Revenge of the Bird Nerds

Lucas Foerster is not what we’re looking for at all. Wiry and tanned from a summer spent outside as a researcher in Point Pelee National Park, he starts off by making it perfectly clear that just because he likes looking at birds doesn’t mean he isn’t a normal, active 27-year-old guy. Lucas knows he doesn’t fit the nerdy profile of the usual birding suspect: retired, hefty disposable income, khaki safari pants and questionable social skills. He tells me right away that he’s also into surfing. He even drives a vintage 1970s VW camper van. His mountain bike is parked just outside. 

Scott MacGregor, Adventure Kayak’s publisher, has joined me in Point Pelee to photograph our kayaking mission to one of the world’s premier bird-watching destinations. On the drive we tallied up our limited knowledge of birders and birding and jokingly came up with a comical vision of Revenge of the Nerds characters and Nature of Things conventioneers in press-on David Suzuki beards and multi-pocketed vests rocking to the soundtrack from Hinterland Who’s Who. We concluded that birdwatching is boring, but we might get a good story if we could find one of these oddball aviphiles to satirize. I was crushed when the park managers at Point Pelee present- ed us with Lucas the surfer, a guy way too much like ourselves.

If you picture Ontario as a funnel of land channelled by the Great Lakes into the southwestern corner of the province, the outlet at the bottom of the funnel is Point Pelee. Canada’s southernmost tip, Pelee juts out into Lake Erie at the same latitude as Rome and northern California.

Pelee is a funnel for nature—”the best migrant trap in inland North America.” Birds migrating through southern Ontario concentrate at the Pelee bottleneck, resting and feeding at the point’s vast wetlands before moving on to northern Canada in spring, or across Lake Erie to wintering grounds in the tropics each fall. One of the best ways to see wildlife on this continent is to sit at the bottom of this funnel and let it all come to you. The total number of bird species recorded here is 372, almost 80 percent of the Canadian total. A dedicated birder can see 100 species in a single day.

The bird migration route is left over from a former land bridge across Lake Erie. Now the birds island-hop the same route from the point and across the leftover bits. The vestiges of the land bridge also make for good sea kayaking: wetlands inside Point Pelee; wave-washed beaches on the outsides of the point; challenging shoals and currents off the tip; and Pelee Island, a quaint land of inns and vineyards, 13 kilometres to the south. Paddlers occasionally cross the whole 50 kilometres from Point Pelee to Port Clinton, Ohio, braving Lake Erie’s unpre- dictable winds and rough shallows that hide the wreck- age of over 100 ships.

Point Pelee is the perfect place for a kayaker to get an education in birding, which is why Scott and I packed our kayaks and funnelled down the busy Highway 401 toward Windsor one cool weekend in October—an ideal time to see birds.

The spring migration, which peaks in May, is famous because the birds sing loudly and are easy to spot in bright mating plumage. But in the fall, after the breeding season, there are more of them, and more rare species. With the northbound race for sex behind them, migrants doddle and wander off course on the way back down south. Others blow in from out of region on weather systems driven by seasonal hurricanes in the tropics. Birders from nearby cities keep an eye on the storms and come out to track these rarities. They post sightings on the Internet complete with driving directions to the nearest farmhouse, picket fence or oak tree.

These are the nerds we came to see.


We find Lucas at the park’s staff residence, flipping veggie burgers for dinner. He tells us of his conversion to birding. He was a nature lover all his life. Whether it was hiking up a mountain with his buddies to track down a particular type of snake, or taking the path less travelled in search of a rare plant.

Working in Pelee, it wasn’t long before his attention turned skyward. He resisted at first. “I once swore I’d never be a birder,” he said. “I became a closet birder.” Before long, he caved totally. Now he wears his binocu- lars with pride and wishes more people were birders.

Lucas believes that bird-watchers care more about the environment than non-bird-watchers. They are more respectful of nature. Not all of them—not the listers who treat bird sightings like hockey cards or stamp collections—but the real birders, the ones who understand birds because they notice everything, who go out in hik- ing boots and kayaks and lose themselves in the natural world. The soul birders.

It’s all just an excuse to be outside, getting close to nature. That’s all that birding is about. “Like surfing,” Lucas shrugs. “It’s the same thing.”

When Lucas recounts his lifelong love of nature, I compare his passion to my own. When people asked me as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said “naturalist.” I only grabbed this term because I knew that I wanted to live and work outside in wild places. The only people I met who did that were the provincial park natu- ralists I met on family camping trips.

In the world of “higher education,” however, there is no such thing as a “naturalist,” only biologists with their microscopes and textbooks. So I became an outdoor recreationist instead. My world was a playground, not a museum, library or science lab. Some people are in awe of the matrix of life; some of us are just out there to have fun. If the natural world is wine, Lucas is the connoisseur and I am the one who just likes to get drunk, damning the details. 

But sooner or later you wake up in a strange place and learn you have a problem.


During a three-month kayaking trip last summer, my paddling partner and I were haunted night after night by the same mysterious cry from deep in the West Coast rainforest. It sounded like someone hyperventilating over the neck of a soda bottle—hoo-hoo-hoo.

“What the heck is that sound?” one of us would ask. Upon which the other would act like a smart-ass and say, “That’s the cry of the bird that goes ‘hoo-hoo-hoo.’” Then we would laugh and go on to other subjects, like what flavour of Jell-O we’d packed for dessert that day.

This silliness went on for weeks, as dumb trip jokes between kayakers often do, growing less and less funny, until I felt melancholy looking out at the natural world. Day by day, nature was becoming more and more familiar, impressing me with its permanence and pervasiveness. And the cry of the bird we never saw continued to taunt us—hoo-hoo-hoo—scolding me for being so self-centred and ignorant, for having the audacity to know nothing of the natural world I’ve spent hundreds of days paddling through, for daring to be bored by Life. 

“To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist,” writes Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson in his book Biophilia, “the old excitement of the untramelled world will be regained.”

Sarah Rupert, a lifelong birder and Pelee park interpreter, explains that birders—known amongst them- selves as field ornithologists—can be divided into a few basic types. There are novices, who get a kick out of idention was confirmed down the barrel of a gun.” But W.E., figuring he wasn’t much of a hunter anyway, was per- suaded by the spectacle of migration to lay down his arms and observe nature instead. His actions led to the designation of Pelee as Canada’s ninth national park in 1918.

Duck hunting dwindled and was finally banned in Pelee in 1989. Canon and Nikon have replaced Remington and Smith & Wesson. The new hunters come to tick golden-winged warblers off their life lists, or to see the Henslow’s sparrow, the rarest bird in Ontario. They hunt with $2,000 binoculars, cameras and flashbulbs. The unscrupulous play back illegal recordings of bird mating calls on portable CD players, or carry shears to coif the bushes to frame a perfect photo, or flout the rules by walking off trails and “pressuring” the birds by their sheer numbers—2,500 a day through the park gates in May. 

Out on the pond in a kayak you can escape this madness. Very few birders use kayaks, even though the kayak is traditionally a hunting tool, built for stealth, and one of the only ways to fully explore Pelee’s marshes. 

“The naturalist is a civilized hunter,” E.O. Wilson writes. “He goes alone into a field or woodland and clos- es his mind to everything but that time and place, so that life around him presses in on all the senses and small details grow in significance.”

Looking at nature closely, you inevitably find out that it’s disappearing. The wetlands outside the park boundary, which once extended far inland, have been drained to grow onions, soybeans, tomatoes. If not for W.E. Saunders and Parks Canada, the whole peninsula would be drained and sprouting onions and condos by now. 

I’ve learned that inside the survey-straight line of the park boundary, there are more “species at risk” than in any other national park in Canada. All this on a meagre 16 square kilometres, a few minutes’ drive from Canada’s busiest highway, at the heart of a region that supports a quarter of the nation’s human population.

Lucas explains that his studies show the average age of the pond’s turtles is much older than in previous studies. Mike says the bullfrogs are completely gone and nobody knows why. Zebra mussels are changing the ecology of Lake Erie faster than scientists can measure. And on and on. This is the one-way story of the nature funnel. Pelee is just a dribble of land balancing a tide of civilization— nature inside, civilization outside. It’s tempting to give up hope.

One thing I’ve noticed about kayaking: you move slowly, suspended in the middle where the boundary between civilization and nature dissolves. And the result—what some people call boredom—is also a kind of mindfulness. It follows naturally to have questions about what you see. No longer satisfied not to know the bird that goes hoo-hoo-hoo, you start to connect.

Maybe we are all naturalists. In Biophilia, E.O. Wilson explains that our fascination with other life forms is innate, two million years in the making. Survival once depended on identifying what we were going to eat for dinner. So it is not odd to be obsessed with nature. It’s more odd that we could ever not be obsessed by it. Birding is in our blood and our genes, and among inane human pastimes it carries a moral trump card. 

“To explore and affiliate with life,” Wilson says, “is a deep and complicated process in mental development. Our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its cur- rents.”

Out on the marsh, I notice a bird drop from the sky to the water and then fly up, circle around and drop again. To me, it’s a just another boring black speck. With Lucas and Mike along, the black speck becomes a peregrine falcon trying to capture a blue-winged teal. The teal averts death by diving each time, until the peregrine gives up. Lucas tells me that the falcon will set out across the lake some day soon, a black speck bound for South America.

“Wow,” I say. That’s not boring at all.

Adventure Kayak editor Tim Shuff now bird watches from his office window and recently learned the difference between a yellow finch and a bobolink. 

akv3i4cover.jpgThis article first appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Adventure Kayak Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Adventure Kayak’s print and digital editions here.


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