The heaviest piece of gear she carried were the binoculars, housed in an artificial leather case, lined with red velvet. She didn’t mind the imitation leather. When they were made, it was simply a cost-saving measure, but now there was an environmental side to the choice. It wouldn’t have been right for her birder binoculars to be housed in the skin of another animal.
They were a slightly outdated set, a hand-me-down from her grandfather, though why he’d had it, she wasn’t sure. She didn’t know what hobbies he would have had that warranted binoculars; she didn’t know what hobbies he’d had, period. Besides golf. But a golfing grandfather was practically the default at this point. And really, how much could binocular technology have improved in the last 50 years?
Besides the binoculars, she had a small field guide in the binocular case. It too was out of date, though she didn’t keep it on her for any practical purpose. She could identify almost all of the common birds on the continent offhand. The guide was more of a talisman at this point, something pretty to look at.
It was a book very similar to this one that had sparked her interest in the hobby at all. In that dusty second-hand bookstore, with her chin practically resting on the counter, she remembered how all the drawings of birds looked so lifelike. She had never seen a bird up close, never really looked at one until seeing these drawings laid out in front of her. At that point, her knowledge of birds was limited to her aunt calling out, “redwing blackbird!,” when they went on walks together that rounded near the woods. Most birds were just streaks of brown or black, maybe a flash of red or yellow, a spec on the branches of the ash trees, a daylight shooting star.
This was something different. How had anyone gotten all these birds to sit still for so long to draw them like they had, she wondered? Having been so little when she found that book, she never found it again. The contents had made an impression, but not the title. Instead, the book she carried was nothing more than a tribute. An idea of the seed that grew into the tree. It wasn’t until many years after this that she got into birding herself. She’d gotten used to the mornings, while the kids were still little, with the dogs running laps around her legs. That was her time, to start the day on her terms, the sun be damned.
After the kids went away, she kept the mornings. Without lunches to make, or dogs to walk, she took to reading. There were still many mornings where she would finish a book before breakfast, but something about it was missing. It was then she found the binoculars, and realized what she had wanted to do.
It was August now, though the weather would lead you to believe otherwise. This morning, just after dawn, was perhaps the only part of the day that would be under scorching. Regardless, the Redstart migration had began, and she would be there to help track it. Redstart migration started early in the year, and this had only gotten earlier as the years went on. Because of the changing climate, they rarely dipped this low in the country anymore. It was simply too warm for them; ‘And me,’ she thought.
Redstarts aren’t rare birds, per-say. However, their population had started to get slightly smaller, shrinking marginally each year. In a notebook, in her left back pocket, she kept tabs on all the birds that she saw but couldn’t identify, to determine their species later. This included a brief description, size, shape, color etc, as well as notes on how they’d behaved. Without the context for these being birds, anyone who found this notebook would think she was an advanced people-watcher. “Small in stature, slightly nervous walk, seems to look to the sky intermittently for signs of danger.”
Oddest of all were her descriptions of their calls. Written out in its own sort of queer version of English, she described the tonality, cadence, even the pitch of a call. These were useless to anyone but her, only translatable as music in her mind.
She’d also add tick marks for multiples she saw, which all went into a larger notebook she kept at home. This data wasn’t exactly scientific, but she assumed it had gotten some use in the societies she sent it off to. They always sent her a nice email back, though that was about it.
She had made about half her usual lap of the pond by now, already at the Southern edge of the water. Geese milled about, eating grass just beyond the dirt shore. A turtle left the log it had been perched on, falling ungracefully into the water before swimming away like a stone skipped in slow motion. Redstarts preferred the higher branches, making them difficult to spot by the naked eye, though they could often be found flying near ponds, catching the flies in mid air like microscopic hawks. If she would find them, they’d be here.
A goldfinch called from an unseen roost. The purple of the sky had almost fully receded from the dawn, whose pink and yellow tendrils stretched across the horizon like an endless fire. From her spot on the South pond, she was in a clearing, probably cleared by the parks service to make a spot for barbecues and parties. Behind her was a path, which had runners on all times of the day, though most ran in the earliest morning or just before dinner. Some young men, probably around thirty, came back towards the path carrying little cameras attached to huge lenses, the size of telescopes. The lenses were wrapped in camouflage, like the barrels of rifles slung across the backs of hunters. She looked up, beyond the trees overhead, binoculars still in her case.
She'd never been hunting, though she had shot a gun before. It was practically unavoidable in this end of the country. Just shooting rounds into the distance, no target in particular. In hindsight, it hadn't been exactly a safe activity, but it had seemed benign enough. She'd been invited to go hunt once, by an overzealous boyfriend of hers, who didn't last long. Apparently he'd thought that seeing him kill something would somehow endear him to her, as if he was beyond the force of man.
Birding was its own odd form of exerting control over nature, though not nearly as violent. Did other animals seek to classify and name the species they came across, or was it a purely human drive? Perhaps, to early humans, the idea of naming something made it seem less frightening, and once a classification system had been devised, the world could be made less unknown, and more within our grasp. These Ash trees would last long after they had been known as that, and throughout all that time be none the wiser for having had a name.
At the edge of the purple, the Moon seemed to hang just overhead. Half full, the white side sagged low, like a bowl full of water. ‘Wasn’t it unusual for the moon to still be out, now?,’ she thought. Thinking about it now, she couldn’t remember when she’d last seen the moon and the sun sharing the same sky. Something about the idea seemed perverse, as if it defied understanding. Of course, the sun and moon weren’t the polar opposite forces humans had imagined them to be in the past. As celestial bodies, they held little connection except in their relation to the Earth where they seemed absolute.
The sun was a flat circle. Glancing past it, it sat bright red as if resting on the tree line above her. In the distance, the goldfinch called. She found a bench and sat down. The bench put her faced away from the water, into this vast open space, devoid of people and purposeless for it. There wasn’t much else of a place to be. Like a fisher, she’d cast her line, and now patience would be the game. She would see no birds that day, only feel the dawn unfold for her, and her alone, on bench in a blank and barren field.