A Supposedly Fun Thing

Journalist Ryan Goldberg, photographed against the Detroit skyline

My friend Ryan Goldberg, a Brooklyn-based journalist, recently stayed at the Woodbridge Farm to write and watch birds. It's the perfect place and time to year to do the latter, according to Ryan, who's become somewhat zealous about the hobby. He spent most mornings working at the dining room table—finishing what he hoped to be the final draft of a long-form investigative piece for a prestigious American magazine I was asked not to name—before dashing off to nearby Point Pelee National Park. There he ticked several species off his "to see" list, including the rare Kirtland's Warbler, which NPR listeners might remember from this classic piece on Radiolab.

A boisterous Kirtland's warbler, photographed by Joel Trick

A boisterous Kirtland's warbler, photographed by Joel Trick

Ryan's visit purposefully coincided with the northern migration of birds, as well as the community's corresponding influx of birders, who fill up hotels, inns, AirBNBs, and restaurants across this southernmost tip of Canada—a region I've heard Weather Channel meteorologists unironically refer to as "extreme southwestern Ontario."

Several events cater to these binocular-toting tourists. The most popular might be Pelee Island's Springsong, a dinner and reading founded by Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson to benefit the Pelee Island Bird Observatory (or PIBO) and the Pelee Island Heritage Centre. This year's was the 16th annual event, though the first I've attended. Earlier iterations have featured notable authors like Miriam Toews and Alice Munro; Newfoundland poet and writer Michael Crummey was the 2017 headliner. At some point during the supper, local author Paul Vasey, the event's "M.C. for life" (so deemed by Atwood), asked all those who were not birders to raise their hands. After about a third of the 200-plus crowd did so, we were jovially booed by the rest, who slapped their tables and stomped their feet and rang their wine glasses. After two bottles of Riesling, those folk get rowdy.

Life was calmer back at the farm in Kingsville. Though Ryan's written for The New York Times, Deadspin, ProPublica, The Village Voice, Men’s Journal, and other august outlets, he hasn't let cosmopolitan life scare him away from dirt and grease. Both he and his girlfriend Angie, who teaches architecture at the University of Syracuse, eagerly pitched in around the property, weeding garden beds and helping me attach the tiller to our '84 Kubota tractor. Thanks to the two of them, a tremendous amount of work got done.

But the best gift of their stay—apart from the excellent company and a sleek new set of Eagle Optics binoculars—was the work Ryan put into cataloging the many birds that migrated through our woodlot. Over about two weeks, he spotted nearly sixty independent species — a majority of which I'd never heard of before, including the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Swainson's Thrush, Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart, Black-throated Green Warbler, Eastern Wood-Pewee, and more. You can browse his entire "backyard list" here on eBird, a "real-time, online checklist program" run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.

A Black-throated Green Warbler

A Black-throated Green Warbler

The sheer variety of life that passes through here each spring is remarkable. Especially to me, given my prior obliviousness to it. Ryan considers this one of the appeals of birding: like all the best hobbies, it opens a door to a hidden world. Though I find that world more fascinating now than I did before they arrived, I'm happy to keep focused on the practice of sustainable farming and literature. But, with luck, we'll be joined by Ryan and Angie again next year, when—supposing more luck—they'll update us on the state of migration.

—Grant