Winging It

It’s funny how events in your life evolve to create something new. Here is a simple progression, that, in hindsight at least, seems quite linear.  It goes like this. If I had not had to quit running, I would not have done so much walking. If I had not walked so much this summer, I would not have taken the time to notice all the birds around me. And if we had not built a stream and field in our back yard, we would not have attracted so many birds. And if I had not discovered a Facebook Page devoted to birds, I wouldn’t have been inspired to buy a real camera (rather than a phone or point and shoot) to take better pictures of birds. And I wouldn’t have access to all the cool features on my camera, which I now leave permanently on “continuous shooting” in the hope that Casey will flush a pheasant out of the underbrush. And so on.

Of course, there are likely other factors involved. Somehow, though, through all the stuff that goes on in life I’ve found a new hobby this summer. I’ve spent hours sitting in the back yard waiting for some new bird to fly by, perhaps to bathe in the stream. I’ve gone on long walks with my eyes up in the tree tops, looking for owls and eagles. I’ve dashed madly into the house with muddy shoes to get my camera because of the sudden and unexpected appearance of a downy woodpecker or blue jay.  I’ve hunted through Costco and Bulk Barn and Peavey Mart looking for the best deal on bird seed.  I’ve bought (and filled) half a dozen different kinds of bird feeders.  I’ve eagerly and religiously noted first sightings in the Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds, given to me recently by my friend Ralph, himself a bird enthusiast (among other things).  I’ve created a bird calendar…

To be honest, I am slightly obsessed with birds, particularly the species who live in and around where I live.  I watch them with interest as I learn what they like to eat, where they live, and how they behave.  Even the house sparrow, that most common of feathered creatures, is fun to watch, particularly when a dozen or so of them are competing for space on a newly filled feeder.  I zoom in with my new Nikon, trying to get the perfect picture.  I eagerly post the best of my pictures on the Alberta Birds Facebook page, sometimes confidently identifying the birds (and being wrong), and at other times asking for identification.  I’ve learned so much…

Recently I attended a talk by Dr. Bryan Kolb, a professor in Neuropsychology at the University of Lethbridge.  Among other things, he suggested that the two best ways to maintain and enhance brain plasticity are to involve yourself in music (either by playing an instrument or listening), and to learn something new.  Thanks to the birds, I am doing both.

American Goldfinches Young Cedar Waxwing, July 22 2014 - Wetlands Blue Jay one House Finch copy GBH2

What do dogs know that we don’t?

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the behaviour of our dog, Casey, as he explores his world.  For some time now, I’ve noticed that when we let him out, or when he leaves the house via his personal door, he always does the same thing – stops at the top of the steps, nose into the prevailing wind, to see what might be happening before he goes down into the garden.

This observation led me to watch more carefully, and as a result I’ve gained some knowledge about the world as he sees it.  We walk much the same route twice a day, with some slight variations.  We leave by the the back gate, down towards the head of the bridge, and then in a big loop on the top of the coulees before coming back the same way.  It’s the same route to us every day, but it’s clearly not the same route to Casey.

Most often he can hardly contain himself at the back gate, because the two dogs Harley and Hailey are out next door.  On those days, he tears along the fence, barks furiously for a moment, then remembers that he is not supposed to do that and trots back to us.  He doesn’t bark as much since Hailey acquired a barking collar – an anti-barking collar, I suppose.

On other days, his behaviour is quite different.  He may run hard the other way, along the fence, before returning to us.  This week for two or three days in a row he ran straight ahead, up over the berm and down towards the barbed wire fence.  We followed him, fearing he might run out to the tracks, but he stopped before the fence and was sniffing furiously with his best beagle sniff – fff fff fff fff fff.  Did he smell something that had been there, or did he see something earlier and remembered it?

The walk continues, Casey happily trotting along until something catches his attention.  It’s almost always an odor.  His head will go down, and he will change direction to follow the scent.  I’ve learned to interpret what happens next to some degree.  If his nose stays down, he is probably on the trail of another dog.  If the dog passed by recently, he will track carefully and rapidly but look up every few steps, apparently to see if he can see whatever he is following.

Some scents are left by creatures which frighten him, or are unfamiliar.  In such cases, his head is up, as is the fur along the back of his neck, and his tail is straight out behind him at a 45 degree downward angle.  He looks, in a word, tense and a bit concerned.  He won’t follow those scents, at least not too far, but will stand for some time, nose in the air, trying to figure things out.

Birds are of great interest to him.  If he scents a bird of any kind, and it’s upwind, he is gone at full speed.  One day last fall he flushed a covey of partridges; from the point where he scented them to where he rousted them was about 60 metres upwind, which is quite a distance.  He will act the same for other unseen and unsuspecting birds.  Earlier this fall, we walked down along the river, and I noticed he was acting as described above.  It took me a while to realize that he was scenting and hearing a large flock of geese on the ice on the other side of the river.

Casey’s world is a rich world – I’m convinced.  It’s not the drab brown world of a Lethbridge winter that I see.  It’s interlaced with meaning provided by creatures wild and tame who make it their home, or pass through.  It’s a world borne on the wind, all but invisible to me.  It’s not the same walk every day; there is something new and interesting to explore.

I think there may be a lesson here.