To my surprise, I’ve found that I’ve got birds on the mind. Now if you’re not a birdwatcher, please don’t take flight by clicking (or clucking!) away. I’m not a birdwatcher either. At least, I never was before. It’s just that recently I’ve been looking at and listening for the winged critters wherever I go. It wasn’t my idea – even though you might expect it of me since I studied and work in the environmental field and most of my hobbies involve being outside. Rather, I’d say that I’ve been plucked out of my other outdoor pursuits to lug clunky binoculars around my neck and thrust them in front of my eyes whenever there’s a slight movement in the trees, or when someone demands I do so.
The someone – who, truth be told, has never “demanded” anything of me – is my wife Eileen. Birdwatching is her new hobby and, the good wife that I am (next week it will be a year since we were married!), I’ve joined her in her jaunts. It’s a good excuse for a walk, for getting us both outdoors on the early side – note that I’m not saying crack of dawn, or anything – on a weekend. And, it provides opportunity for exercise, if we don’t take it too, too slowly. That is, if we don’t see too many birds…(!)
At home, I engage in this new pastime in a less focused way. I watch as Eileen purchases one after another bird guide, and I heed her comments as she riffles through them. I listen to the oft-repeated calls and songs of local birds that she trains herself to identify on iBird Explorer Pro, the birding app on her iPhone. And, I admit that the app is actually quite impressive. It’s got drawings and photos of all the birds in North America, with full descriptions; ecological and behavioral information; range maps; and sounds. If you don’t know what a bird is, you can do a search, specifying habitat, geographic location (e.g. Maryland vs. California), and whatever physical details you’ve observed. The app comes up with the most likely options, and if you’re lucky, Bingo! You’ve identified a bird!
I’ll admit that birding is not new to me. I’ve lead or been part of numerous ecotours, in the tropics and elsewhere, where there’ve been some very serious birders. Twitchers, as they’re often called in Britain, can be lots of fun when off duty, but when on a mission to check off every last bird ever seen at a site, I find that their minds become single-tracked, to the exclusion of all else. The rare- blooming orchids, the fluorescent blue beetle, and even the jaguar tracks, don’t warrant even a look-see or explanation. On the other hand (and to the world’s benefit), they’re routinely generous in sharing their wealth of bird knowledge (or is it trivia?). As a result, I’ve been lucky to spy more endemic species than the average backyard birder. Pretty cool, though I’ve still not gotten that excited about the sport (or, is it a pastime?).
Why not? For one, you’ve got to be able to see really well – to take note of minute characteristics such as the color of a bird’s eye rings or the shape of a mark on its rump feathers. Even with binoculars, that’s not so easy when the bird is on the other side of the proverbial pond. And, you need to be able memorize all the minute differences between one species of flycatcher and another. You’ve got to be patient. And, you need to be satisfied even when you spend a whole day in the woods or by the edge of a field without moving more than 30 feet. As you might infer, none of these are my strong points.
But, my honey (my Shiny Honeycreeper, perhap?) is into birding, so I’ve been doing my best to support her and share her passion. And, I’ll admit (I’ve been doing a lot of admitting today, haven’t I?) that I’m finding some value in it. When I walk down the street, or even when lying in bed in the morning, I hear many more bird sounds than I ever have. Previously, I would have had a deaf ear to the cheeps, chatters, tweets and twitters of the American Robin flying overhead or the Eastern Phoebe hiding in the shrubbery. Now, I take note. And, my peripheral vision catches a sparrow or warbler winging by. So much so, that even when I’m alone, I follow it to the branch and try to examine it. If only I can remember which wren it is that has the white eye stripe….
I am realizing that the world around us (sorry for the cliché), including our cities and suburban backyards, is full of more motion and life than we tend to think. I say this in light of, and in spite of, the common lament that the natural world has been greatly diminished in the past few hundred years. Granted, it is true that we are losing plants, animals and other living organisms (and their habitats) at an unprecedented rate. But, I’m finding that when I make the effort to note what passes by (usually, passerines!), and keep my ears perked, there are more Warbling Vireos, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Tufted Titmouses (or Titmice, though let’s not dwell on the word for too long….) than I’d ever have imagined.
How’s that for a flight of fancy?