In the past six years, since I was 12, both of my maternal grandparents died, my paternal grandfather has had a stroke and moved into a nursing home, and my father was diagnosed with cancer. It was only this summer, after the stroke and my father’s cancer surgery, that I realized just how much birds and birding have helped me through very difficult times. Birding has been a distraction and a comfort for me, something that has both calmed and energized me.
In September 2009, several months after I started birding, my maternal grandfather was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given 12 to 18 months to live. It was hard to believe at the time, because I knew only happy times with my grandparents, either here in Alberta, or visiting them at their homes in New York and the Caribbean island of Nevis. My grandfather, who was a keen photographer and loved the outdoors and gardening, gave me my first pair of binoculars, which I’m still using, and also a copy of of Les Beletsky’s Bird Songs, with its digital audio player that was a tremendous help for me when I was so young and curious about birds. After my grandfather started radiation treatments, my mother flew from our farm in Alberta, Canada, to New York in November to help him.
Unfortunately, the radiation didn’t work and the doctors told my mother and grandfather that his prognosis would be even shorter. When it became apparent that it would be his last Christmas, my mother had my father, my brothers, and me travel to NYC to spend Christmas together with my grandparents one last time (he would die several weeks later, in early January). As a distraction from a very sad situation — my grandfather’s illness, his changed personality, my grandmother’s sadness — in a very small New York apartment with seven people, my father (who isn’t at all a birder) took me to Central Park for a bird walk. Although it was snowing quite heavily, we saw some good birds, many of which were lifers for me. We even walked over to the Fifth Avenue apartment building where the celebrated Pale Male lives, but swirling snow prevented us from seeing the nest.
Several months after my grandfather died, my family flew down to Nevis in October to help my grandmother sort through my his things at their retirement house, and to prepare the house for sale. Although our days were very full with clearing out, cleaning, and painting the house, I still had time to go birding every morning. While on Nevis, I added lots of species to my life list, including three new species of hummingbirds — Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Green-throated Carib, and Purple-throated Carib. I showed my grandmother many of the photos I took, and her favourite was a backlit photo I took of a Purple-throated Carib. One of the highlights of that trip was finding a female Antillean Crested Hummingbird on her nest, and also photographing it. For a 12-year-old birder, this was certainly something special.
The female Antillean Crested Hummingbird on her nest (2010),
Nevis is also the place I started this blog. Because I was taking lots of photos, and seeing so many new species, I thought a blog would be the perfect medium for chronicling my adventures. But partway through our stay, my grandmother became very sick, and then died several day later, very suddenly and unexpectedly. What had already been a difficult and sad trip, so different from our previous family visits, was even harder. Being able to go birding every morning gave some sense of normalcy to my days, and also gave me something to look forward to, especially after we found out that our return home would have to be delayed for several weeks while my parents made all the necessary arrangements. And while I started the blog at a difficult time, it has brought me so many friends and opportunities. It’s another reminder that good things can come out of terrible circumstances.
This year has been particularly hard. In April, my paternal grandfather, who lives nearby and with whom I’ve always been very close, suffered a severe stroke and nearly died. He was in the hospital for five months and recently moved into a nursing home. He is no longer the man he was — he is confined to bed or a wheelchair, and his memory and speech are almost gone. He doesn’t know me anymore, and there have been days when he’s been so agitated that it’s upsetting to see. And his stroke has changed my grandmother too, from the calm and always smiling glue of the family to someone who is now almost always sad, anxious, and distracted. It’s rather like finding out that two rocks you have been able to count on your entire life have suddenly crumbled.
Our family spent much of my grandfather’s first few weeks in the hospital with him, and after long hours of being cooped up, it was wonderful to be able to go birding in, to escape to, the nearby Provincial Park, a short walk away. The hospital had its own little oasis, too, a central courtyard with a garden, and from the window in my grandfather’s room, I could watch the Blue Jays, Black-billed Magpies, and House Sparrows that came every day. The species weren’t particularly exciting, but I realized that for patients and visitors, even a House Sparrow can bring some cheer after days and weeks spent in the same room. Keeping my grandmother company, I would sometimes bring my ABA field notebook to work on, and show her my sketches in progress.
A sketch of a Hermit Thrush I finished while in the hospital,
I’ve thought often that one of the things my grandfather and I liked to talk about, one of the things we’ve had in common, are a love of animals in general and birds in particular, and it’s painful to know that we won’t be able to talk about this and share it any more. Spring migration was in full force during much of his stay at the hospital. I’d bring my iPad to the hospital room and show my grandfather my photos. Sometimes he would laugh and smile when looking at the photos, other times he would cry and look very sad. My grandfather always loved nature and he loved to share his knowledge and experiences with his grandchildren. Now that he’s in the nursing home, unable to stand, to remember his family, or to express himself clearly most of the time, it’s hard to accept that he will never again be the person I once knew — a person who enjoyed nature, who could spend an entire afternoon watching the birds through his kitchen window. I can also appreciate how miserable he must be, unable to get around on his own and confined to a facility, unable to be outdoors where he was always happiest. Birding, and photographing birds, is a way of remembering and honouring both of my grandfathers.
Shortly after my grandfather’s stroke, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was a frightening time for my family, especially waiting to find out whether the cancer had spread. His surgery was in Edmonton, a three-hour drive from our house, and my mother was with him for the four days they were in the city; she kept in touch by telephone, but for a family used to spending so much time together because of home schooling and farming, the distance was difficult. It was rather disconcerting to be so far away from my parents at such an important time, and we didn’t have any family staying with us because my grandmother, aunts, and uncles were all looking after my grandfather. I did go birding a few times while my parents were gone, which was a helpful release and a chance to forget about everything happening. Even when I didn’t have time for dedicated birding, I was always observing birds. On my way to work every day, I would see everything from hawks, gulls, and a pair Guinea Hens crossing the road (escapees from a neighbouring farm), to a large group of pelicans flying north from the river. Almost every morning I would see an American Kestrel siting on the power line or fence post often with prey in its talons. This is one of the beauties of birding — birds are everywhere and can help distract your thoughts from times of hardship.
A Killdeer from one of my bird walks this summer,
During the difficult times my family has had to face, birding has helped to keep me strong. I’ve learned to go birding as often as I could, to make the time even when I was busy with my summer job and farm chores, because it helped me relieve stress and remind me of happier times. Especially because birding around our farm or the Provincial Park nearby means going for very long walks, I was able to lose myself whenever I went birding. Most birders know Emily Dickinson’s famous line, “Hope is the thing with feathers”. I’ve found that birds do indeed give me hope, especially at times when life seems to be rather hopeless, whether it’s the anticipation of migrants returning in the spring, or that tomorrow might bring a new species for my year list or life list or even just the sighting of an old favourite. Being out in the woods or on the prairie surrounded by birds — surrounded, as I wrote this the other month, by tens of thousands of Canada Geese and Snow Geese — I was reminded at this harvest time of the generosity and abundance of nature. That no matter how hard or ugly life can be, there is always beauty, grace, and strength in this world. That just as as winter always comes, with witherings and departures, so to does spring, with returns and rebirth.
A male Mountain Bluebird at the local Provincial Park. My paternal grandparents are particularly fond of Mountain Bluebirds,