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As an eleven-year-old boy, I waded into a marsh behind the beach I visited with my family on summer Saturdays. Clad in swim trunks and a pair of tall rubber boots, I struck out to find the “thunder-pumper”, an American bittern calling from deep within the cattails. As a blossoming bird nerd, I wanted nothing more than to confront the shy and elusive bittern on its home turf, to see it in the flesh and feather.
It didn’t happen. I slogged as far into the murky water as possible – reaching the rims of my boots – and I was no closer to the source of the booming oonk-a-lunk notes emanating from the marsh.
Nearly 30 years on, I’m sitting in a sun-dappled cabin with a loose gathering of visitors with my camera trained on a petite yellow bird. It’s delicately grasped and raised to the light for me by the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre’s resident bird expert, and I snap photos so intimate and crisp that I can see my reflection in the bird’s inky black eye.
It is a face-to-face encounter any bird enthusiast longs for – no bugs, binoculars or bushwhacking required. A dazzling male yellow warbler, so astounding to see and inspect at such close range, is a marvel of art and avian engineering.
Songbird banding sessions take place at Oak Hammock on Friday mornings from May to September. Mist nets are deployed, with mesh knit so fine that dipping and swooping birds softly tangle in them like flies in a web. They are carefully extracted, placed into small cotton sacks and, once inside the cabin, given keen-eyed once-overs to determine age, gender and breeding status. With a quick nip from their beaks, some pinch and strike at their captors. Flapping, fighting blackbirds notwithstanding, most caught birds keep silent and compliant.
With the precision of a surgeon, small aluminum anklets are positioned around the bird’s leg. And then, the moment I am waiting for: a literal moment in the sun as the warbler, aglow from rays of light piercing the window, is held up like a trophy. The hold is referred to as the ‘photographer pose’ – and I comply. I would comply for hours on end, if I could. For a photographer, it represents glorious opportunity. For a bird lover, it’s a breathless moment.
The warbler is slid into a small envelope and weighed on a scale. Data is entered into a logbook and the bird is taken from the cabin for release back into the wild. It launches from captivity and momentarily alights in a nearby willow tree to gather its wits. The warbler returns to routine, and I await the next prize.