The still life of a birdwatcher

blog-header-april-2014-940x198

Blackburnian Warbler. Photo by Kim Smith

The year I ventured into the world of serious birdwatching, I probably spent as much time observing the birders as the birds.

Something about the people who were able to discern the presence of a particular bird, first with the naked eye or ear and then through binoculars, fascinated me, as did the near-magical atmosphere of the wildlife area where they had flocked to seek out birds during the spring migration.

I saw serene, thoughtful countenances, felt a sense of quiet anticipation, and heard a whole new language spoken mostly in subdued tones: “Cooperative male Canada warbler with a nice necklace. Around 10 o’clock, where that branch with the clump of leaves forks. See? He just dropped down. There, to the right of that tangle.”

Like a star-struck groupie, I was drawn to these longtime avian enthusiasts who had the air of experience about them, yet would take time to help me through my early awkward efforts at birding, guiding me to my first sighting of a spectacular bird.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak by Kim Smith

Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Photo by Kim Smith

They won me over not with flashy personalities, but with serene and generous spirits that beckoned me to share in the knowledge they had developed over years of keen observation. Although like every other group, birders are diverse, I noticed that some of the best are quiet types who don’t have the trappings of a big personality or the gift of clever repartee. They seem to possess an inner repose and so bring to birding a receptive spirit that settles in to listen and watch, easily tuning out distractions.

From watching and interacting with these tranquil beings, I wanted to be more like them, much as a young disciple looks to a spiritual father or mother as a model. I remember especially a man with a disabling physical condition who identified a Prairie warbler for me during my first year of birding. In succeeding years, he has no longer been able to easily navigate through the clusters of birders on the trail and so has done most of his birding from a folding stool, but whenever I see him, I am assured of hearing a report of some splendid sightings. I always have the sense that he sees and hears things the rest of us miss because we have to keep moving.

Regardless of their religious beliefs, birders have confirmed what my own spiritual tradition teaches: that the stillness, quiet, and attitude of listening birders bring to their pursuit are essential if we are to hear or see anything of lasting value. As Rumer Godden writes in the book, In This House of Brede, referring to an artist who has come to the monastery to work, “It was the silence of Brede that pleased him. ‘I can hear life,’ he said.”

White-throated Sparrow by Kim Smith

White-throated Sparrow. Photo by Kim Smith

In a world numbed by its attachment to technology and noise, the birders I have observed and emulated hear and see life, whether they are delighting in finding a tiny Blackburnian warbler with its brilliant orange “fire throat” or an American Woodcock whose brown camo coloring allows it to blend into the woodland landscape.

I share in this richness of the bird trail when I slow down enough to listen to the simple, soothing song of the White-throated Sparrow on these spring days, notice an Eastern Phoebe patiently waiting for the movement of an insect in my garden, or spy a Rose-breasted Grosbeak on a branch outside the kitchen window.

But I reap even more when I apply the lessons of birding to my daily life: when I am willing to wait and watch for something wonderful, when I listen for the sound of a distant song, and when I am still enough to believe in the Goodness of it all.

 

Where the birds are: If this post has piqued your interest in birding and you can travel to northwest Ohio, known as the “warbler capital of the world,” a great once-a-year opportunity awaits you during the Biggest Week in American Birding, which begins Tuesday, May 6, and continues through May 15. Also, Kim Smith, who blogs at natureismytherapy.com and graciously provided photos for this post, will be blogging from the Biggest Week and coordinating the efforts of the event’s blog team.

Advertisements

Keeping faith when spring is late

Image Spring is here, or so the keepers of time tell us.  We have passed that notch in the calendar when light and darkness are given us in equal measure. Winter is past and we can breathe a collective sigh of relief and begin to enjoy longer days and the sight and smell of things getting about the business of growing. For now, though, that is only a hope, and what we see is not quite what we’ve been awaiting. The landscape is little more than a palette of various hues of brown. The remaining snow has lost its brilliance and is tinged with dirt. And the ground, whether covered with matted leaves or heaving up in a kind of awakening, is, well, muddy. It would be tempting, after the long wait for spring, to sink into disappointment, especially when the weather warms briefly and then turns cold, or brings us more snow. Yet, a late-arriving spring like this one has something to offer and, if we’re smart, we will befriend it and let it walk us slowly into the richness of the season. Now is a time of preparation for what is to come, to gaze on the stark canvas around us before it begins to burst into color and growth. After all, when it does, life will get very busy, not only in the natural world, but in our lives. Activity will ramp up as schedules swell with graduations, weddings, and ball games. Homeowners will frantically pull out coolers and grills, uncover deck furniture, and fuel lawnmowers for the first of many cuts of the season. Gardeners will feel an urgency to ready their beds and plant even as the local greenhouses warn them to heed the frost-free date. Wildflower and bird enthusiasts, knowing they have a small window to see Dutchman’s Breeches and migrating warblers, will rush to converge on wildlife areas armed with guidebooks and cameras.Image So, much as I’m longing for sun, warmth, and the sight of a Swamp Buttercup or a Black-throated Blue warbler, I’m taking a pause on these chilly, doesn’t-feel-like-spring-yet days. I’m contemplating the mud, knowing it could be nesting mortar for Eastern Phoebes if they choose to stay again to raise a family. I’m watching the squirrels stuff their mouths with leaves and scurry up trees to prepare beds for new broods. I’m enjoying the cacophony of chatter from a flock of blackbirds or the song of a single robin as the sun amazes me with yet another spectacular rising or setting. I’m taking a closer look at what appears to be nothing and am noticing the winter feathers of the male Goldfinches start to turn yellow, buds on the branches of an Elderberry bush, and the first leaves of Bee Balm at the base of the brown stalks from last year’s growth. In the belief that anticipation is often the best part of a vacation or a happy event, I’m drinking in this time and appreciating it in its somewhat awkward adolescent phase because I know without seeing that it holds the promise of something quite wonderful that is yet to come.