I WAS AUDITIONING hobbies. It began
with a few innocuous internet searches.
At first I made the mistake of searching
“bird-watching Toronto”: dozens of options
surfaced, from amateur groups to more
intense clubs that required something
called a “birding résumé” to be considered
for active membership. “Bird-watching total
beginner Toronto” yielded slightly more
tailored results, but many of the groups’
descriptions still seemed too advanced for
me. Each website boasted long lists of bird
names that sounded like poetry in a foreign
language: red-breasted merganser, Carolina
wren, Bohemian waxwing.
I finally chose the group with the website that sported the most colorful bird
photos and the simplest group description, run by someone named Brete. Within
a few weeks, I committed to a half-day outing and set my alarm clock for six a.m.
I had no trouble recognizing the birdwatchers when I met them at the entrance
of a park on the shore of Lake Ontario:
Cargo pants tucked into socks and signature multipocketed vests gave them away. I
introduced myself to Brete and sheepishly
admitted that I was a complete beginner.
“Not to worry — folks in our group have
varying degrees of experience. I mean,
there isn’t a single person here who can
ID all the warblers.”
“Uh . . . a warbler?” I could di=erentiate
between a duck and a pigeon, but what
“Wow. You weren’t kidding when you
“Do you have binoculars?”
I shook my head.
“That might be a good place to start,”
Brete said with a chuckle.
A kind gentleman holding a long-lensed camera, a spotting scope, and
binoculars let me borrow his spare pair,
which he alternately called his bins or
binocs or glasses.
As we walked out to the lake, people
started shouting words that I couldn’t
process: “Northern shoveler! American
wigeon! Bu=lehead, long-tailed duck!” The
binoculars wobbled in my hands. High
winds accosted me and when I tried to
focus the lenses, my eyes watered; the sec-
ond I glimpsed a bird, it dove and left me
staring at the early April waves on the lake.
“Wait, look,” Brete shouted, “Horned grebe,
over there, next to the pied-billed grebe, you
can’t miss it, to the right of the dozens, no,
hundreds of red-necked grebes out there,
and—wait, oh my God, is that a western
grebe? Are you seeing the grebes, Julia?”
My mind bobbed in and out of aware-
ness amid this sea of names. I nodded,
but my binoculars were pointed at the CN
Tower, the only thing I could safely iden-
tify on the horizon.
“What’s a grebe exactly?” I asked.
“See the red-necked grebe out there?”
someone replied. “Can’t miss it; gorgeous
rust-colored neck; look at that elongated bill!
It’s a textbook grebe, no doubt about it.”
I located the mass of waterfowl, but in
the overcast light couldn’t detect anything
remotely rust-colored, and all the bills
looked identical to my untrained eye.
On our way back to the cars, I won-
dered how many more hours of staring at
dark blobs on the water I could withstand.
Disenchanted, I prepared my exit speech
to the bird group, when someone called
out, “Red-winged blackbird.”
I almost didn’t look because the
thought of lifting my binoculars to my
eyes again brought with it a slight wave
of nausea. But somehow I managed the
trifecta of raising the binoculars, focusing
them, and finding the desired object mag-
nified in my field of vision. The bird sat
still, balancing on a cattail.
“What is that?” I gasped, nearly blinded
by the unexpected vermillion patches on
the blackbird’s epaulets. I watched as the
bird threw back its head, opened wide its
beak, and let out a sound so primal that
it left me marveling. If this bird has been
here all along, I thought, what else have I
been missing? A
Julia Zarankin lives, writes, and watches
birds with gusto in Toronto. Her writing
has appeared in The Walrus, Threepenny
Review, Maisonneuve, and Ontario Nature.
Orion in Books — short, themed
essay collections that bring
together the best writing from
Orion’s first three decades.
. To Eat with Grace
. Animals & People
. Leave No Child Inside
. Thirty-Year Plan
. Wonder and Other
. Change Everything Now