the watchers - birders in tofino

The Watchers

by Greg Blanchette, Tofino

the letter 'E'

Evidently migrants," whispered Swami Georgie. "Colouration too light for them to be resident in these latitudes, I'd say."

Frank Island Frankie moved a cedar bough so he could see too, a long view out over the mudflats. It was his first time in the blind with the Swami. A group of birdwatchers stood in the mud a stone's throw away, completely preoccupied with a large flock of waterfowl farther out. "Yeah," Frankie said, "I guess that sandy colour makes more sense wherever they call home."

"And how, pray, can you possibly tell where they 'call home'?" the Swami said. "You don't even have binoculars."

"I have something else," Frankie said. "Eyeballs. Those of us who aren't terminal gear freaks find them useful."

The Swami didn't dignify that with a reply. Instead he switched on his digital voice recorder and muttered, "Variegated sandy plumage, probably for camouflage; they must winter over in one of the desert states." He checked something on his rainproof clipboard and added, "Group size about a dozen."

"Look at those goofs sneaking out across the mud," Frankie said, and then laughed: "Oops, looks like one of them just found a sinkhole." The sudden shouting made the distant flock of birds take to the air. The Swami whipped his binos up and began whispering quickly into the recorder. Frankie let the bough drop and gazed up into the treetops.

"What I don't get," he said, his voice low, "is what you birdwatchers do with all this information. Latin names, common names, wing markings, feeding habits, mating rituals.... I mean, it's nothing you can take to the bank."

The Swami was absorbed in the little drama out on the mudflats, with the birdwatchers swarming around the fallen one, trying to extract him.

"It's so... pointless," Frankie went on. "If you learned something useful, like, I dunno... the purple-beaked trounce is easy to catch in a sack, roasts up nicely on a spit, goes well with dry white wine, then I could see getting all gung ho about it. But all that effort just to tick a name off a list? You might as well, I dunno, memorize the phone book backwards or something. Learn to juggle toads."

When Frankie looked down again the Swami was staring at him like he was something unidentifiable off the forest floor. "Phone book?" the Swami said. "Juggle toads? What are you on about?"
Frankie explained again, and to his surprise the Swami said, "You're right. Still," he added, "it gets them outside. They're not sitting in front of a TV, that's something."
"They could juggle toads outside," Frankie said. "I just don't get it."

"That much is clear," the Swami said, returning to his binoculars. But Frankie couldn't leave it alone. "It's like you're spying on those innocent little creatures," he said. "Doesn't that bother you, a little?"

The Swami sighed theatrically and dropped his binoculars into their case. "Innocent? They fly here by the zillions every spring, stomp all over the mudflats for a few days, eat like pigs, disturb everything, and take off again, God knows where. Innocence is nowhere to be found."

"It's just weird," Frankie said. "It's not like you have some kind of bond with them. You're just being some creepy bird voyeur."
"Bird voyeur?" the Swami said, the other's misconception now dawning on him. "It's not the birds I'm watching, Frankie. Birds are boring; who cares about birds? I'm watching the people: the birdwatchers. "

It took a moment for Frankie to register this. "Ohhh," he said, "I get it now." He pulled back the cedar bough and looked out with new interest. "Like that one there, with the custom mudflat snowshoes, the many-pocket vest, the chest-harness spotting scope, two cameras around her neck?"

The Swami pulled out his binos again. "Good eye," he said. "She's an Eastern Songbird Spinster. See how she fluttered her arms when she identified that duck?" He consulted his clipboard. "Yep, sure enough, a birdwatching group arrived in town from Boston two days ago. Staying at the Wick; any excuse for a luxury trip, eh?"

"And look over there, just coming out of the bush," Frankie said, pointing. "Older man, short pants, yelling a lot..."

"That'd be a Rank Neophyte,"the Swami said, "common name Tagalong Bigfoot. Lack of equipment means no interest in birdwatching; he's just tagging along with a new girlfriend who's a fanatic, no doubt. Yep, there she is," he said as a small, white-haired woman pushed her way into the light, scolded the Tagalong Bigfoot and thrust a folded tripod at him. More of the new group stumbled from the trees onto the shoregrass, and the Swami switched on his recorder. "Alberta Sycophants," he said, "eight of them! Oh, this is good; I don't have any of those yet this year." He ticked profusely on his clipboard. "Completely lacking in any form of rain adaptation," he pointed out to Frankie. "They'll be screaming at each other tomorrow when the weather changes."

"No kidding," Frankie said, "you really know this stuff, hey?" The Swami nodded modestly and admitted to a few years' experience, adding that Frankie himself seemed to show a natural aptitude for the sport.

"You think so?," Frankie said, and thought about that for a minute. "Say," he asked, "you know where I can get a good pair of binoculars?"

Greg Blanchette hasn't watched a bird since the miniskirt craze ended. Now he lurks around Tofino and watches there. You can reach him at

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Tofino writer Greg Blanchette examines different species of bird watchers migrating to Tofino.

tofino time april 2009

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