Letter from Poland: Seeking Birds

Kateri Kosek, whose poetry and reviews have appeared in Orion, recently left her Massachusetts home for a several-week trip to Poland. Here’s the last in a three-part series of dispatches from her travels.

There is a bird blind at the edge of my uncle’s hayfield. Around it, the remains of a fire, a few bottle caps on the ground. It looks rough but sturdy, draped in rubber and camouflaged with branches. My uncle told us about it when he learned I liked to watch birds. Someone had asked his permission to build it there, so he could film the birds. Just out of the way of the tractors, it doesn’t seem particularly well situated, unless he is after the storks. No one seems to know anything more, so I am left to wonder what draws him here, why this field, and who he is, this person who, like me, seeks out the birds.

When there’s nothing to do, I slip away to the woods that border the hayfields, looking for the birds that are singing, but they are hard to find. The lushness of these stands of forest is surprising for such open country full of cultivated fields. Pines with red trunks dominate, tall and straight and thin so that the sun reaches the mossy understory. The soil—pure sand—recalls a beach.

Birding is at least as marginal a hobby in Poland as in America, though my cousin Magda knows about such people who go out to count birds and tally up species. Wherever I go here, I can’t help but investigate the unfamiliar European birds. I fall behind the group if a nuthatch drops down a tree trunk in the park. I examine every gull that swarms along the boardwalk at the glitzy marina in Sopot, on the Baltic. From my balcony on the farm I watch kestrels hovering over the landfill in the distance. Up on the landfill, I try to sort out the distant flock of shorebirds that appears one day in the pond, that probe the shallow water like it were mudflat and beach, and not a pond that is being filled with coal ash.

I point out birds to my relatives sometimes, like the black redstart that alights and sings on the rooftop of my cousin’s unfinished house. He likes the location, says there are always birds singing. As we are driving out of the development he stops the car, says, “What bird is that?” and backs up so we can peer into the branches at an exotic-looking black bird with a bright yellow bill and eye ring—the European version of a blackbird.

Once, in the hayfield, I get caught with a field guide. I’ve just seen some striking kind of shrike and have come to look it up. A talkative older neighbor who has come to help sees me looking at the bird book, and nudges it, wanting to know what it is. Ptaki, I say. Birds.

“Ah, ptaki.”

Earlier, I’d gotten the sense that he was teasing me, chattering away at me in high-pitched and animated Polish as if I would somehow magically understand. I fear the book won’t help, that I will appear silly, a girl from America who brings a bird book to the hayfield and walks around taking photos, as if this were all a novelty and not a necessary component of sustaining the farm that feeds one’s family.

Instead, he thumbs through the pages as I hold it, pauses on the eagles, and taps at one, talking all the while. He sees that eagle frequently at certain times of year, my dad tells me. Later, I show him the picture of the red-backed shrike I identified, and he seems fascinated, says he’d never seen one. And then he’s off, talking about birds, imitating a bird call persistently until my dad understands that he is talking about a woodpecker. He mentions the storks, how the story of them bringing babies doesn’t work anymore because there are too many computers. I give him the book and he flips through, pointing at one bird after another. I want to know everything he is saying, but he is going too fast for us.

Kateri Kosek’s poetry and prose have appeared in Orion, Creative Nonfiction, Terrain.org, and elsewhere. She teaches college-level English and frequently writes a birding column for the Poughkeepsie Journal. She hopes this was her first of many trips to Poland.

What favorite surprising journeys have you undertaken? Tell us about one, and read others’ adventure tales, here.


  1. Such a lovely post, thank you! Aren’t nuthatches great birds? My friend and I walk out everyday into the lanes and fields around the office where we work, on the lookout for birds and butterflies, and anything else that catches our eyes. We would definitely be keeping you company as you fall behind!

  2. I am finding this the most startling and beautiful series. What more can I say than thank you.

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