By Adam Wilson*
My wife, Sara, and I started birding just over six years ago while in our mid-thirties. Jumping in wholeheartedly, the hobby became intertwined in our daily routines within the first year. Constantly watching and listening for birds is certainly an unintended side-effect. Planning vacations around birds we’ve never seen or dropping day-plans to chase (twitch) after a rarity reported within driving distance are two other examples.
If you aren’t a birder, I don’t intend to scare you. You can choose to make birding as casual or intense as you like. Some days I find my connection with birding peaceful and calming. However, looking for a specific bird or rarity brings out different emotions. Excitement. Anxiety. Elation of a bird found. Or, the anguish of a missed bird.
Birding teaches more than bird knowledge. It helps hone skills you already possess or instill new ones through experiences. Here are a few examples of things we have learned – or relearned, through birding.
In May 2017, we attended the Biggest Week in American Birding, a multi-day festival in Northwest Ohio celebrating the amazing diversity of migrating species that pass through the region. Closeup views of vibrant warblers are one of the main highlights.
This festival attracts people from all over the world. Hundreds of birders in the area with alert senses and quality gear often leads to rarities being found. A few days into the festival, a LeConte’s Sparrow was reported along a small lake. This would be a “lifer” for us – the first time seeing a bird species. This bird shows up in Ohio every year, bur are very secretive birds.
Upon arriving, we found approximately 25 birders intensely watching an area of tall grasses and sticks at the water’s edge. We took our place among the group and joined in the waiting.
After 90 minutes and no bird, we decided to leave to find other birds. Less than five minutes after we left, the LeConte’s Sparrow made an appearance. We quickly turned around and committed to seeing this sparrow.
The crowd had doubled. Again, we stepped in the group, trained our gaze on the sticks and grass, and waited. This time, we waited for more than two hours. No sign of the bird. Starting to worry we were putting too much emphasis on this one bird, we decided to head to another popular location for photographing warblers. The sparrow did reappear over the next couple of days but we didn’t see it.
Nearly six months and 94 life birds later, we eventually saw one in our home-state of Indiana. I learn new lessons in patience each time I bird.
Birding also has helped me pay more attention to my surroundings. I’m more cognizant about the sounds and movements occurring in my environment. But that also took some time.
We were birding Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes, Colorado in early June. Being our first visit to the state, we were really excited to bird in the mountains. But we had a specific bird in mind to find that day. A White-tailed Ptarmigan.
White-tailed Ptarmigan are small grouse with fantastic camouflage. Their habitat consists of rocky mountainsides at high elevation (more than 3,000 meters above sea level), which contain patches of grass and typically snow-covered. The bird’s plumage ranges from completely white to speckled-browns and whites, depending on the season, which allows for it to hide in plain sight most of the year.
The bright and sunny day made temperatures pleasant, even with snow on the ground. We were prepared to hike slow and stop often, given the oxygen level at the elevation. We also were looking for a bird that wouldn’t be calling and would blend in seamlessly with the surrounding environment, so slow hiking was necessary.
Over our first hour we saw Canada Jays and Mountain Bluebirds, as well as American Pipets, which we had only seen in fields in Indiana. Seeing one on a mountainside a thousand miles from home was a treat.
During a pause to catch our breath and enjoy the view, I quietly hear Sara say, “Adam, it’s right there!” Two meters behind me, there was a small patch of rocks seeming to serve-up this Ptarmigan, sitting in plain sight.
This moment taught us to always be aware of all of your surroundings, as we had actually walked past the bird and would have missed it completely if we didn’t stop to catch our breath and enjoy the view.
Depending on your level of commitment, birding can take you to many types of locations. We have birded in cemeteries (while being respectful), garbage dumps and waste-water treatment facilities, just to name a few. One of the most outrageous birding trips we took was a pelagic birding tour – a boat trip specifically for locating species that don’t visit mainland often, if ever.
Early on a day in October, we left the harbor from Hatteras, North Carolina headed to the gulf-stream, approximately 24 miles offshore. We knew that most every bird we would see on this boat would be a lifer, so to say we were excited is an understatement!
After a couple hours, the shore was nearly out of sight and we were starting to see Cory’s Shearwater, Great Shearwater, and Black-capped Petrels everywhere! What a fantastic, sunny morning! However, things went from pleasant to un-pleasant in a hurry – at least for me.
After walking to the bow to look at a passing shark, I started noticing the pitch-and-toss of the boat with the waves. After stepping down from the front of the ship, I never fully recovered. My fault entirely. I should have eaten earlier in the day but I was swept away with the excitement of birds and ignoring the warning signs of looming seasickness.
I spent the remaining 10 hours of the trip either getting sick or passed out from exhaustion. Still, I had six lifers, most of which I could never see on land, making it both the best and worst day of birding I had experienced thus far. And there will be more pelagic trips in my future, I’m sure of that.
Birding started taking us to local parks more often, and even some we had never visited. But new places and birds weren’t the only things we found. After about a year in the hobby, we connected with an up-and-coming local birder group and were asked to help with planning and guiding walks. A little scared but excited to learn, we jumped at the opportunity.
Over the years, we have made many friends and connected with local community officials by being involved with our local birding group. We lead twice-monthly bird walks at local parks from April through October and the Greenfield Parks Department has helped further conservation efforts through bird housing project partnerships with the group.
Being so involved with our local birding group wasn’t a goal we set but it has been incredibly rewarding to find a network of nature advocates and friends.
I encourage everyone reading this to broaden your skills by paying attention to the birds around your daily life, checking out local groups and expanding your birding experiences.
Follow more of my birding journeys on Instagram @NikonBirdHunter.
*A passionate birder and nature photographer, Adam Wilson currently resides in Greenfield, Indiana (United States). After moving on from playing drums in metal bands for more than fifteen years, birding became the next obsession. ‘Attempting to capture the beauty that is all around, but is rarely seen’ has been his goal since picking up a camera in 2015.