turned up info on where they are hanging out on the flats. More sketching fun!
Benjamin Franklin suggested the wild turkey for our national bird (I'm not sure why, but they are very smart as I've had dealings with them when I've been tracking and have friends who bow hunt them).
Speaking of national birds there are bald eagles also down on the flats. I first spotted one the snowy spring after Dottie died. Now that is an interesting shadow to pass over you along a snow bank! You look up with a start.
And a couple weeks ago I was driving along with my friend Tom, well he was driving. We were on 94 going home from viewing the Russian Museum's current exhibit (excellent stuff, you should go see it, beautiful portraits, not all comrades and propaganda) and I looked out my window and saw a Red Tailed Hawk take a Rock Dove right out of the air at my eye level, which was tree-top level where it was flying. Nature is always putting on a show.
There is so much bird life to sketch at this time of year. I hope you are enjoying it all. I hope your fall has been full of geese sightings, duck sightings, birds of any sort.
I can't stop smiling.