Alt+Home: Birdwatching

Games can be more than mere entertainment. This time, for a special summer edition of his column Alt+Home , intermedia artist Kent Sheely takes video game tourism to another level and goes bird-watching in Skyrim.

There are a staggering number of games that include birds as elements of their worlds, usually as background ambience or environmental nuances that most players will never consciously notice. Even in a lot of cases where birds are rendered as objects with which players can interact, these hapless creatures are dangled as soft targets that will rake in a handful of points when shot, or to provide comic relief through well-placed poops. Birds are overlooked and underrepresented as subject material and as playable characters, so I decided it was time to take a stand and turn that around. I immersed myself in a modified version of one of the most popular open-world games ever made, Bethesda’s Skyrim, and documenting its feathered fauna in a way that would do them justice.

I prepared my outfit carefully, selecting a palette of browns and greys that would blend in nicely with most of the foliage I’d be trekking through during my expedition. The hat, I thought, was a nice touch - I’d picked out some discarded quail and grouse feathers from the woods, and thought maybe I’d look a bit less threatening, perhaps even friendly, to any birds that might happen to spot me amidst the trees and grass.

My camera was charged, my gear was packed. I was ready!

Like many of you, dear readers, I live in a city. That means the local birds are somewhat limited to the ones that can survive on discarded street food (pigeons, sparrows, starlings, and seabirds as you get near the boardwalk). But this was a birdwatching expedition after all, and I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to capture this gorgeous couple of strutting pigeons. The town guard gave me a strange look, but didn’t say anything. It may have been the hat.

After taking a couple of quick shots, I made my way out of town and began my journey northward, heading toward the sea and the distant mountains.

It didn’t take long before I was startled by this fine pheasant, who darted out of a nearby shrub as I passed by on the trail! I kept my reflexes about me and managed to snag this perfect shot as he paused momentarily before darting away and vanishing into the grass on the other side of the trail. I hoped he would be less cavalier about this behavior in the future, as I knew hunters had a tendency to pass through this direction.

It turned out this would not be the first bird I would see near the road; there were several others pecking for food in the tall grass nearby, and I was lucky enough to capture a Wood Pigeon and a Common Starling before they took wing. The birds of this region always seem to let me approach far more closely than they should; perhaps it is the lack of natural predators near the urban area that gives them more courage than birds who live far beyond city limits.

On my way past a little farm, I heard the familiar sound of honking geese and clucking chickens. I decided to stop in and say hello, because farm birds are still birds, after all! The farmer wasn’t around, but one of the geese became so friendly with me that I couldn’t resist taking a quick selfie with him. He even smiled!

The sky was beginning to cloud over by the time I reached this a mist-shrouded lake. I spotted a lone sandpiper taking a stroll through a shallow pool near the shore, so I waded a little ways out into the water and leaned down to grab this shot. The plucky piper didn’t seem to mind my presence, but it watched me intently as I nearly fell over trying to capture the splendor of the misty peaks and pines in the background.

Right after I took this photo, I nearly lost my head to a giant, aggressive crab that snuck up behind me. I was all but helpless as I hadn’t brought any weapons along on this expedition, and even if I had, I wasn’t about to kill an animal that was probably just defending its territory from invasive beings such as myself! I put the crab and the lake both behind me, and resumed my journey northward.

As night began to descend, I sought out a nearby settlement in order to find a place to stay until morning. As I walked through the town gates, I happened to look up in time to see this hawk returning to her nest at the top of a tall building. Seeking shelter from the darkness, just like me. She was undoubtedly bringing back food for a handful of her children, as I could see a lifeless shape dangling from her beak as she crested the parapet at the top of the tower. I wanted to get a better view of the nest, but the building was shut tight and it looked as though I might be risking my life, and arrest, with a daring climb like that. I decided I’d stop through the town on the way back home and see if could find someone who had the ability and authority to get me closer to these magnificent creatures.

As I was making my way to my room at the inn, I was presented a grim reminder of my mortality by a lone raven, calmly stationed near my door. Even as I crouched low to take the photo, it did not move a single feather, but kept staring right into my eyes. Was this bird an omen of death, or merely a sign of coming change? I quickly left it alone and went about my business, but this encounter left me with a chill at the back of my neck.

The next morning, I was in a far more cheerful mood. It would be a good day to climb the mountain and see the sorts of winged things who dared to live in the freezing conditions offered at higher altitudes. On my way up the trail, I spotted a flock of birds that were too distant to identify, but their presence gave me hope for the day ahead of me!

On my way up the trail I was lucky enough to capture three shots of small birds as they whizzed past me: a bluejay, a cardinal, and a tiny young sparrow. Luckily I’d anticipated seeing birds in flight during this stretch of my journey, and had my camera ready to capture a few of these fleeting moments! The avians of this region are far more wary of humans than they were in the more settled regions.

At long last I reached the top of the mountain. It was just starting to snow as I came across an abandoned hut just off the path, and stopped in my tracks when I noticed this elegant Snow Bunting hunkered down atop a small stump next to the structure. She didn’t seem to mind me getting close, but as soon as I snapped this photo she took wing with a soft flutter. Walking through town I happened upon at least half a dozen more, each contentedly perched upon a fencepost or underneath the awning of a home. They were gorgeous to look at against the backdrop of gently drifting snowflakes.

Another resident of the small town, a plump chicken, was confidently striding across the street in front of two town guards as I walked past. The foot soldiers yielded, which left me wondering if it was a sign of respect for the chicken or if they just didn’t want to cause any sort of altercation that might require extensive paperwork.

I didn’t see many more birds during my time on top of the mountain; the cold and the time of day were apparently not in my favor. However, as I made my way back down the other side, I happened across this strange encampment tended by a lone hermit. A gnarled tree stood to one side, decorated with animal skulls and adorned with small offerings of precious gems. As I approached, the stranger turned to me and began to speak, but I could not hear his voice. My head began to swim, and I cannot recall what happened next.

When I regained my senses, I was lying next to the strange tree, and found a neatly folded set of clothing beside me. I’d apparently been gifted an outfit made of animal fur, and a morbid feathered necklace with a bird skull as its centerpiece. Strangely, all of what had just transpired felt right. It was meant to be. I graciously donned the new clothing and took a quick photo of myself to show it off.

I was about to take birdwatching to an entirely new level.

I approached a cliff at the edge of the mountain, and felt the wind whipping around my body. I knew there was no turning back from this point, that my life was about to change forever. I took a running leap off of the cliff, felt the rush of gravity, and then suddenly I was being carried aloft. Glancing around, I realized that I had grown a powerful pair of wings from my back, which were now whipping through the evening air and propelling me upward!

I spent the night cartwheeling through the night sky, learning how to use my new ability. After resting a bit at the inn, I was eager to get closer to my feathered friends. I walked up to the roof, unfolded my lovely new wings, and with a few mighty flaps I was soaring through the hills. I was about to take birdwatching to an entirely new level.

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