Eleanor Sinclair and Rhonda Reid
Eleanor and Rhonda are birders. Everyday from mid-May until July (Rhonda actually starts in mid-April), they putter down Goose Creek in search of birds. You could say they’re kind of Churchill’s Thelma and Louise of birding or as Eleanor puts it, ‘She’s white and I’m Indian but we’re the same person. She’s the only one that I really speak Cree to, I don’t know why, that’s just what happens. We kind of have our own bird language too, I don’t know how we understand each other, but we do.’
Its hard to argue with this as our birding adventure progresses, Eleanor and Rhonda in search of ‘Mervs’, ‘Harriets’, ‘Barbara Bushes’ and ‘Scaupity-Scaup-Scaups’ hidden amidst ‘Hairy Islands’, ‘Porcupines’ and ‘Tree Bumps’. Along for the ride, I try to follow, my head spinning, trying to keep up with their strange bird language, good-natured bickering and giggling.
All of this nonsense started ten years ago. Rhonda was picking berries up in the rocks behind Northern Nights restaurant, walking her dog, Muk-a-dune, the Cree word for’big mouth’. So, as Rhonda was wandering the rocks, calling ‘Mukadune!’, Eleanor, out for a smoke break behind Northern Nights, yelled back, ‘What?!?’. That was pretty much the start of a good friendship and a decade of birding, although Rhonda explains, ‘We weren’t as serious about birding back then, just kind of putzin’ around for the first couple years.’
Rhonda and Eleanor are from pretty different backgrounds. Rhonda grew up in Sault Ste. Marie and spent twelve years in Vancouver before heading north to Churchill with a friend in 1999. She says, ‘I think northerners are born, you can’t tell when but at some point, you’ll end up in the north.’
Working almost everywhere since arriving in Churchill ten years ago, Rhonda started off at the Sigudson & Martin supermarket, locally known as the ‘S&M’. She explains, ‘That was my first “Only in Churchill” moment, people referred to me as the S&M girl and nobody batted an eye!’ Now, Rhonda is a Churchill fixture, one of our comunity’s leading birders and tour guides, specializing in teaching people how not to dismount the Sea North II tour boat.
Eleanor was born in Churchill, one of seven children, and grew up in a one room ‘shack at the Flats’. She remembers those days, ‘We had lots of fun! We were either swimming in the river or playing in the bushes,we weren’t allowed to play inside… there was no room! I think our porch was as big as our house…’
Eleanor says, ‘I lived here all my life and I never knew the names of the birds but I remember the White-crowned Sparrows. My dad used to call me, Ahmisstih-goosee-sqwehsis, the Cree word for ‘little white girl’, because I was the palest of the kids (my hair would almost turn blond in the summer.) When we’d hear the white-crowned sparrows sing, he’d imitate them, saying, ‘Eleanor, the birds are calling you – Ahmisstih-goosee-swehsis… Ahmisstih-goosee-swehsis…’ I’d hear them everywhere, I used to think those birds were following me!’
Now, Eleanor can ID a few birds and is expanding her ‘life list’, although it is stored in Rhonda’s brain. Even though they ‘break pretty much every rule of birding’, they still have their share of birding successes, spying a Marbled Godwit, Red-Necked Grebe and Northern Goshawk this year. One of their biggest highlights was watching an Osprey try to reclaim its nest from a Bald Eagle.
Rhonda is in search of a Sora Rail, an elusive bird usually identified by song instead of sight. ‘The saying ‘thin as a rail’ actually comes from the bird, they can move through the grass without disturbing it. I’ll see one eventually.’
For Eleanor, its the Northern Hawk Owl, a rare and striking resident owl. ‘Everytime Rhonda is out alone, it comes really close. But, when I’m here, it won’t stick around.’ She turns, serious for a moment, ‘I think it hates Indians.’ After a quick pause for dramatic effect, Eleanor’s characteristic laughter fills the van, once again.
Suddenly, the little green van grinds to a halt, a Song Sparrow has landed on a spindly tamarck near the road. Rhonda makes a quick ID based on the striping and black spot on its chest while Eleanor scans the branches and bird books.
Eleanor: ‘Where is it?!?’
Rhonda: ‘Its right there!’
Eleanor: ‘Oh right there!! …Do you see
how blind I am?’
Rhonda: ‘…and whiny…’
Eleanor: ‘aaahhh, she always says that…’
With that, they celebrate another life lister for Eleanor and the little green van kicks back in gear, soon reaching cruising speed of 11km per hour. The Mukadune’s quest continues.
- prepared by Kelsey Eliasson