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Flight Lines: Seeing more clearly with young eyes

The author (left) searches for birds Saturday with his neighbor's son, Joe. Photo by Doug Leier.1 / 2
The author (left) searches for birds Saturday with his neighbor's son, Joe. Photo by Doug Leier.2 / 2

Every now and then, we all need reminding as to just what it was that led us here in the first place, and why we love what we do.

Over time, we tend to lose track of those first few occasions when the fever-pitch of excitement caused our hearts to thump; we forget those moments when we decided this was something we wanted to do.

Last weekend I received just such a lesson from an unlikely source: a 10-year-old boy.

A neighbor has a son, Joe, who exhibits a preternatural interest in the outdoors, especially birds. Last week, Joe asked me where he might be able to see common redpolls, a small finch that shows up irregularly every winter from Canadian nesting areas to our north. I passed along the fact this was a particularly poor winter for redpoll sightings, but that there were a few around. After realizing I hadn't gotten out much lately, I asked if he (and his father) would like to go looking for some on Saturday.

He jumped at the chance.

Saturday arrived and Joe was ready. His backpack was packed with binoculars, a bird field guide, sketching tools for drawing birds, and snacks. It was a picture of meticulous preparation and planning.

As he dutifully sat in the rear seat of the car, Joe told of some recent birds he'd seen in his backyard. I couldn't help but admire his fascination with species I now tend to ignore. He also commented on a photograph he'd seen on the Internet that depicted a hybrid northern flicker. How this 10-year old even knew what a hybrid was amazing me, but he blew me away by naming the two subspecies involved.

It was obvious this was a young person engaging in a passion.

At the first stop, we did quite a bit of walking and observed several different species. Joe's ears were tuned to the vocalizations of most of the common birds, such as the American crow and blue jay. It was apparent this was a boy well ahead of his peers in terms of wildlife observation and understanding.

Joe consumed one of his snacks en route to our next destination in hopes to find redpolls. With much anticipation, we strolled through some prime habitat with no luck. Like most of the winter thus far, the area seemed to be somewhat lacking in birds.

One bird took to the air, however, which caught our collective eyes. Tracking this individual to a juniper tree, we determined it to be a Townsend's solitaire, a locally rare vagrant during the fall, winter, and spring months. It was only the fourth one I'd ever seen in Cass County and Joe's first. He was ecstatic.

During the ride home, Joe finished his snacks and reflected on what we had found.

"That bird (Townsend's solitaire) made up for not finding redpolls," he said. I couldn't have agreed more.

Once home, I was struck by what I had been missing in my own pursuit of the outdoors. I had gotten complacent, I was taking common things for granted, and I had let the wonder fade.

Not so with Joe. His priorities were right in line with the passionate pursuit of knowledge and fun. His excitement was contagious; his anticipation palpable. He was fascinated with things I remember once being fascinated with, and he wore his wonder proudly.

During one of our walks, Joe's attention was drawn to the notion of what his footprints looked like in the snow. I was jealous of the trance-like power this simple idea had on him, and I resolved to find it again.

I don't make New Year's resolutions and consider them largely a waste of time. Going forward, however, I am committing myself to the rediscovery of wonder, of enchantment with the outdoors, and of the magic only found in nature. Funny thing is it took a 10-year-old boy to make this happen.