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My Father's Birding Lessons



My dad wasn't made from the same mold as other dads. Every weekend there were adventures and usually misadventures. In sub-zero New Hampshire winters we'd snowshoe through frozen river gorges and huddle around a tiny camp stove roasting bratwurst and scalding our taste buds on hot soup from a Thermos. He taught us food tastes better when you're outdoors, even if it's burned to a crisp.

When we went sledding with the neighborhood kids, my dad showed up with a shovel and a bucket of water to help us build a fairly lethal ski jump. Then he balanced on his shovel and rode it all the way down the hill while the gang laughed. He taught us to not take ourselves too seriously.

When the snow melted and the lakes were full of runoff, my dad began his spring ritual of preparing our old wooden boat for the fishing season, patching last year's holes with optimism and foul-smelling adhesive and slapping on a new coat of paint — sometimes green, sometimes blue. He was a busy man but he'd take us fishing after work; often it was dark by the time we docked with our catch. He taught us to make time for the things we loved.

In the sweltering heat of summer, while other families were whooping it up at Disneyland, my dad came up with a better idea: the family canoe trip. He borrowed three canoes and bought out the entire stock of freeze-dried beef stroganoff from the Army-Navy store and off we went for a serene paddle down the Connecticut River. As my brother and I portaged our fully loaded canoe around the third dam in three days, sweating and staggering under our burden, we looked up and saw a black-throated blue warbler, my only sighting to date of this lovely bird. My dad taught us that hard work can bring unexpected rewards.

When we were playing ball in the vacant field behind our house and found a strange bird that seemed to have a broken wing, my dad told us, "That's a killdeer. Probably has a nest nearby." We found four perfect speckled eggs in a depression in the grass and begged our dad to do something to protect them from the riding mower that came along every two weeks. He talked to the landowner, and the next day some stakes and orange ribbon surrounded the nest. Before long there were four fuzzy chicks running around. My dad taught us to stand up for things we cared about.

In the fall he drove the family two hours north to leaf-peep and see the Old Man of the Mountain. While other tourists were snapping pictures of the granite face, my dad whispered, "Hey, look at that. Might be a cedar waxwing." He taught us the names of birds.

When I was off at college my dad called to tell me there was a funny looking owl in the neighborhood, so I took the first ride-share home. The owl was perched in a tree surrounded by binocular-clad observers and my dad, a practical man, would show up every few hours with coffee and a Havahart trap full of mice he'd caught in the attic. I didn't know then that a Northern hawk owl is considered one of the Holy Grail birds for North American birders; I just thought it was beautiful (and well fed). My dad taught me about the fellowship of birding.

When I was newly married, we took a boat ride off the coast of Washington State with my parents and I saw my first tufted puffin. After my kids were grown and my marriage came apart, I traveled down to Phoenix to see my folks and regroup. We took a walk through a nature preserve not far from their retirement community and found a gorgeous vermillion flycatcher. My dad taught me that in times of joy and sorrow, there are always birds.

My dad is the reason I live in one of the bird-iest counties in the country and why everywhere I've been I've connected with the local birding community. Here on the North Coast, it's the Redwood Region Audubon Society, a fun group full of friendly people who plan field trips every weekend.

A very happy Father's Day to all the dads out there. I hope on this special day you'll give your kids — and yourself — the gift of the outdoors. Amble along the beaches with a picnic lunch (maybe not a Thermos of extra hot soup) and stop to build a sand castle. Explore the trails that wind through the redwood forests and take a close look at a banana slug. Or wander through the Arcata Marsh with a bunch of birders. Teach your kids to pause and to notice.

You never know what a difference it might make.

Sarah Hobart (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Humboldt County.


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