What happens when a young nocturnal hawk can’t read the stars to help him find his way during one of the longest migration distances of any bird species in North America?
Scientist turned storyteller Jamie Bastedo of Yellowknife invites readers from “ages nine to 99” to find out in his newest adventure novel, Nighthawk!
“This is very much a family book,” said Bastedo, an ecologist and educator.
It’s also his first book written from the point of view of an animal, a nighthawk named Wisp.
“You are the bird in this book. It was a challenge and very new for me because it is my first talking animal book,” he said. “I asked the neighbourhood kids in Old Town, who I teach guitar to, if these birds should talk and unanimously they said yes… Our oldest stories involve animals and in a way I think this touches an ancient chord in the human heart…Talking animals isn’t so weird; we have a longing to get inside their heads.”
Nighthawk!, at 245 pages, follows the long, black wings of Wisp, who leaves his flock to embark on a forbidden migratory journey alone from the depths of the Amazon to the Arctic.
Bastedo takes Wisp over jaw-dropping landscapes, including Mexico’s largest volcano, Popocatépetl, and the Sonoran Desert down into jagged, Grand Canyon-like chasms and Yellowstone National Park.
“I take my bird right over Fort Smith and down the Slave River, too. He flies across Great Slave Lake and ends up – well you’ll have to read the book to see where he ends up,” Bastedo said.
According to the author, Nighthawk! is a celebration of landscape diversity as well as the incredibly dangerous process of bird migration.
“There’s a mystery to migration and it’s very messy business…Wisp goes through Calgary at night during a chinook and has to navigate around these illuminated towers of glass. Towers like these, cell and radio towers, kill millions of birds,” he said.
One radio tower took out 20,000 birds in the span of just 48 hours in a northeastern part of the US, Bastedo said.
“The bird biologist and the story spinner in me both have to be satisfied so when you put down the book, these birds need to be conveyed in a way that is true to their natural history, highlighting how dangerous migration is. It’s an adventure story, but it’s also about things I’m concerned about.”
Without a doubt, human structures are the greatest hazard when it comes to completing natural migrations, Bastedo said.
Common nighthawk numbers have dwindled in Canada by 50 per cent over the past 40 years.
Data from the Canadian Breeding Bird Survey indicate a significant long-term decline of 4.2 per cent per year in population numbers from 1968-2005 and a 6.6 per cent decline from 1995-2005 alone, according to findings in a 2007 report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
There was another reason Bastedo wanted to write about the nighthawk: its sheer mystery as a feathered friend.
“The very name evokes mystery, adventure and story. It’s a strange, misunderstood bird. It has so many names; one of them in French translates into ‘flying toad.’ Another refers to the luminous, ghost-like, spontaneous flashes you see in wetlands, bogs and spooky places at night. It’s a spooky bird. Not much is known about them scientifically…They’re amazing flyers that do this sonic boom dive when doing their mating dance. I just fell in love with them,” he said.
“As I wrote this book, I often dreamt of flying. These characters are very real and dear to me and I hope they become so for the reader as well.”
Bastedo was in Fort Smith Monday promoting the recent release of Nighthawk! at the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre. He also be made a historical presentation, “Tales from the Trading Post,” to elementary students on Tuesday at the museum.
After receiving a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, Bastedo is already in the thick of planning his next novel, which will detail how one teenage cyber addict begins an intensive rehabilitation process through a wilderness excursion in the Mackenzie Mountains.