Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The voyeurism of bird-watching

It was a gray weekend here, with soft light. Tiny hyperactive, colorful songbirds are migrating through, but because the leaves have just begun to unfurl on the trees, spotting them is a tantalizing business. My ears have trouble distinguishing the sounds of one bird from another -- all that tzeezting and chipping high in the treetops -- so now I find myself compelled to stand and gaze through binoculars into the foliage, waiting for somebody to appear. And when they do, they take my breath away. So many impossibly colored and patterned warblers and orioles and small flitting things that I have never seen before in my life, vivid fast-moving flashes of tangerine, yellow, blue. I've never been able to grasp the urge some people have to hunt, but now I wonder if the thrill I feel of standing looking, scanning the scene, and locking on is somehow the same. I still can't imagine pulling a trigger, though. I can only imagine being awestruck by the beauty that is all around us if we can just find a moment to look for it.

And what a strangely voyeuristic compulsion it is to look for birds. It's spring, so there is a lot of nest building, strutting, puffing, preening, egg minding, and feasting on blossoms going on. A whole universe of activity, social arrangements, journeys. They don't know I can see them through my binoculars. They go about their busy tasks -- gathering the perfect twigs, snatching minuscule insects in midair, showing off their splendid plumage in an attempt to impress a mate -- with no idea that I am there, watching. Through binoculars on a cloudy day, a mourning dove in a cypress tree, who would be so easy to ignore because she is just like all those other doves I've seen before, is a work of art. She blinks gently, and the fine frosty pale rings around her liquid black eyes make her look innocent, fragile, and tender as she debates whether the strand of dried grass she holds in her beak is worthy of her nest.

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