How to be an ornithologist

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What you’ll need: binoculars, checklist

Songlist: Freebird, Fly

Further reading: Audubon guides, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Last week, at my aunt’s house in Wyoming, we ate dinner with two avid birders. As they were talking about trips to scout out species, I found myself thinking that I was not particularly interested in birds. My parents, however, were excited to hear about the types of birds found in Wyoming, especially the fact that this couple had seen three distinct variations of blue birds in their own backyard.

At this dinner, my dad told a story about a pilgrimage we made when I was young to see swan migration. Suddenly, the scene came back to me: the air cold, the sky gray, and in front of me an entire Minnesotan lake covered with white trumpeter swans. It was an awe-inspiring sight. But surely this was different. Swans are so incredibly majestic, both in flight and in water. I could love swans without considering myself a birder.

The next day as we drove to a trailhead for our day hike, we passed a barren tree with a huge nest at the very top. Perched above was an osprey, gorgeous and menacing. Tiny osprey beaks peaked up over the nest. We swung over to the side of the road and hopped out to take pictures. Birds of prey, after all, are pretty cool.

You can see where this is going. My aunt was heading to a cruise around the Arctic circle and I eagerly pored over the pictures of animals she might see–including puffins. Super cool.

Western Tanager

A huge raven surprised us in another trailhead parking lot, and I remembered my newfound affinity for those birds after portraying one in a flamenco show last February. As we hiked into the Tetons my dad spotted a gorgeous little bird with a bright yellow body and a peach head. So much for my theory that I wasn’t interested in small birds.

My brother and his girlfriend were the main reason we went out to Wyoming, and they had made the trip out west partly because of my brother’s girlfriend’s sister, who is working an ornithological internship in Montana. This internship involves waking up before sunrise and checking on nesting behavior. Okay, so I might be more interested in birds than I thought, but that still sounds a little too intense for me.

On our last day as we drove away from the Tetons we saw a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road–a sure sign of some large mammal sighting. Having already seen a huge herd of bison on the trip as well as several other large ungulates, we were hoping for a bear. When we saw the large velvety antlers of an elk we sighed and kept driving. But just ahead in the meadow a shot of bright blue burst from the grass. A blue bird. Both my mom and I squealed. And suddenly I realized that I had just mentally checked off bluebird from my life list. I might be hooked.

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A lamentation of swans

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Exactly one week from right now, I’ll be suited up as a raven for the world premiere of a flamenco performance, Zorro in the Land of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. This show is a mix of Spanish flamenco music with Ojibwa lore, in which ravens represent  message-bearers and truth-tellers. Six of us women form the raven chorus, or, as we like to call ourselves, the murder.

Just as a group of ravens is known as a murder, so a group of swans can be called a lamentation. Poetic, no?

Birds are a natural creature to portray through dance because of their symbolic qualities as well as their movements. (Our raven dances feature large black shawls–common to flamenco and Ojibwa dance, while also being representative of wings–and some of our choreography is meant to mimic the swooping of the flock). So it’s no wonder that one of the most famous ballets of all time is Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, made possibly even more famous by last year’s Best Picture Oscar nominee Black Swan.

One can’t but help think of the gracefulness of swans when watching the long limbs of Gillian Murphy as Odette, the white swan:

The pas de quatre is similarly avian:

Natalie Portman gives her all as the black swan:

And then there’s this Chinese version of Swan Lake, which is just ridiculous. In all the best ways.