To bird or not to bird?

People often ask me why I bird, and I have to stop and think about it. Life not spent birding is now a foreign concept. I rarely, if ever, leave my home in Bartlett Cove without my binoculars in close company. The handful of times I have accidentally left without them are the moments I am left wondering what exquisite species of birds has evaded my grasp, a mysterious, feathered phenomenon, never to be identified.

Initially, I started birding to humor a former boyfriend. Upon returning from a study abroad program in Russia, he asked if I would like to join him on a bird walk that started at 6am the following morning. “A bird what?” was likely my response, but I decided to join him since I was jetlagged and would be awake at strange hours for the next few days regardless. And what an odd experience it was. Mostly older people from the community, a few professors, and even fewer young folks. My memory is of hearing over and over again “there’s a _____ (fill in the blank),” people craning their necks in every direction, watching for a few minutes, and then moving on. Try as I might, I never did find any of the birds of mention, even when individuals shared their binoculars and attempted to help me find the tiny creature high in the foliage within which they successfully remained out of my line of vision time and again. By the end of the morning walk, I was through with birding. It seemed interesting, but I certainly had no need to engage in such a rigorous, slow activity that yielded very few results.

Yet a seed had been planted. I purchased a Sibley field guide to the birds of North America for the eastern region (which I now regularly and lovingly perform corrective surgery on with clear packaging and duct tape to lengthen its life), found a pair of my grandfather’s old binoculars (which I now realize I could see birds better without), and brought them along on my daily walks around my parents’ neighborhood in Massachusetts. It was not to be. I grew increasingly frustrated, and when I packed up my car to move to the North Cascades mountains of Washington State for a two-month internship in Environmental Education, I left the guide behind.

Upon starting my life in Washington, I began to notice there were people in the world who not only noticed and appreciated the feathered beings who shared their community but also those who actively searched for species of note, as well as species of all kinds. The following winter, I decided to stay in the North Cascades and worked as a volunteer with the Forest Service. A fellow volunteer was a young man from France who was literally bird crazed. When we would perform our weekly eagle counts along the Skagit River, I can clearly recall times he would yell out “stop the car,” open his door, and go running down the road toward an American Kestrel and many other species that were “life birds” to be added to his list of birds for North America.

In my life, I am sure there have been subjects of interest that I have been drawn to on my own. However, the influence of nature vs. nurture to our human spirits is a powerful force. I can remember many evenings with my family at the dinner table. There was always a piece of classical music playing in the background, and as I grew older, my father and I played a game where he would choose a piece of classical music to play and I would have to guess the composer. The joy I felt upon seeing his elation when I guessed the correct composer still brings a smile to my face years later, and I imagine him playing this game with my own children some day. I am certain that I studied European History in college thanks to an incredibly impassioned professor whose course I followed my first semester in college.

I can clearly recall the moment I became a birder. It was a dismal and dreary winter day in Rockport, Washington and my co-worker told me he was looking for Evening Grosbeak. After reviewing the bird in question in a field guide, I set to work with binoculars and spotting scope. I remember being overjoyed when I finally found the target species in the scope and brought him over to bask in my triumph. And bask he did! He was overjoyed, and I will never forget his response to me – “that would be a great bird to start your life list with”.

Ah, the life list. Without going into too much unnecessary detail, suffice it to say that birding can be an in-depth, detailed account of the passing of seasons and places one visits, a journal of phenology. It is one element of a birder’s existence that causes eyebrows to rise on more than one occasion, particularly when people witness a birder observing and correctly identifying a “life bird,” which is what we refer to as a species of bird seen and recognized for the first time. This lucky individual is bestowed with the honor of being recorded for all time and on a birder’s life list.

The strangest thing about birding is that my life can now be divided into two distinct eras – Marieke b.b. (before birding) and Marieke a.b. (after birding). My life before becoming a birder was meaningful and rich in many ways, yet I cannot recall the presence of birds. I know they were there because I find them by the dozens when I return to Massachusetts to visit my parents. The only bird I can truly recall was the black-capped chickadee, whose singing outside my window announced the return of spring each year. Of course, I did not recognize it as a chickadee until many years later. I am so thankful to have discovered these creatures.

I realize that I still have not answered the simple question – why bird? why birds? However it started for me, I feel blessed to be aware of these remarkable creatures living in the moment around me as I fumble through my very human existence. I am thankful for these birdsthat force me into the present, to take note of their own immediate existence, so bent on survival that their every movement could be their last. Birds live life as it was meant to be lived – with intention, deliberation, grace, and beauty. I am often intrigued by how simple it is for me to return to my human world after watching this world unfold for even a few minutes. Yet those few minutes are precious because they force me outside of myself and through a portal into a world that is happening every second of every day around each and every one of us, be it town mouse or country mouse or dwellers of remote, wild places.

Birding keeps me grounded. It keeps me feeling alive and present, focused and part of a world from which I as a species have grown distant yet which could and should be my salvation. I have had to retrain my senses to be aware of birds, to see and hear them. But now, anywhere I travel in the world, I can find these creatures living fully for every moment. I have company when I feel alone. I have only to step outside my door.

How can one not be moved by a tiny kinglet, so small and weightless it should not rightly be exist or survive the winter? I can think of nothing more beautiful than the ballet of shorebirds in flight, so in sync with each other, the wind, the presence of potential predators are they.

We have precious little time on this planet, and I hope to engage with the wonder of this world, to escape from myself, and to join the bird world as often as possible. Be it bird, plant, or beast, find elements of the natural world that stir your being and cause your heart to quicken its beat. You will not be disappointed.

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