Clyde the Birdman

Clyde the Birdman: A Memoir as told to Heather Harbord. 2021. ISBN 9798201867874

Well-known birder, Clyde Burton, has an encyclopedic knowledge of books garnered from a lifetime of observing and reading about them.  With love and humour, he describes his Newfoundland outport childhood, his adventures as a Hudson’s Bay clerk in Quebec, a bush pilot and, when he moved to BC, the starting of a wildlife sanctuary in Powell River.



I was always a bird lover and would go to great lengths to observe them. When I was about 14, my friend Stan Hollett and I rowed out to Iron Island, at the south end of Long Island in Placentia Bay. The sea was too rough to land the boat, so I jumped ashore on the calmer north side of the island and hiked across to the cliffs where the kittiwakes nested. I wanted to study the chicks in their nests. After crossing a scrape full of loose angular rocks,[1] I climbed out onto the cliff for about 20 feet till I was eye to eye with the birds.

There were about 30 nests wherever the parents found a wide enough ledge for their mound of grasses, feathers, seaweed and mud with an indentation in the top. Some contained two eggs and some had downy young ones nowhere near fledging. The young ones were probably a week old, no more. I carefully observed everything but didn’t stay long as the parents had flown off when I arrived. I remember glancing over at Barrie’s Hole about 150 feet away. On top were the nests of the great cormorants. I didn’t go over there because I was spooked, knowing it was where Barrie had fallen to his death.

When I was almost back at the scrape, I felt the ledge I was standing on break off. I panicked and stood there. The mental pressure was so great I thought of just jumping backwards. “If I keep my eyes closed,” I thought, “I won’t know what happened. But wait, I’ll try something else first.” Pressed hard against the cliff, I quickly rehearsed a plan in my mind, then put it into action. I would jump into the scrape and scravel up the loose rocks as soon as I landed because there wasn’t much room for error.

Using my foot for leverage, I threw myself as far over the scrape as I could, landing on the loose rocks and immediately scravelled for the top. The rocks slid downwards under my feet as I knew they would, but I used my forward momentum and my will to keep going upwards. The scree ended about four feet away in a big drop-off that I didn’t want to be anywhere near. I had to go about six feet up before I could grab the grass, and then I held on tight. That’s where I stopped to regain myself.

I remember looking back at Stan in the boat far below me. He was standing up pushing on the oars. The dory was a 16-foot boat, but from where I was, looking almost straight down, it seemed only two inches long. Being young, I soon got up and walked back over the island to where he had dropped me off earlier, and he picked me up again.

I don’t remember the conversation, but I said, “That shook me up.” That was the end of it. We left and headed for home.

I think my love of birds is almost instinctive. It was a thing that I was born with. In the past, I could no more change my life of being around birds or with birds or knowing about birds than I could walking. I was acutely aware of all the birds I had never seen before. I wanted to know more about them.

Several years later, as an adult, I went to New Brunswick. Whenever I had spare time, I’d be out in the woods, looking to see what I could see, because I knew the birds were different in the Maritimes. I saw my first scarlet tanager in Moncton. It was in a maple tree. If I could remember things in school as well as I could remember birds, I would have been famous. It’s funny, isn’t it? That image of the scarlet tanager is etched in my memory. It hopped across the middle of the tree. Red with black wings. It went across the tree and darted out the other side and I didn’t see it anymore.

That was in 1965. I can remember that as if it just happened a minute ago. Now that’s weird. Even I find it strange. When somebody asked me “Whatever got you interested in birds?” Well, whatever gets somebody interested in … baking? Or anything? People have different interests. Some people like insects!

Although I was never able to make a full-time living out of birds, I was always watching out for them 24/7. All my life, my favourite time of day has been the early morning. I like to get up at first light to go for a walk or a cycle, just me and the birds. I watch them and enjoy them. I’m not a competitive person, so I don’t keep a life list and I don’t like to argue with people about what they or I have or have not seen. I’d rather spend my time enjoying bird behavior, reading about them and sometimes photographing them. The only time I kept meticulous records of birds was while I was running the Cranberry Lake Wildlife Sanctuary. This was where my banding of trumpeter swans revealed a new and previously unknown migration route that they take to their Arctic breeding grounds.

[1] In Newfoundland, a scrape is a steep slope where a landslide has left a scar sometimes covered with loose rocks.