A Bird Walk with Walter
(Listen to the radio version here.)
Before my grandson was born in August 2020, at the peak of the pandemic, my daughter and son-in-law had refugeed to our house in Duluth from Brooklyn. While they were busy working remotely, Walter often slept in my home office with me, and when he was awake, I often held him at my office window to see the birds in my feeder and spruce tree up close and personal. So from the time he was tiny, he was paying attention to birds—he had no choice.
When Walter was one, Katie and Michael bought a house in Duluth, which allowed me to continue to provide childcare. Last spring, when he was one and a half and walking sturdily, he and I started taking walks in his neighborhood. I of course paid attention to birds, and we had some wonderful experiences with them. Probably the best was one he still talks about from last June 1, when we came upon a chickadee singing away on a “Resident Parking” sign between the sidewalk and the street. I’d never seen a Black-capped Chickadee singing on such an exposed perch, so I pulled out my cellphone and made a little video as we walked past, just a few feet away.
I’d have loved to document how long the chickadee stayed there, but Walter was already walking on to his next adventure, and any grandma worth her salt prioritizes a one-year-old over even the most interesting chickadee. Together, Walter and I have watched such things as robins running on lawns and sitting in his apple tree, Mallards swimming and a crow taking a bath in the creek, and hummingbirds sipping nectar in beebalm.
But one- and two-year-olds aren’t monomaniacal the way I am, so our neighborhood walks can’t accurately be described as bird walks. Airplanes, helicopters, delivery trucks, various shovel trucks, cars, motorcycles, and fire hydrants arrest his attention as much as any bird.
One moment we might be studying the varied colors of violets growing in a shaded spot along the sidewalk when suddenly a cement-mixer truck goes by and botany flies out the window.
On May 25, I brought Walter on his first official Bird Walk, at the lovely place I’ve always called the Western Waterfront Trail that is now officially called Waabizheshikana or the Marten Trail in West Duluth. As I was unfastening him from his car seat, a Song Sparrow was singing away from very close range and we both listened to it, but after he was released from the car, Walter was on full Zoom! mode and didn’t want to spend time searching out the bird. I started up eBird and listed it, four goldfinches, a robin, and a crow, but Walter had other concerns. I’d told him earlier that there would be a “funny bathroom” in the parking lot, but the City hadn’t yet put in the porta-potties, so that was a major disappointment for the little guy.
It was a gorgeous sunny day but not many people were out—we encountered two women on morning runs and two birders and that was it. Walter showed each of them the dandelions he had picked, and informed one of them that he’s allowed to pick dandelions but must not pick garden flowers or wildflowers. He helpfully explained to one of them that dandelions are always yellow until they make white seeds.
Birding with a toddler, you always see less than you could on your own. Walter ran much of the first half mile so I couldn’t stop to scan through a couple of small warbler flocks.
I heard redstarts and Yellow Warblers, but I’m sure there were other species mixed in with them. I’d have waited in one good spot for a Swamp Sparrow to pop up or sing, but that was not on Walter’s agenda.
But birding with a toddler, you also always see more than you would on your own. Dandelions take on a beautiful luster they don’t normally have for me. The gravel path becomes more interesting—Walter put six or seven little stones in my pocket before I told him we were taking too many and he could put in just four more. This made him grow very selective, getting down on his haunches and scrutinizing the ground to select the very best ones. He’s an agreeable little guy, so after he put four perfect rocks in my pocket, he stopped looking. Well, he found one more, but told me he would hold this one in his hand, which he did for at least five minutes before we walked out on a city pier and he tossed it into the river. Then we watched the beautiful ripples.
Near the end of our walk, we came upon a big, friendly golden retriever and Walter held out his hands to show the doggie his dandelions. This was all a wonderful kind of fun I never have when I’m birding on my own.
We watched Canada Geese on a lawn and swimming in the water—no baby geese out there yet—saw grackles gleaming iridescent purple on a lawn nearby; a flicker on the roadside take off, its golden underwings and white rump suddenly revealed to a surprised little boy; and five Yellow Warblers all in one tree, glowing in the sunlight as they squabbled over territories and mate choices. According to eBird, we saw 32 species over 1.63 miles.
But when we talked to Mommy and Daddy at the end of our big birdwatching adventure, the highlights for him were the dog, a BIG shovel truck, and, maybe most exciting of all, the “tilty sidewalk” in the neighborhood we walked through on our way back to the parking lot. I’ve walked through that neighborhood a hundred times on my own but never paid attention to how that stretch of sidewalk tilts at close to a 45º angle. I’ve seen thousands if not tens of thousands of Yellow Warblers in my life, but never before noticed a tilty sidewalk! Now I regret focusing my camera on the warblers but not that fascinating sidewalk.
We grownups have so much to share with the next generation that it’s easy to forget how much they have to share with us. I got at least as much out of my first official Bird Walk with Walter as he did. I can’t wait to see what he shows me next time.