The Unintentional Birder: Julia’s Field Notes

I’m so excited to be a Zeiss Ambassador in Canada. I’m based in Toronto, Canada, and though I’m primarily an urban birder, I do venture out on the occasional adrenaline-fueled chase, and love every minute of it.

I call myself an unintentional birder for a reason: my mid-life love affair with birds was completely unplanned and surprised me as much as it shocked everyone around me! I grew up entirely indoors—I’m the daughter of Soviet émigré concert pianists—worked as an academic for several years, and although I lived in gorgeous natural surroundings, I honestly never took the time to look. It wasn’t until I found myself in the midst of a career transition, searching in earnest for a hobby that would exercise my patience (without having to do a yoga downward dog position) and teach me to be present, that I came upon birding.

I found a birding group online and joined them for an outing in spring 2009. I still remember that freezing early April morning, when we spent two hours staring at a flotilla of ducks (that all looked the same to my untrained eye) as they bounced along on the hyperactive Lake Ontario waves. I wasn’t convinced this hobby could ever be for me. And just when I started mentally preparing my exit speech to the birding group, we saw a Red-winged Blackbird, and I literally gasped at the bird’s otherworldly beauty. The vermillion epaulets set off by a splash of mustard-yellow, the glistening black head; I stood there staring, mesmerized.

Unbeknownst to me, I had been bewitched by my spark bird. And unbeknownst to my husband, our life would never be the same. 

Some people call themselves beginner birders when they can’t tell the difference between a fall plumage Blackpoll and Bay-breasted Warbler. But when I say I came to birds as a complete beginner, I mean it! The only birds on my horizon before the Red-winged Blackbird sighting were pigeons. I couldn’t even say for certain whether owls were real or mythical creatures. I was, quite literally, a blank slate. The past fourteen years have been nothing short of an apprenticeship in looking. I even wrote a book about the experience, a memoir called Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, which is a bestseller in Canada.

For me, falling in love with birds has been about learning to really see the world around me. Quite simply, birds were my gateway to nature. Some people buy fancy cars when they hit their midlife crisis; I bought a pair of Zeiss Conquest HD binoculars, and my world slowly started coming into focus.

One of the first things that surprised me was that nature existed all around me; all I had to do was take the time to look. I used to think that being in nature meant traveling far from the city, preferable to the ocean or mountains, or better yet, the Swiss Alps; in other words, it was inaccessible to me. As I started getting to know the birds in my hometown, Toronto started to transform before my very eyes—from an ugly concrete mass into a web of interconnected wilderness patches. My very favorite place to bird is in downtown Toronto, in an accidental wilderness called Tommy Thompson Park. I look forward to introducing you all to this park over the next few months (it also happens to be an extraordinary migratory hotspot in April-May!). It’s one of the city’s best kept secrets, and (a seasonal) home to everything from Snowy Owls to American Woodcocks, to at least 25 species of warblers, including my favorites Blackburnian and Cape May!

When I first started birding, I imagined I’d be done with the hobby in a couple of years. I kept hearing people tell me about the magic of spring migration, but I assumed that once I’d experienced the spectacle a few times, it would lose its luster. Could seeing the same warblers year after year warrant that much euphoric excitement? The miracle of birding is exactly the opposite: the more you see, the more you want to see.

I am excited to share my sightings with you over the coming months and to show you how with birds in my life, my world now appears full of wonder. I’m now seeing the world through Zeiss SFL 8×40 binoculars, which I adore, both for their lighter weight and the crispness of the image.

I’m going to leave you with a my digiscoped photo of a celebrity bird, seen a few hours north of Toronto last week—the Great Gray Owl. Majestic, fierce, and otherworldly.

Julia Zarankin is a writer, lecturer, birder and ZEISS Ambassador based in Toronto.

She is the author of the book “Field notes from an unintentional birder”, a lovely and moving memoir about her transformation into a bird nerd. 

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