Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Great Learning Adventure

When Joshua was in the fourth grade, we studied birds for a month. We learned how birds fly, how their feathers are designed, how they migrate, what they eat, their physical structure, and bird behavior. We bought birdseed and established a feeder in our backyard near a large window. Every morning for a month, we watched the feeder and identified our visitors with a tiny paperback Golden Guide Book of Birds. Cardinals, blue jays, finches, sparrows, juncos -- they were all there. We became very attached to them.

One day when we were buying seed, I noticed a pamphlet about Cornell University's Project Feederwatch. The idea behind it was to connect scientists studying bird populations with people who fed birds in their backyards. If we signed up for the program, Cornell would send us the forms for recording the species at our feeders. The scientists would use our information to track changes in migration, diseases, and population. Here was serious work and we could be part of it. We mailed our application that afternoon. For the next nine years, we watched our feeders in the fall, winter, and early spring.

Thus began our love affair with birds. Over the years, we collected bird guides, birding books, and birding equipment. Joshua studied the books until he knew the birds so well that he only needed a glance at a guide to confirm his identification. We became experts on bird behavior, habits, and schedules. We could recognize their songs. On cold mornings, we huddled by the windows, watching and counting and sipping coffee. It was our little place, our very own, where we met feathered friends from faraway places. We added to this our birding walks, especially in the spring and fall, when we might catch a rare bird in migration.

Our hobby drew us to Cape May, New Jersey, a birding hot spot, the summer Josh was twelve. For a week, we sunned ourselves on the beach and ambled along trails near the ocean in hopes of a glimpse of a new species. Our bird list had grown long by then, and it was becoming clear that we would have to travel to see new ones.

For his eighteenth birthday present, Joshua planned a month-long trip across the country for birding. He research led him to plot a path across the upper Midwest to the Pacific Ocean: Rocky Mountain National Park, Snake River, Crater Lake, the Redwoods, the Oregon Coast, Columbia River Gorge, Yellowstone. His plans were specific to the smallest details. He kept lists of birds for each stop in our journey and exactly where they might be seen. He memorized the bird guides so that he didn't need to look in them to identify a species. In this way, he would recognize the bird instantly when he saw it.

There were many moments from that trip which I will never forget, but one is especially meaningful. In the Bear River Bird Refuge in Utah, Joshua and I slipped out in the early morning to see the birds. There were so many that we couldn't identify them all. We just did our best. As our car rolled slowly down the narrow lanes in the refuge, the birds rose in waves from fields and water. Thousands of them. At one point, we turned a corner and surprised a gathering of white cranes. As they rose gracefully from their resting places, they looked like clouds rising, loveliness in slow motion. I stopped and stared, unable to drive further. My mind could not quite take it in, the sheer numbers of them.

The great learning adventure we had undertaken together through the years had made this possible -- this beauty, this experience, this depth of sharing. It unfolded before me again, the map of our life , and I saw it as I had not seen it before.

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