Originally published in The Magazine Issue #12
Before there were geeks, there were nerds. And before nerds, the sand-kicking crowd satisfied itself by mocking an equally unhip group of individuals: birdwatchers. Caricatured as binocular-sporting, sky-scanning, baggy-pantsed ornithological eggheads, birdwatchers couldn’t be more square. And while nerds have indeed had their revenge, birders still find themselves classed as oddballs by the rest of the population.
This explains my reluctance when, one day some 20 years ago, my wife announced, “My father is coming over this weekend and if we don’t want him hanging around the house with his nose in a book, we’ll have to go birding with him.”
“We. Get some comfortable shoes and dig out your dad’s binoculars. There’s a bird guide on the shelf. You’re not worming your way out of this one.” Pun intended or not, I was on the hook.
Stay perfectly still
Under the illusion that said father-in-law had some fondness for his daughter’s husband, I reckoned that when the day came, I’d tag along and, when not peering through the eyepieces, he’d relate quaint anecdotes of phoebes and kingfishers he’d known and perhaps offer some entirely ignorable advice for the up-and-coming enthusiast.
Hardly. On my first outing I learned that, covered in khaki though they may be, birders mean business.
“Wow, check that out!” I exclaimed, pointing at a black bird with striking red-and-yellow epaulets.
“That,” my wife’s dear old dad sneered, “is a red-winged blackbird. One of the most common birds in the U.S. — particularly in marshes like this. I’m surprised you didn’t trip over it.”
I wilted, and turned my binoculars to a group of small birds pecking at the ground.
He barely looked over. “Don’t bother. LBJs.”
“Little Brown Jobs. Sparrows of some kind. Also common, and hard as hell for someone like you to identify.”
“Well, what should I look for?” I peevishly demanded.
“Try scanning the bottom of those reeds over there. And for Christ’s sake, stop moving around. You’re scaring away what little there is to see here.”
I crouched down as instructed and glared through the glasses at a patch of entirely uninteresting swamp stalks. And waited. And waited some more, praying that he’d wander into a glubbing, inescapable sludge pit, which would put a tragic — though not entirely unsatisfying — end to what had become a humiliating morning.
And then I saw it. A gray-brown, medium-sized bird with a bright yellow beak, meekly venturing out from the reeds. I pulled my bird guide from the backpack as quietly as I could, looked at the bird again to help recall its features, paged to the water fowl section, and eventually found it.
“I think I found something,” I murmured, eyes once again attached to the binoculars.
“What now?” he said with some exasperation.
“It looks like a sora. There — about five feet to the right of that break in the reeds.”
And instead of the snide dismissal I expected, my father-in-law raised his glasses, trained his eyes on the bird, and quietly spoke: “The little corn-kernel beak is the giveaway. They’re secretive as hell. Good find.”
Shit my (birding) father (in law) says
In the movies, moments like this begin the inevitable process of the master carefully imparting a lifetime of wisdom to the novice. Regrettably, my father-in-law spent what leisure time he had traveling to the most inhospitable places on earth seeking new bird species to add to his life list (a personal journal of the birds you’ve spied), so he apparently had little time for The Karate Kid and its ilk. (And I’m pretty sure The Big Year’s obsessive characters would have struck a little too close to home.)†
What knowledge I gained was given reluctantly (and gruffly).
“Put down the book. You’re going to waste time looking for things you won’t find because they’re not in this range.
“Get one of those laminated cards instead and learn what’s around you. When you’ve got those birds under your belt, then use the book so you can identify the unusual stuff.”
“Your binoculars are too big. In half an hour, your arms will get tired and your hands will shake, and that means you won’t see shit.
“No, those stupid little binoculars are no better. They don’t have enough magnification and their field of vision isn’t wide enough. Medium-sized with decent magnification and a wide field and you’re set.
“And no, the most expensive binoculars in the world won’t make you a better birder. Learn calls, flight patterns, and behavior and you’ll find more birds than the other guy who’s trying to buy his way into being something other than half-assed.”
On the early bird
“Get out of bed. Birds are best in the early morning when it’s not too hot and they’re out feeding. Twilight is good if you’re interested in owls and birds that forage elsewhere during the day.
“And pay attention to the time of year. Autumn and spring are better, as birds are passing through on their way to their summer and winter habitats.”
On your belly
“No one expects you to creep around like a goddamned ninja — obviously you’ve got to move from place to place and, yeah, you’re going to scare away the birds — but once you’re there, stop, get comfortable, shut your trap, and wait for the birds to come to you.
“Keep an eye out for chickadees, in particular. Damned nervy birds and they’ll be the first to return. The other birds follow their lead.”
The thrill of a trill
The moment I correctly identified the sora, I got a sense of why birding attracts so many people. There was the initial appeal to the hunter-gatherer within. I hadn’t set out to stalk any particular prey, but I intended to find something that would impress the aged in-law, and the something I found got the nod. In the skins-and-caves days of my ancestors, this kind of achievement would elicit joyous log-banging and grunts of “Soup’s on!” Now? I came, I saw, I put it on my life list.
The thrill of the hunt is still a part of the adventure, but as I’ve spent more time at it, I’ve developed other reasons for setting out with the binoculars and sensible footwear.
First, it’s a good way to get exercise without knowing it. I’m not the kind of person to take a walk just for the aerobic hell of it. I get bored, and when I’m bored I think about all the other, more interesting things I could be doing, and that if I turned back right now I could be a virtuous person and file expense reports and tidy my office, and that my feet hurt. When you’re birdwatching you have a purpose. And that purpose can drive you to round just one more corner, climb one more hill, in the hope that you see something unexpected.
Watching birds can also compel you to visit remote places you’d otherwise miss. Much as I appreciate the cultural offerings of the globe’s major capitals, most have little to offer to birders, because songbird habitats have been destroyed and pesticides introduced. Unless you love the challenge of identifying a region’s LBJs, you’ll want to travel to locations where the birds vastly outnumber the human population.
I find that birding has made me more aware of the natural environment, or what little is left in most places. I live in the country, and we feed the local birds. I’m fortunate enough to view the results from my office window each day. Today, birds that might have stayed a week in late summer are wintering here. Climate change? Ask the birds.
Finally, and most important to me, birdwatching forces you to be present. When I’m actively birdwatching, I listen intently for calls and keep an eye out for movements around me, no matter how small. That requires the concentration that comes with full engagement. Not thinking about work. Not checking your Twitter feed. Not worrying that you look like a dork as you move about in your birding-wear.
Now. Only now.
Tech and tweets
My reluctant mentor, who finds the technology inhabiting a clock radio too “goddamned fancy,” is anything but qualified to discuss how tech can help today’s birders. However, if my irascible in-law ever bothered to listen to anyone’s advice but his own, I might suggest that while technology is no replacement for knowledge, experience, and decent powers of observation, it can come in handy.
If you’re seeking a rare visitor to your area (or want an idea of what an area new to you has to offer), you should know about eBird, a real-time database of bird sightings created in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Among many features, it offers email alerts when rare birds appear around America. (Rare as established by the American Birding Association.) If something unusual is spotted in your area, you can learn about it within an hour. Birds in the Hand’s $20 BirdsEye iOS app uses the eBird database to report not only nearby notable birds, but notable sightings and local hotspots. Green Mountain Digital’s $10 Audubon Birds also connects to the eBird database.
There are a lot of great iOS birding apps. In addition to Audubon Birds, there are Mitch Waite’s $25 iBird Pro Guide to Birds, Appweavers’ $5 Peterson Birds of North America, and mydigitalearth.com’s $20 Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America. Electronic bird guides have many advantages: They let you search for birds by entering their characteristics (size, wing color, beak shape, etc.), they have multiple images of the birds, they offer recordings of bird calls, and many let you record a bird sighting with the tap of a button.
Still, faithful father-in-law has a point when he barks, “Yeah, and you’re going to spend all your time staring into that screen instead of looking for birds.” It’s easy to get lost in all the information these apps offer. (And not difficult for the undisciplined to “check Facebook for just a second.”) Personally, I carry both my iPhone and a paper guide. If I get really stumped, I turn to tech.
† Mark Obmascik’s The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession (also made into a movie in 2011) describes the battle between three men participating in 1998’s Big Year, a North American event that challenges participants to see or hear the greatest number of birds in a year. As you might imagine, it attracts only the most fanatical birders.