July 25, 2021

Book review: Field Notes From An Unintentional Birder (★)

I bought this book by chance from Porter Square Books, after waiting in a long line in the rain during a more stringent lockdown period, in February, looking for a book to get for my friend Sam’s birthday. Sam read it and let me borrow it, and I read it mostly on the plane flying out to Wyoming to go rock climbing with Sam. And, of course, to go birding.

The descriptions of a first-time birder learning this new, odd activity are enjoyable, and often I would nod along or laugh in recognition. At one point, among an experienced birding group, the author, Julia Zarankin, mistakes a green heron for a hummingbird, which is an absurd, almost unbelievable misidentification, except that I know how shapes and movements can play tricks and how inexperienced judgment charges ahead with an incomplete impression (it has certainly happened to me).

The best parts of the book were when Julia would go birding with her husband. Julia had an intense interest in birds and terrible ability to see and ID them, and her husband had little interest, but was gifted in spotting them. This unstable situation led to some tension and brought out a particular kind of birder’s competitiveness and pride in Julia.

I liked this line:

Not having a nemesis bird is the saddest thing in the world.

Overall, the structure of the book isn’t compelling to me; mapping the world of birds to parts of a life in a memoir (cedar waxwings and anxiety about haircuts, a displaced spotted towhee and Julia’s immigration) didn’t add to either the story of birding or the story of Julia’s life. It’s a whole is less than the sum situation.

In Wyoming, I saw the bird I was hoping to see: a western tanager. In fact, Sam and I saw at least two or three every morning, where they would visit the pine trees at the stream near our campground. We also saw lazuli buntings and, on the last day, a mountain bluebird, a bit of sky blue perched on a fence post in alpine meadows.