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Every now and then you have an experience that just sweetly and quietly surprises you. Not a big huge epiphany kinda  thing, just a small thing, like looking through a window in passing and seeing something beautiful and unexpected. Last month, we went down to visit our friends, Sarah and Sean and their girls Sadie and Lillian. They live in Prince Edward County (with my heart – oh, was that out loud?) on 20 wild acres in a rambling white house. We end up out there four or five times a year, letting the children run themselves silly and herd the chickens. Often we pile into the minivans and caravan around the County exploring: geocaching, climbing the sand dunes, making hot dog suppers on the beach, visiting a friend’s farm.

This particular weekend Sarah (whose lovely photos are below) mentioned that it was the start of the birding season at the Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory, a protected area about 20 minutes south-east of the town of Picton.  The Point is directly on the migration route for dozens of different bird species, and has been designated a Globally Important Banding Site, a label which sounds determinedly grand.

In fact, the Banding Centre is a tiny shanty shack on the edge of a wood, but is no less significant for lack of grandeur. In spring and fall, volunteers, some from as far away as England, spend half-days catching, registering and banding nearly a hundred species of bird, from minute buntings to falcons and hawks. Huge vertical nets are strung between the trees near the hut, and birds are trapped (but not the least bit hurt) when their feet get caught in the fine mesh. Every half-hour or so, one of the volunteers comes along and pops the birds into cloth sacks, and delivers them to the folks in the hut. The sacks are hung from hooks along one wall, and they wiggle and flutter as if holding wind-up toys. One by one the birds are retrieved and examined: their wings are measured, their age is estimated, their gender is recorded (if it can be determined), and their species is noted. Finally, each wee bird is weighed in the most ingenious way: you can’t exactly plop a bird on a scale and ask him to sit still, so the volunteers take advantage of a quirk of bird behaviour: when held upside-down, a bird is quiet and still. So beside the digital kitchen scale used for the weigh-ins are various sizes of plastic pill bottles, tops and bottoms removed. A top is screwed on and the bottle is placed cap-down on the scale; the scale is zeroed, and the coordinatingly sized bird is popped head first into the bottle. All of a sudden, wings are still, any chirping stops abruptly, and the bird is as placid as a leaf. Afterward, the cap is unscrewed, the bottle is held out, and the bird flies out through the open window.

It’s all so swift and simple, but so strange, too: all the to-doing is so mundane and perfunctory: look up in guide book, measure with ruler, weigh with pill bottle. When Sarah had first told us about it, I expected the little sacks to be made of some special Bird Fabric, maybe made by one of those outdoor wilderness textile companies who are always improving fabric for breathability and durability. After all, these are delicate, wild creatures they’re cradling. Surely the sacks are, you know, patented or something. But  instead, the sacks are made from long-faded cottons, from pillowcases and old blouses and flowered handkerchiefs. They hang in a twitching line, all dusty chintz roses and greyed plaids, looking for all the world like so many old grannies’ clothes-pin bags with squirrels caught inside.

All this normalcy, and yet the subjects are so other: ethereal, even other-worldly. Certainly not to be touched, not part of our grounded, limited world. Watching the birds being held and turned, blown on and prodded, was almost like watching something slightly taboo. A few viewers are permitted to huddle in the doorway, but no-one is allowed inside besides the two or three birders working that day, and any onlookers are asked to speak in hushed tones. I know it’s to minimize the stress on the birds, but it couldn’t help but reinforce that sense of rare and fragile intimacy.

The birds themselves were impossibly beautiful: tiny warblers, golden and green, or boldly striped like zebras; feisty blue jays, and cranky cat birds that howled and crowed from the moment they were taken from their sacks until they were tipped upside-down on the scale. I would have marveled at being so close to any one of the two dozen birds we saw banded that day had I just glimpsed one on a branch; but to be a foot away, watching a quick head dart this way and that, its feet held gently between confident fingers, was nothing short of breathtaking.

blue-winged warbler

measuring a wing

bird in pill bottle

birds in bags - waiting to be tagged

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