The Twitcher’s Apprentice

April 12, 2008

thanksgiving guestCai carefully notes all the distinguishing field marks of this vagrant Orange-eyed Squash Goose before rushing to identify it in the guidebook.

Learning to birdwatch with Cai has been a bit of a learning curve. One thing I learned, for example, was the impossibility of simultaneously peering through binoculars and grasping the loop of a puppy-filled leash. I did manage to overcome this problem by slipping the loop around the toe of my boot. This method works best when viewing the more phlegmatic of our feathered friends; it is of no help at all for that large group of avians that I call gone-birds.

Because e.g. and I have compatible but different interests, the two of us can share Cai between us. I’ll do birdless walkies with him while e.g. sets up her tripod for skunk cabbage or bloodroot or trout lily or whatever the fleur du jour is, and then she’ll take him while I go stalk the pond or the meadow or the woods for a while.

One of the reasons e.g. and I decided on a Cardigan Welsh Corgi is that they are sturdy little animals, happy to go hiking or camping. Cai was first put to the tenting test last summer, when he wasn’t yet a year old. It was a bit of a challenge for him. Every evening while it was still light out, he would start scratching at the zipper of either Jack’s or our tent, announcing his intention to turn in. He ended each day exhausted from the sniffing and the seeing and the listening and the hiking and the swimming, but I like to think he went to bed with a smile on his muzzle.

On this particular camping trip, we were at a privately-owned campground on Manitoulin Island. Early each morning, I would take Cai for walkies while e.g. and Jack were still nestled in their sleeping bags. One morning, a family of deer startled my dog and me, and we them; they leapt across the path just ahead of us and disappeared into the woods. I thought that was pretty cool, but Cai, who had never seen deer before, didn’t know what to think. He pulled the leash taut and stood stock-still, staring after them; and I felt his heartbeat through the leash.

On another morning, having familiarized myself with the trails, I decided to risk dropping the leash in an open area and let Cai walk beside me. He did, very nicely, until we both suddenly saw — or I thought we saw — the same thing. It was a pair of Sharp-tailed Grouse at the foot of a tree. I reached for the leash loop that was dragging in the dust, but all I found was a gone-dog. Cai sprinted to the tree and up scattered a whole covey of Sharp-tails. Then he trotted back to me, wagging with pleasure at his success as the birder’s apprentice.

I was reminded of all these things this morning, as I played ball with Cai in the field next to our apartment building. Sometimes it’s just the fact of his being a dog that makes Cai help me with my birdwatching. Today was a cat kind of day — stay indoors and watch the rain — but dogs don’t do litter boxes, so out we went. Up the field, down the field, facing north, facing south, I stooped for the ball as we were facing north, raised my arm, and halted in awe to watch a small flock of Sandhill Cranes, grey as the mist they were flying through, silently heading for Manitoulin Island.