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In the last year, birds have caught the attention of many folks for the first time. The natural world has perhaps been the most accessible and healthy diversion through wave after wave of the pandemic. When beauty parlors, shopping malls and restaurants were shuttered, it was still easy to grab a pair of binoculars, head out to a local trail and get distracted or inspired by the beauty of birds while physical distancing with ease. As a lifelong birder who is given to reflection, I have come to the conclusion that bird watching is really a brilliant metaphor for life. Here are some of the lessons on offer.
1) It was the Byrds, so appropriately, who sang, “To everything, there is a season.” They could have been crooning about life or our avian friends. If they were poets, I suppose they could have been singing about both. Experienced birders know well the great arc of the birding year. Spring migration, now in the rear-view mirror, gave us the chance to see hundreds of species, such as Blackburnian warblers in brilliant plumage as they flew through to their northern breeding territory. Through the late spring and into summer, we will have the opportunity to watch local birds such as blue-gray gnatcatchers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, American goldfinches and cedar waxwings through the nesting season. And in the fall, we can all witness the southbound parade of migrants on the wing. This seasonal aspect of bird watching is of course just an echo of a broader truth.
2) You can’t always get what you want. We have certainly come up against this reality during the pandemic. I might want to jump on a jet plane for a faraway vacation, but that’s not happening yet. Is it possible that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were inspired by birding? In birding, we have aspirations. As I gaze over downtown from my living-room window, I may want to see an upland sandpiper; however, as the Rolling Stones warned, I can’t always get that. But if I try sometimes, well, I might find a peregrine falcon chasing a rock pigeon. Which is still pretty dramatic.
3) Too often, we take nice things for granted. Male mallards are spectacularly beautiful. Most birders, however, including a lot of new bird watchers, might shrug when they see one of these ducks. We are likely more excited to see a blue-headed vireo. I would definitely trade 20 mallard sightings for a look at a scarlet tanager, but I hope the beauty of each species and the beauty in the rest of the world are never lost on me.
4) Practise, practise, practise. Maybe that wisecracking New York City cabbie was also a bird watcher? How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The same way that you become a proficient birder. It can at times be frustrating (been there) or even embarrassing (done that) to miss a bird identification. The key is to keep at it.
5) Similarly, patience and persistence are rewarded. In May, a blue grosbeak was reported just five kilometres from where I live. I had never seen the species and here it was. The next morning, I set off to find it but alas, I was unsuccessful. I tried again and missed again, but I did finally see the bird. To observe a bird species for the very first time – a “lifer” in the birder’s lexicon – is exhilarating. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be satisfying. Whether you’re trying for a brown booby or a spotted towhee, whether you’re applying for a new job or attending to your infant child, satisfactions might in the end be sweet.
6) We can make our own luck. In birding, the more you try, the luckier you get. I love the sight and sounds of a pileated woodpecker. And I do know several locations in my area where they live. Having said that, even if I go birding in the right habitat, seeing one is never a slam dunk. If I go 10 times though, I will likely see this bird. Furthermore, as in life, equipping oneself with more knowledge can make you luckier as well. Information from the eBird platform or from another rare bird alert service can enhance a birder’s luck and success.
7) There are surprises every day. When I go birding, I usually have a target bird in mind. I might, for example, try for a grasshopper sparrow. Whether I see it or not is one thing, but I will inevitably see other birds. Some will be predictable given the habitat, but if I miss out on a target bird yet have an amazing view of a yellow-billed cuckoo? That is still excellent!
8) Straying from the well-beaten path can yield surprising pleasures. Robert Frost famously wrote in The Road Not Taken, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” When faced with a choice, why not occasionally opt for the less familiar path? It may lead us to a new bird or to a little creek with a cloud of damselflies. Even if it ends up being a dead end, there is value in the adventure. Destinations are fine, but we should enjoy the journey as well.
9) There will be some puddles in your path. One spring while birding on Pelee Island, Ont., I wanted to visit the bird banding station. I found a modest sign that pointed into a dark, wet woods. The path was so muddy that for a spell, I tuned out the birds and just focused on my footing. I was relieved to find the bird observatory. It was utterly charming. Another lesson here: It makes sense to have a pair of rubber boots close at hand, either real or metaphorical, for any tough slog.
10) Birding is as much about hope as it is about ticking boxes on a list. I like to see a cerulean warbler each year, but even if I miss the species this year, I’m still a bird watcher. I’ll see one next year. Or the spring after that.
Paul Nicholson lives in London, Ont.
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