Field Guide to Five Birds
Looking down from the fifteenth floor, I scanned the treetops and saw a bird fly out in a blur of lemon-yellow wings. About half the size of a crow, it landed in another tree and disappeared into the canopy. From that spot I heard the song again. It reminded me of a child’s water-whistle.
What was that bird?
A few months earlier I had arrived to live in Singapore with my husband, David, and our four-year-old daughter, Claire. We had moved from Seattle for David’s job as a geophysicist and settled in the Pandan Valley complex in an older apartment, #15-504 Poinciana Tower.
As kindling is lit by a spark, my curiosity was lit by the yellow bird. I signed up for a bird walk with the Nature Society, unpacked our cheap binoculars, and headed out one Sunday morning to Singapore’s Botanic Gardens. My goal: learn the name of my bird.
The group I joined was a mix of Singaporeans and expatriates like me. A man named Lim was the leader. He was serious and intense. Ever alert, he used ears, eyes, binoculars to scan trees, sky, ground, to track a song, a shadow, a rustle, flap of wings, twitch of leaves.
Doing that slow walk of birders, we entered the forest where cicadas whined. Lim spotted the red head and yellow crest of a Banded Woodpecker clinging to a trunk. Down by the lake, a whinnying call gave away the White-Throated Kingfisher that zoomed between bushes at the water’s edge. Near the orchid gardens, we spotted a tiny Olive-Backed Sunbird. Blue throat feathers shimmered as it hovered to feed on nectar from the red blossoms of a hibiscus.
As the end of the walk neared, I was weary from the tropical heat and humidity, but I was thrilled by the birds. It was time to ask my question. Feeling hesitant, I edged up to Lim, embarrassed by my vast know-nothingness. Haltingly I described my yellow bird.
“Sounds like a Black-Naped Oriole,” he said before turning to focus on a bird in flight.
With that naming I began to build a bridge from seeing to knowing.
I bought a field guide to Southeast Asian birds and found the oriole. I studied the color plate. “Distinctive bright yellow plumage, with a red bill and a black nape patch behind the eye. The species feeds on insects, fruit, and berries, and issues a pleasant musical repertoire of fluty notes. A surprisingly common resident.” Yup. That was my bird. Oriolus chinensis.
I joined the Nature Society, went on more bird walks, even led one myself. Birds opened a portal to belonging in Singapore. They taught me how to pay attention to the tropical world that was my temporary home.
The Black-Naped Oriole was what birding expert Ted Floyd calls my spark bird. It was “an epiphany, a turning point, a moment of wonder and sudden awareness, the first step in a lifelong love affair.”
David, Claire, and I were sitting in a bird hide—a shaded wooden shelter—set at the end of a boardwalk that ran through a mangrove forest. When the Bee-Eaters, Merops philippinus, came to rest on a tree branch, we passed around binoculars for a closer look. We admired their handsome blue and green plumage, long tail streamers, the striking black stripe over their eyes.
Two days before, we had taken the night train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, then an hour ride by outstation taxi to the Kuala Selangor Nature Park. There we had rented a simple cabin for a few nights. Claire was on her Thanksgiving break from second grade at the Singapore American School.
Friends from the Nature Society had pointed me to the Park. Its many habitats offered rich rewards for the journey: mangroves and tide flats, secondary forest interlaced with drainage canals and brackish lakes. By the end of our stay, we had spotted smooth otters, macaque and silver leaf monkeys, three kinds of kingfishers, a woodpecker, a barbet, mudskippers and mangrove crabs, two species of mynahs, three of herons, the bee-eaters. Brahminy Kites often flew in slow circles overhead.
David and I understood by then how to shape our trips to accommodate Claire: a slow pace, stops for snacks and sips of water from her Hello Kitty flask. She wore sun hat, sunscreen and mosquito repellent, long pants to protect her legs. We had learned to take plenty of breaks in hotel rooms or cabins where we read books, assembled puzzles, played games, took naps. As reward Claire had adopted our love of moving slowly through nature in Southeast Asia, eyes and ears open. My fever for birds had infected her, too. Our old pair of binoculars was usually slung around her neck. David’s eyes were most often focused through his camera, an artist seeking to compose a photo.
Food supply is key for birds and children. Our challenge: Claire was a picky eater. We traveled with food she would eat: fresh apples from the Cold Storage supermarket in Singapore, a homemade mix of peanut butter, honey, and powdered milk. It was adequate nutrition that didn’t need refrigeration. In restaurants, as David and I plunged into curries and chili crab, satays and squid, we ordered plain noodles for Claire. But this request—noodles naked of delicious sauces and seasonings, broths or toppings—was often beyond the scope of cultural understanding. Cooks could not resist relieving the implausibility of plainness with a scattering of fried onions, sprigs of fresh coriander, or sprinkles of dried parsley. Claire would recoil and we would try to pluck out the offense. When that didn’t work, we became apologetically adept at sending the noodles back to the kitchen, explaining our request again.
It was all worth it. Curating our child’s companionship made us feel so fulfilled, so satisfied, so rewarded, so pleased.
We had chosen Sani Lodge at Claire’s recommendation. She had stayed there once after a stint of field work for her biology studies at the University of Washington. Owned and run by the Indigenous Sani community of Kichwa speakers, the Lodge had met her, and thereby our, approval for local ownership and environmental sustainability.
To reach it required a short flight up and over the Andes from Quito to Coca, a three-hour motorboat ride down the Napo River, then a boardwalk to a hand-paddled canoe that took us through green tunnels of philodendron forests to the lodge. Built at the edge of a blackwater swamp where the water was made dark by tannins leached from leaves, Sani Lodge was simple, not luxurious. We liked that.
We had decided to hire a birding guide, knowing we would see so much more that way. Domingo Gualinga was a member of the Sani community. Other than the names of birds, he did not speak much English. David and I spoke little Spanish, no Kichwa. Fortunately, we all seemed to be quiet people who did not mind the lack of conversation.
Each morning after breakfast David and I stepped carefully into the canoe. Balancing one behind the other we moved to our wooden seats along the midline, sat down, and glided away from the dock. In the bow was Domingo wearing his faded camo vest of many pockets and a big pair of green binoculars around his neck. At the stern, Domingo’s young assistant, Lucio, paddled.
We floated through reflections of morning sky, clouds tinged pink and orange with sunrise. The soft warm air was spritzed with the slight fragrance of flowers, of clean water, the green and fertile notes of plants. At the water’s edge, grasses. Rising behind in layers the giant leaves of philodendrons, then palm trees, towering kapok trees.
The silence was embroidered by lick of paddle in and out of water, the chorus of whining insects, and the voices of birds we had traveled so far to see. Domingo was our magician, conjuring our avian dreams into reality. He was always alert, listening for a song or call, eyes scanning for a sighting. Binocs raised, he pointed to and named what he spotted: Amazon Kingfisher, Cocoi Heron, Hoatzin, Black-Capped Donacobius . . . a bird a minute it seemed. An astounding wealth.
The skin on my face, arms, hands seemed to melt into a dance with the calls of the birds, the air, the water. Boundaries dissolved. Reflected on the surface, a squawking flock of Mealy Amazon Parrots flying overhead. The sensation I could step out of the canoe, walk among the clouds, join the parrots in the sky. It was a giddy conversation between senses and terrain, an immersion into natural patterns.
I wanted to keep it all, bottle it up and take it home so I could release it, remember it, in the dark cold rain of winter in Seattle.
The tree was rich with green leaves and the little bird was hard to see, staying near the trunk and inner branches. I glimpsed flits of lemon-yellow feathers. Maybe it was feeding. The aphids and green caterpillars had arrived again this year. I felt better thinking they might be food for birds.
Each spring I revel in those days when the weather is warm enough, dry enough, to sit outside at the small black wrought-iron table. At hand I keep pen, writing notebook, cup of coffee, binoculars, cell phone. I’m usually in pajamas. The six-foot wooden fence hides me from the view of neighbors out jogging or walking their dogs. That morning my jolt of caffeine was amped by the thrill of the little yellow bird. After a closer look with binocs, I picked up my phone and used the Merlin bird guide app. I tapped in where and when I saw the bird. For size I picked sparrow-sized or smaller, main colors as yellow and black, trees or bushes for where I had seen it. The answer that seemed most right on the list of possible birds: Wilson’s Warbler, Cardellina pusilla. Later I checked my identification with our neighbor, Keith Geller, a serious birder whose knowledge I admire. “Did it have a little black cap, like a yarmulke?” Yes. “It’s a Wilson’s Warbler. I’ve been seeing them in my garden, too.”
Ah, that sweet sensation of naming that keeps me open to the natural world, even in the city. I noodled around the Internet to learn more. Wilson’s Warbler is a spring and fall visitor to the Pacific Northwest. A migratory bird, it spends winters in Western Mexico, summers in breeding grounds far north in the Aleutians. I know such migrations are routine, but I remain astonished by this visitor to my plum tree. Led by ancient instinct, my Wilson’s Warbler used its tiny set of muscles, bones, heart, feathers, eyes, and ears to travel thousands of miles.
I am not often thrilled by the birds here in my home territory, which makes me feel disloyal to a landscape that I love. Maybe birding in Southeast Asia set up my craving for the jolt of brain sugar that comes from the bright colors of tropical birds.
I don’t go looking for that jolt very often. Traveling from North America to the tropics is costly: airfare, lodges, hotels, boats, food, guides, tips, medications, vaccinations. Plus, there are the costs to the planet: jets spewing carbon emissions that harm the atmosphere, contributing to climate change and planetary warming. It’s a horrible irony that traveling to see what I love may someday help make tropical habitats too hot for many birds.
Her observation was written in the back of the book she kept on the shelf below the dining room window: A Field Guide to Western Birds by Roger Tory Peterson, Second Edition, 1961. Opening that book, which now lives in my house, I scan her list of birds. I am touched by the sight of her handwriting, still familiar nearly three decades after her death. The locations she noted form a map of my childhood: A flock of Audubon’s Warblers eating catkins in the white birches near her rose garden; Evening Grosbeaks under the holly tree we clipped for Christmas decorations; a Sparrow Hawk hovering over the field where my dog, Cliff, caught gophers; Cedar Waxwings in the black cherry tree in the orchard between the house and the barn; California Crested Quail strolling the dirt road that dead ended at our farm.
I remember the reverence in her voice as she stood at the dining room window, binoculars to eyes, naming birds. And suddenly an insight: my mother laid in me the kindling I held for decades but which did not catch fire until I spotted my spark bird, the Black-Naped Oriole, in Singapore.
Why did it take so many years? Why do I not recall her inviting me to look through the binoculars, to learn the names of the birds?
Here’s what I think: My father would have been dismissive of her interest in birds. To him, wild birds were for hunting, for meat, like ducks on the Tualatin River or the Ring-Necked Pheasants that lurked in the stump pasture of our farm.
I loved both my parents, but I preferred my father. I know that now. His dismissiveness would have cued my response. Because my mother was wise, she did not press against my lack of interest. In the end, the power of watching her watch birds won out.