Wallowing in frustration with my bird-identification skills and despair at the complexity of things to learn, I am brought up short by the memory of good advice I gave to a then-young son (but have steadfastly refused to take, myself).
A foot-high ridge of overturned soil spans a green field filled with something that is, presumably, a tasty treat for the cattle at the adjacent barns. Atop said ridge, about halfway across the field, is a hawk-shaped lump, a bit blurry across the intervening hundred-plus yards.
This lump sighting isn’t accidental: I was watching for a hawk in this field, having seen one near the road as I drove up. Scanning the field, I have my right hand cupped around the binocular eyepiece to reduce the glare. At not quite 0900, the early-morning sun is just on the edge of warm enough to make me wish I’d worn my desert vest (light-gray nylon) instead of my mountain one (black fleece), but well into the range of too bright to look at or anywhere near. Seemingly unbothered by the glare, though, the hawk-shaped lump is facing south, watching for its own tasty treat of the moveable feast variety.
I wait for a few minutes to see if the gods of bird watching will grant me a better view for identification purposes, but today, as so often when hawks are involved, they find me not worthy. Sighing, I tug my point-and-shoot camera out of my vest pocket and prepare to zoom.
Stopping first at the advertised 10X optical zoom capacity, I check the screen. Nope. I can hardly even see the lump. Up we go into digital zoom, all the way to 20X magnification, where the camera is highly sensitive to any motion. Of course the subject has none, so it’s really all in my hands, as it were. Trying not to think of larger pixels, lower resolution, and the likely futility of what I’m doing, I gently depress the picture-taking button thingy twice. Now it will be up to the gods of photography.
Two hours later I download my shot and mutter about gods in general. Yup, there it is: definitely a hawk-shaped lump, facing south. The photo shows exactly what I saw, darn it, and not a smidgeon more. How am I supposed to identify a hawk from this? Mutter, mutter.
My frustration is not new. As long as I’ve paid any serious attention to birds—three or four years now—hawks have consistently defied my efforts at identification. More, perhaps, than for any other bird group (genus? family? OK, so maybe the attention hasn’t been all that serious), hawk characteristics exhibit an inverse relationship between visibility and usefulness in identification. The streaky white breast that is the only obvious feature of the hawks hanging out on freeway light poles is, it turns out, completely useless in their identification. Conversely, the red tail that unequivocally marks the, umm, red-tailed hawk, is visible only in flight and only then under certain lighting conditions and from certain angles of view.
And so it is that, a few years into this hobby, I can identify several desert birds by their call, and a few by their habit of flight, but hawks I knoweth not. My birding mentors, by contrast, identify hawks soaring at heights at which I can’t quite be sure there’s even a bird in the air. I squint in the general direction they indicate. Is it a bird? I dunno. Is it a plane? Sigh.
As I stare glumly at this lousy photo—and that’s a whole other blog—I think, ‘I’ll never learn hawks. This is impossible.’ And that little bell goes off in the back of my head.
This is impossible. The speaker is Younger Son, aged six, gradually blue-ing on the swimming pool edge as I stand in front of him in torso-high water, none too warm myself. It’s the early 1980s and he has failed two introductory swimming classes, each following the same pattern. The instructor asks him to try something; he demurs. Reluctant to push, the instructor moves on to the next kid; after several weeks of this, Younger Son does not move on to the next class. Rather than paying for a third go-round, I have decided to try it my way. When he demurs in response to my request that he try something I don’t argue, I just reach for the edge of the pool.
Let’s get out.
He knows I mean it.
OK, I’ll try.
Minutes later, he has tried, completed, repeated, and mastered the skill under consideration. In the space of the next half hour, he masters all of them.
Face in the water? Check.
Duck and surface? Check.
Dog paddle three feet? Check.
Float, front and back? Check, check.
It’s an impressive series of successes, as viewed by me. But each success notwithstanding, we start the next skill the same way.
This is impossible.
On the fourth time—or is it the fourteenth?—I suggest, with my usual mild delivery and my typical parental wisdom, that he shouldn’t say something is impossible when what he means is just that he doesn’t know how to do it yet.
Now, what on earth made me think of that?