My Mini Big Year: Confessions of A ReHatched Bird Nerd

Bognor Marsh



I’m supposed to be visiting my mother but it’s very early in the day.  We haven’t set a time and her memory problems add a certain timelessness to everything. So long as I show up and spend time with her, all will be well. A cold morning now has the makings of a fine spring day. I head for Bognor Marsh; my brother’s best gift to me was tell me about this place. You go out the Derry Line, he says – remember where Uncle Bob and Aunt Rene used to live. Sort of, I tell him. He’s still a local – I’m not. Well, anyway, he says, that’s kind of the area where the marsh is. Once he’s gone off to work, I fire up the GPS and, there it is. I’s a fifteen minute drive.I pass the sign and double back and park – the only vehicle in there. The morning is warm and the woods are filled with wildflowers and bird song. It’s too early for leaves so spotting birds should be much easier. Paradise!

May is my favourite month here. After a long winter, nature has to make up for lost time. No leaves on the trees yet but the rocky ground is carpetted with wild flowers – great swaths of dog tooth violets and tiger lilies, new ferns and wild leek. I hear the drumming of ruffed grouse. A Wild Turkey gobbles nearby and  I glimpse a gray shadow on a low ridge.

And a warm front has brought a windfall of bird species. A Rose-breasted Grosbeak streaks past. I arrange my camera and my binoculars and set out down the forest road. Bird songs are confusingly everywhere. I’m not that good with warblers anyway – certainly not with eastern warblers. I stop and find a seat on a block of dolomite and watch. It doesn’t take long. An Ovenbird sings very close to me, insistent. I search and search with the glasses and finally see him. No more than 5 feet away. I glass the surrounding brush. A male Redstart chases a female – flashes of red and white and then gone. A Yellow Warbler appears and then another. I count five species in as many minutes and move on. Movement off to my right. In the cedars, a pair of Black and White Warblers work the trunk like nuthatches.

I start admiring the flowers. A pair of Scarlet Tanagers almost slip past me but the red and black male is easy to follow through the leafless trees. I remind myself to keep focused.

I’m back at the Marsh on each of the next four mornings. The weather is glorious. Pisshing brings a swarm of warblers each time – Black and White, Blackburnian, Ovenbirds, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Greens, Northern Parula and others. I even see a Worm-eating Warbler, rare here and likely carried north on the warm front. Now I’m hearing thrushes, a Swainson’s and then the ethereal song of the ‘Swamp Angel’ – the Hermit Thrush. And there are other surprises —a Broad-winged Hawk, a tubby Evening Grosbeak, the Wild Turkey.

The old road runs across the dolomite that underlies the whole county. I carry on until the forest opens and I can follow the boardwalks out into the marsh. Here, tree swallows feed and chase each other – it’s mating season after all. Their feathers catch the sun and flash an electric indigo. A White-throated sparrow runs up the boardwalk and perches in a low willow. Farther in a Grasshopper Sparrow sings, if its insect-like buzz can be called a song.

A Wilson’s Snipe flushes and buzz bombs back into cover. I hear the clunky chortle of Sandhill Cranes and search the distant margins of the marsh for the source. I finally spot the bird, rusty-brown backed strutting and preening. Two more cranes fly overhead. A Broad-winged Hawk appears going the other direction and disappears, its flight obscured by the surrounding trees.

I remember that I’m supposed to be picking up my mother and, aside from taking photos of goldfinches and chipping sparrows, I leave. The birds are different each morning and it takes real willpower to leave when I ought to. Each time, my mother seems to think that when I arrive is when I was supposed to arrive. I don’t correct her. I’m sinning and I know it. Later, on our drive, I spot a Peregrine and, a few miles on, a Merlin. Not bad for good old Owen Sound.



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