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Connections | Magazine

A bumbling birder wings it with his sons

During the pandemic, nature walks have helped this North Shore dad expand his horizons, and deepen his bond with his kids.

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“That’s a robin,” I say proudly. I can easily spot one, mostly because I see 137 of them a day and a guy eventually picks up on things. I can also notice things like, “There’s one with yellow on it.” My apologies for bragging, but when you have a gift, it’s hard to stay quiet.

Then I’ll hear something in the sky. Another bird, my instinct tells me, so I ask, “Which one is that?” My 8-year-old son, Milo, will say, “Uh, it’s a grackle,” as if I didn’t know our address.

This has been part of our morning pandemic walk to the nearby pond since early April. When Milo, 5-year-old Levi, and I started, there was no scheme of becoming the expert birder that I clearly am. It was to get the television off, because my wife, Jenny, and I take a hard line at two hours before 9 a.m. (Yes, I’m low-balling.) But as we fumbled through homeschooling from the get-go in March, I could justify the walks as taking care of the science work. And phys-ed. And language arts, because we speak words to each other.

Still, do something long enough and stuff seeps in. We met the neighborhood geese, and after two weeks, we discovered that: 1. One was, in fact, not male, when she lifted up and revealed seven chicks. 2. When it comes to bread, they’re not picky. 3. When it comes to going to the bathroom, they’re not picky. And the science education continues.

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Occasionally, we’ll get a hiss and a wing spread. My sons respect the display, but they stay put, closer in than I ever would’ve when I was their ages. Sometimes we hike through the adjacent woods. I know where there’s a wide swampy part. Milo does as well. He’s in the lead, pushing through brush and climbing across tree limbs. The kid has chutzpah and a plan, which consists of, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll figure that out.”

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Levi is more hesitant, but he prefers keeping up with his brother and seems intrigued by this thing called a swamp. I hang behind and might have been on my fifth, “Guys, maybe hold on a second,” when Levi asks, “Why do you always have to be safe?”

You figured this out? At 5? I was hoping for three more years before my default mode was discovered. My kids may never know how much I’m trying to stay out of their way and how my requests to slow down barely mask a jealousy over how close they’ll get to geese and swamp land.

Now, school-ish is about to begin. They’ll go two days; do the rest at home. There will be higher expectations, big uncertainty, and a hard start time. I don’t see the morning walks surviving, though, apparently, we still need to spot a Bonaparte’s. (Gull. Had to look it up.) The normalcy from resuming classes will be good for them.

In June, as second grade was winding down for Milo, I asked him what he missed the most. Being able to get a bagel with his friend, he said. And being in class — not a huge surprise, as he reminds me and his mother, “You’re not experts.” Often, it’s during math.

Milo asked me what I liked the most about the lockdown. “Nothing,” I wanted to say. We’ve been fortunate. We’ve had stress but no losses. Still, I’m mad that Levi couldn’t finish preschool and that Milo couldn’t start Little League when that’s all he’s wanted to do since last fall.

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I did have an answer, but before I could get it out, Milo said that if he’d been in school, the walks wouldn’t have happened. The kid beat me to it.

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Steve Calechman is a freelance writer. He lives with his family on the North Shore. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. To tell your story, e-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.