The Bird in front of You

Beloved Birders,

Every winter at about this time, I get desperate for a Northern Shrike. I haven’t yet figured out whether it’s hormonal or not, but every year in mid-January, the intense craving for a shrike sets in and there’s nothing I can do to stop myself. This morning was brutally cold. I suppose that if I were made of hardier stuff, I would have walked the length of Tommy Thompson Park anyhow, which might have put me in the path of not only one, but two Northern Shrikes, if reports are to be trusted. But when woke up this morning, I realized that a four-five hour walk was not in the cards, and headed out to my second-favorite park in Toronto, Colonel Sam Smith, at the juncture where Kipling Avenue meets Lake Ontario.

About five years ago, before I even knew of the existence of a Northern Shrike, I saw one in that park. I had pointed out movement to my bird guide, and initially, he dismissed the grey bird as a mockingbird, but upon taking a closer binocular view, he pronounced it a shrike, and proceeded to tell me all about this predatory songbird, known in some circles as the butcher bird. I had been impressed, but those were the early birdy days, long before I started reading up on the birds I saw in the field. A year after that first sighting, I once again happened upon the bird in the same locale, and this time he displayed textbook behavior: we watched as the Northern Shrike impaled a vole on a thorn and proceeded to dig right in and devour the rodent. No empathy whatsoever for the vole; the shrike showed us who’s boss and reminded us, once again, that there is nothing cute whatsoever about the avian kingdom. Life is ruthless.

Though there have been no shrike reported in the park recently, I still look for one every time I’m there and this morning was no exception. I took some time to admire the luscious female Snowy Owl reclining on the dock, surveyed the duck situation (meagre offerings early this morning) and then saw a grey bird flap its wings and fly from one tree to the other. I knew it was a Northern Mockingbird before I even saw it — the flash of white in its feathers and the long tail — but for a second I allowed myself to dream. What if this was the bird about which I’d been summoning the higher forces for an intercession?

It turned out to be a mockingbird. So did the next grey specimen. By this point I realized there would be no shrike for me this morning, and I started sulking in the freezing cold. I walked all the way out to Whimbrel point, still annoyed that I hadn’t seen much of anything, when I heard a few chip notes and saw movement in the small pine trees. Not a shrike, of course not, but two Golden-crowned Kinglets bopping around, hopping from branch to branch, feeding upside down, completely oblivious to the temperature and the fact that it’s a bit late for them to be hanging out in the Toronto area. I marvelled at their hardiness, their resolve, and took in the beauty of a tiny, 5.5g mid-winter kinglet. And I stood there, freezing while I listened to their notoriously high-pitched chip notes, which older birders often lament no longer being able to hear. Slowly I let go of the non-sighting of the Northern Shrike and let myself enjoy the bird in front of me. A sunny day, high-pitched chips that I can recognize, a bird I’d once mistaken for delicate on account of its weight and cute appearance turned out to be one of the fiercest creatures around.

In Lieu of Nostalgia: Scoter Trifecta

Beloved Birders!

Those of you who have been reading this blog assiduously since the early days (mom!) might remember that in November of 2011, I travelled back to Providence, RI, to revisit the scene of my undergraduate days. You might remember that I woke up at 7am and ran straight to my old dorm and wept in front of one of the janitors, bemoaning the fact that time had passed. You might also remember that I nearly broke down in the Blue Room — my old favorite cafe on campus — because their chocolate chip cookie recipe hadn’t changed since I graduated in 1997 and just the smell of it brought back my youth in technicolor. The trip was made all the more strange because my beloved husband categorically refused to partake in my nostalgia-rituals, and I had to confront the passage of time and my own propensity toward mythologizing my past all alone. And so I sat there on the steps of Sayles Hall, reliving as much as I could about the four years I spent at Brown, and feeling very much like Masha in The Three Sisters, who says, “I’m in mourning for my life.”

I undertook a similar trip this past November, only this time I was wise and left Mr. Birds and Words at home. He had little interest in revisiting Princeton with me, and I didn’t really want to inflict another nostalgia-overdose on anybody. So off I went, this time for US Thanksgiving, to see my dear friends in Hopewell, NJ. I spent an afternoon on campus, not at all shocked that Princeton had gotten over my departure in 2004, but I must admit that I was stunned at how well everybody had coped without me! College campuses are a funny thing: they are basically an idyll that lives according to its own time-space continuum. Nothing there ever changes. And yet here I was, 14 years older, still the same, but not. I took a minute to sit in the East Pyne courtyard, and realized that the last time I had sat there was the morning of my dissertation defence in September 2004.

I saw a great show at the art museum — about nature and the nation — and wondered why I hadn’t spent more time in that museum as a graduate student. I stood planted in front of an enormous Diebenkorn painting and thought that such a view might have been the answer to so many of my graduate school woes.

I could make a career out of inhabiting nostalgia. I could teach workshops on the art thereof. My imaginative capacities for reliving long-gone moments are extraordinary. Would that one could market such a skill.

And then, before things got entirely out of hand, we left campus and drove back to Hopewell, where everything was sufficiently new that didn’t have anything to relive and had to just enjoy the present moment. But what really cured my nostalgia was going birding the next day with Rick Wright. I’ve known Rick’s wife for years — we met in grad school — but this was my first time meeting Rick himself. We drove out to Sandy Hook, NJ, and immediately upon arriving, I saw a trifecta of scoters in large numbers: White-winged, my favorite Surf, and Black Scoter. And though I’d seen all three already, it takes a considerable amount of work to get all three in the same binocular view in Southern Ontario, so this was a thrill. And then I turned around and saw an even stranger sight: across the water was Coney Island with its rollercoasters and ferris wheels, and not far from that was Sheepshead Bay and Avenue Z in Brooklyn, where my grandfather had once lived, and where I had spent a few nights in 1985, when he gave me a silver glass-holder that I still have. This was as close as I’d ever get to Coney Island, at least for the foreseeable future. The day also included a lifer for me: a Northern Goshawk perched on a brach. I originally misidentified it as a Red-tailed Hawk, but the intensely barred breast gave it away.

On my way back to Toronto, I wondered why I hadn’t crumbled the way I had seven years ago, when revisiting Rhode Island, and realized — it must have been the birds. With binoculars in my hand, I was suddenly seeing a different New Jersey, an entirely new and fascinating place I hadn’t even imagined existed. And after a few hours staring at the birds, I found myself happy to be exactly where I am. In this place.

Postscript

Beloved Birders,

This post is for those of you who have been losing sleep over the Pine Grosbeak and whether I’ve managed to see it. YES! It happened yesterday morning: I hopped in the car at 7:30 and took advantage of the non-existent post-holiday traffic and headed straight for Rouge Valley, got to the house with the crab apple tree and….there were THREE Pine Grosbeaks munching away, furiously. The show-stopping male was perched upside down — it seems crab apples taste better when you’re upside down — while his mate luxuriated on a branch, doing her thing. Up above there was another grosbeak, likely a young male, because he had the reddish head, but a mostly grey body. I watched them for nearly 20 minutes, and then they let out a few high pitched call notes and poof! The trio flew up and literally vanished from my field of vision.

I did document the moment by texting my friend Martha and calling my husband, but as I saw driving home, I wondered whether I had dreamed the whole thing up. 24 earlier, I had been despondent about this bird; just now I’d seen three of them; and now, in this precise moment, the whole thing was a memory. If Proust were around, I’d commission him to write about my Pine Grosbeak incident — no doubt, he’d be able to weave it into a seamless, novel-length masterpiece. Could you imagine if instead of the iconic Madeleine, he’d have given us 20 pages on the Pine Grosbeak & the passage of time? Maybe I’ll have to tackle that one myself.

Now I feel like the year has begun in earnest. Especially now that I’ve discovered Russian Caravan tea, which basically tastes like a campfire in a mug, and now I wonder how I managed to live 44 years without it?

On Not Getting What I Want

Beloved Birders,

Part of what makes January 1st exciting (other than my grandmother’s birthday, of course) is trying to guess what the first bird of the year will be. This year, I wanted the first bird to be a special one, and as luck would have it, there has been a Pine Grosbeak (!!) hanging around the Rouge Park area. So, I jumped in my car early this morning and headed straight there, feeling a little smug about the entire enterprise, imagining the blog post I would write, the tweet I’d send out to the Universe, and the barrage of texts I’d send to my birder friends. “Hey y’all, NBD just saw a PINE GROSBEAK, THIS YEAR IS GOING TO BE AWESOME!” or something to that effect. How auspicious would that be for a beginning? A year full of unbelievable promise. Not just starting off with a rarity, but also starting off with the magic of being in the right place at exactly the right time.

You know where this is headed, of course. I waited around for said Pine Grosbeak for 40 minutes before heading to my grandmother’s birthday party and…instead of the resplendent bird I imagined I’d have to start off my year list, I got a chickadee. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a Black-capped Chickadee. The bird is fantastically resilient, hardy, crafty, and intelligent but it’s a bird I could have seen from my window without having to drive 30 km. It’s the commonest of common winter birds.

Would I really send out a tweet about a chickadee? No, there would be no tweet. There would be no gloating texts, there would be no blog post as I had envisioned it.

How inauspicious a beginning is it to chase a bird only to find out that it had other plans? To begin the year with the bird that got away.

And yet, that is what birding is all about. It’s about coping with not getting what you want, and becoming friendly and comfortable with that feeling might be the most auspicious beginning ever to 2019! Because sometimes that’s just how life works out: you do everything possible for the stars to align, you work hard, you try hard, and…they don’t. And the sooner I befriend that feeling, the better this year will be. I’m quite confident I’ll get to see a Pine Grosbeak at some point this year, but I can’t exactly predict when, much as I’d like.

So I started to embrace the notion of a chickadee as my first bird of 2019. I admire its resilience and hardiness — two qualities I’m working on developing. And just when I finally accepted that this will be the year of the ordinary Chickadee, I went for a late-afternoon walk and saw a Great Blue Heron doing a one-foot balancing act on the ice, and I stared at him through my binoculars until my feet started to freeze. Here’s a bird I see every time I come to my neighborhood park, and yet its posture still manages to surprise me. I’ll never tire of the power of the ordinary to thrill and delight me.

I missed the Pine Grosbeak, but I saw my favorite resident birds in a new light. And that may be the best way to start the year after all. Happy 2019!

On the Cusp

Beloved Birders,

I wasn’t going to write a wrap-up post to 2018 because in some ways it felt like nothing had happened. And then I went through the year, month by month, and found myself smiling. It’s been a good year and though there are no tangible achievements, nothing glaringly exciting that happened, everything about it has made me smile.

The year began and ended with Snowy Owl sightings — all of them in urban Toronto parks, which brings me so much joy. The fact that I live in a city that I can make wild, just by visiting the right places. I extracted more birds from mist nets than ever in my life, and though the process still terrifies me and though I still have to radio for help, I’m slowly becoming more confident. I also came face-to-face with an American Woodcock, which has been a dream of mine since I started birding eight years ago. (Has it really been that long? Am I turning into one of those middle-aged women who occasionally mutters where has the time gone and then feels mildly ashamed, as if she’s turning into her mother.)

This was the year I finally stopped saying “I’d love to visit Wyoming one day” and actually flew to Laramie, WY, and then drove two hours south to Saratoga and spent a few glorious weeks at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, where I made good headway on my book, hung out with Mountain Bluebirds every day, and chased sunsets every evening. I came home with a pair of cowboy boots and an unexpected interest in taxidermy. (Stay tuned.)

This was also the year I stopped saying “I wish I could celebrate US Thanksgiving again” and finally booked a trip to NYC/NJ and ate the turkey of my dreams with my best friends in their new house in Hopewell, NJ and saw Eastern Bluebirds on their property. But shortly before eating that turkey of my dreams, I spent an afternoon at the American Museum of Natural History and was so entranced by all the animal bones that I nearly absconded with a Woolly Mammoth skeleton. This unexpected interest in extinct species stems partly form the research that went into an article I wrote for The Walrus about de-extinction and the Passenger Pigeon. I also finally saw Frank Chapman’s bird dioramas and could have spent all day in those rooms.

On the birding front, I saw my first Tufted Duck shortly before getting a haircut that gave me a tuft of my own, alas, and made me resemble said duck for about 4 months. Thankfully hair grows. I also saw 150K Northern Gannets in Quebec this summer, on Ile Bonaventure, which took my breath away. Later, in Denmark, I saw hundreds of Common Eider looking just the way they do in my field guide, in their tuxedo plumage. I also watched my husband befriend a Barnacle Goose in the park outside our airbnb in Copenhagen and while I sat nearby and nearly overdosed on pickled herring.

This was my first year of mostly-solo birding, and I’ve done ok. I’m getting a handle on waterfowl, including females, and recognize more ducks by shape; warblers–even fall warblers–no longer feel like mysterious terrain, so the next step will likely be raptors or shorebirds or gulls. It’s slow-going, I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a lifelong beginner, and I still find it absolutely riveting.

The year also included meeting my new nephew, who was born in mid-October, and many hours spent entertaining his older brother with duplo-building sessions and impromptu dance parties. Speaking of dance, I’m still enthralled with ballet and continue to learn how to move through space. My tendu is a bit more disciplined and my port-de-bras occasionally approximates grace. My pirouettes are still lopsided, but I attack them with gusto. Once my glasses even flew off. May this be the energy with which I approach 2019.

Happy New Year! May 2019 bring more joy and adventure.

Zoological Curiosities

Beloved Birders,

We went away for a few weeks in September, and I just realized I didn’t write about it. The problem with coming back from a trip is that life hits you full force, and then suddenly you’re swamped and the fact that you stood face to face with mating ostriches in the Berlin Zoo just mere weeks ago no longer feels like it’s information in urgent need of sharing with the world.

But yes, you did indeed read that correctly. Our very first day in Berlin, we were jetlagged and decided that rather than facing Lucas Cranach’s masterpieces in a semi-conscious state, we’d be better off hanging out at the zoo. After seeing the resplendent, glistening hippos, the bears, and all sorts of other glorious fauna, including Snowy Owls, we happened upon an anxious looking ostrich. There he was flapping his wings like a bird possessed, and before I knew it he ran down the hill, and we followed, at a bit of a distance, and separated by a fence of course. As he got to his destination, we suddenly realized that there was another ostrich involved in the frenetic reunion, and that we had basically, accidentally, found ourselves in a nat geo documentary that often features commentary along the lines of, “and now the mounting.” Anyhow, I’m now pleased to add ostriches to my collection of copulating birds, in addition to Ring-billed Gull, Eastern Kingbird, and Peregrine Falcon. To be honest, the whole spectacle looked a bit unwieldy. And loud.

The rest of our trip, post-ostriches didn’t disappoint either. We visited the Boros Sammlung — a conceptual art museum located in a WWII Bunker in the heart of Berlin. A fascinating juxtaposition of historical layers. I finally got to hear the Berlin Philharmoniker LIVE, which was a highlight. We did get to Cranach and Botticelli and the gang post-jetlag, in the Gemaldegalerie, and even made it out to Dresden for a day, where we communed with more old masters (and ate delicious ice cream). And there was Klee and Giacommetti, and I had forgotten just how much art one can see in Berlin. On our last day it was unseasonably hot, so hot that I couldn’t think straight, so rather than look at more art at the Bode Museum, we opted for an afternoon at the Natural History Museum (Naturkundemuseum) in the company of extraordinary dinosaur skeletons. I became slightly obsessed with a stuffed hippopotamus who had apparently descended from the legendary Knautschke — one of the lone animals from the Berlin Zoo who managed to survive WWII — and couldn’t stop thinking of how he’d fit in perfectly into our apartment decor. As a side note, our audioguide also told us that Knautschke was apparently so fertile that he sired 38 children and if you visit a natural history museum in Europe and find yourself face to face with a stuffed hippo, it’s likely one of Knautsche’s offspring. Who knew?

But I am getting ahead of myself. Between the dinosaurs and the hippo, I actually had the birdiest moment of our entire trip. I SAW ARCHAEOPTERYX! Yes, the famous fossil! IN THE FLESH. In all honesty, it was better than Mona Lisa. This is the transitional fossil that proved the link between dinosaurs and modern birds — a truly a strange looking reptilian winged creature. Anyhow, the Archaeopteryx lithographica fossil is 150 million years old and probably the most famous fossil in the world. And all we could do was stare in wonder.

Just when I thought nothing could beat staring at a fossil, we travelled to the northern tip of Denmark and stood on a spit of sand in Skagen where the North Sea meets the Baltic. And suddenly windswept sand dunes displaced fossil talk. Travel is funny the way one thing gives way to another. Before arriving in Skagen all I could talk about was Cranach and Archaeopteryx, but now my mind focused solely on migrating sand dunes, Common Eider (IN THEIR PROPER BLACK AND WHITE PLUMAGE), seals, and Anna Ancher. And a few days later, we landed in Copenhagen, hung out in the park with Barnacle Geese and Eurasian Coots, and bought the cutest looking hippopotamus we’ve ever seen. In between the coots and the hippo, we visited the Louisiana Museum, which happens to be named not after the US state, but after the museum founder’s three wives, all of whom were named Louise. How convenient! What I love most about travel — and birds, come to think of it, and people — is how the things you see and learn are surprisingly so much stranger than anything I could have imagined. And isn’t that — opening your eyes to the strange –isn’t that the beauty of life?

Black Hippo. Designed by Kay Bojesen. It turns out this is everything I’ve ever wanted in life.

Wind and Other Surprises

Beloved birders,

I’ve already mentioned that the bird banding station at Tommy Thompson park is my favorite place in Toronto. Everything about the experience delights me: watching the sun rise over the city, traipsing through urban wilderness, holding a bird in the hand. Even the 4:30 am wakeup time has become part of the incomprehensible pleasure. And everything is perfect until the direction of the wind changes and suddenly we’re regaled with fishy stench from the 30,000 or so Double-crested Cormorants that breed in a nesting colony in the park, just west of us.

When the cormorant perfume wafts by, it feels like you’re stranded in a fish shop on a humid day; there’s literally no reprieve from the odours. While I’m holding my breath, waiting for the fragrant fumes to pass, it’s hard to recollect what it is I love about this place that used to be a landfill and is now a peculiar human-made urban wilderness.

And just like that, the wind reminds me that I live at the whim of weather, that beauty is a thing of this world and doesn’t exist outside of it. It’s so important to be reminded that the cormorant smells exist alongside the gorgeous migratory warblers in the hand, that it’s not a question of choosing one or the other, but rather recognizing that they both have their place. Too often, I want nature to be some sort of perfect respite from my day-to-day life, I long for photoshopped, Instagram-style natural surroundings, but reality is that it’s dirty, it smells, it’s buggy, too hot, and never entirely as you expect it. And that’s the most beautiful part of it.

This morning, my husband and I went for a walk by the lake in the Beaches at 7:30 am to beat the heat. As we sat on the new pastel-colored Muskoka chairs sipping our coffee and eating cranberry muffins, I saw thousands of cormorants pass by, gliding just barely over the surface of the water. First one group, then another, then so many of them all I could see were thick black oscillating lines along the horizon. This bird that I usually can’t stand, suddenly transformed into something approaching beauty.

And They’re Back!

Beloved Birders,

It’s still hot, sticky and humid here in Toronto, but according to the warblers, it’s fall already and time to begin journeying southward! Even when fall is the furthest thing from my mind –meteorologically speaking — the birds already feel it in their bones. They know when it’s time to go. Their perception of time is dictated largely by food and light and breeding. In a sense it’s life stripped down the the barest of essentials, but there’s also an enviable single-mindedness of purpose.

This is my fifth fall season at the banding station and I still make embarrassing mistakes. This morning, for instance, I extracted two warblers from the nets and could not (for the life of me) ID them. I saw greenish grey on the back, an eyestripe, whitish underneath (and a manifest lack of tail on one of the birds), but all of this told me nothing. I went through my mental list of warblers and the markings didn’t correspond to any birds I knew. And since I had gotten a few challenging ID’s right just minutes before, people started to suspect that I might indeed the bearer of great news — a rarity! a tick! a banding station first! And then my friend Taylor took one look at the bird and said, “Tennessee.” Of course it was a Tennessee. I’m so notoriously awful at identifying this drab-ish warbler in the field that I forgot it existed entirely!

How could I have forgotten the Tennessee? Maybe because to me it’s the plain Jane of warblers; the only thing I really love about the bird is it’s needle-sharp pointy bill, but in this case I didn’t even notice it.

Identifying birds is funny sometimes. Often, it’s a question of focusing on things I recognize, rather than zeroing in on markings that confuse me. Had I stopped to look at the bill, I would have immediately seen the tennessee-ness of this warbler. But instead, I focused on the greenishness of the bird’s back and started feverishly running through all the warblers I wasn’t sure about — could it be a pine? an orange-crowned? a deeply confused chestnut-sided? My guesses, which I kept to myself, started getting more and more delirious.

I had just accomplished that same feat with the saddest looking (female) Cape May Warbler, which had none of the colorful markings of its male counterpart in breeding plumage. This one sported a brown exterior punctuated but a buttery chest with the faintest of stripes; the diagnostic facial markings were barely visible, but I immediately ID’d it correctly because I saw a diagnostic yellow patch on its rump — not as bright as the appropriately named Yellow-rumped Warbler, but bright enough — and that detail told me all I needed to know. If nothing else, birding is giving me the confidence to trust in what I do know. It’s often much more than I had anticipated.

 

When Gannets Render You Speechless

Beloved Birders,

Have you ever wondered what being surrounded by 150,000 Northern Gannets (give or take a few) would feel like? We recently returned from a trip to Quebec, to the Gaspé peninsula, which, on top of rewarding us with some memorable meals, exquisite smoked fish and possibly the best croissants I’ve ever tasted, is also home to Ile Bonaventure, a phenomenal provincial park which just happens to be the largest Northern Gannet breeding site in North America.

An afternoon on Ile Bonaventure would convert even the most skeptical nature novice into a birding fanatic. Watching these enormous birds with a wingspan almost the size of a pelican’s chatter, run amok, fight, care for their fledgling, scratch one another’s necks lovingly, lock bills in a tense dispute was easily the highlight of my summer. That I could stand on the edge of their breeding colony, or even on top of an observation tower literally in the midst their colony and that they would go about their business without even paying an iota of attention to me made me feel like I was privy to some sort of magical spectacle. And magical it was; we were surrounded by gannets as far as the eye could see. And when we looked out on the water there were thousands more gannets plummeting headfirst into the water (up to 100km/hour!), collecting fish for their partners and offspring.

Northern Gannets on Ile Bonaventure, Quebec. Look at the fuzzy babies!  They’ll be ready to fly away in a few weeks!

Morus bassanus. Northern Gannet, Fou de bassan as they say in Quebec. Looking absolutely regal.

Northern Gannets as far as the eye can see. Ile Bonaventure, Quebec

Five years ago, we went to Newfoundland and I saw about 20 or so gannets, fell in love with them, but missed out on getting the full gannet experience at Cape St. Mary’s because our itinerary was already packed, and I had to content myself with thousands of Atlantic Puffins instead. I’m well aware of the fact that these are fist world problems, but to miss something as spectacular as a gannet breeding colony when one is only 200 km away and when one knows that a trip to Newfoundland doesn’t happen that often, well then the unseen gannets turn into a near-catastrophe. Not only that but one talks about the missed gannets every time somebody mentions Newfoundland, to the extent that the unseen birds have almost eclipsed the dozens of spectacular species I did manage to see. Birding is a strangely emotional business.

When planning our trip to Gaspesie, the first thing my husband said was, “will a trip to Bonaventure Island make you stop talking about the gannets we didn’t see in Newfoundland?” I assured him it would. But I can’t say for sure.

I’d like to tell you that I had an earth-shattering epiphany when standing in the midst of the spectacular seabirds, that somehow the contours of my existence became clearer to me, that I could feel things in a new way, that suddenly my life made sense to me. But no. I spent a day with the gannets, and all I could think was, “I am where I need to be.” And I was struck by how banal that thought was, in and of itself.

But maybe that’s it? That when I’m in the company of birds, I feel at peace.

There weren’t just gannets: we saw thousands of Kittiwake, Black Guillemots, Common Murres, Razorbills, Great Black-backed Gulls, and five Minke whales on our crossing from Percé to Bonaventure Island. And we visited fantastic parks, saw a beaver and a moose (!), two skunks and six marmots; we stopped in more fromageries than I care to admit and ate more smoked fish than was reasonable and consumed a year-long supply of croissants.

The pictures I took of the gannet colony doesn’t do it justice. You can’t hear the cacophony of screeching, uproarious, grating calls and you can’t inhale the stench — a blend of fish, guano (fancy word for excrement) and ocean perfumes. But most of all, you can’t capture the way the breeding colony is brimming with the frenzy of new life. And in the face of all that, I was rendered speechless.

Spring Migration FOMO

Beloved Birders!

Spring birding is both the time I live for and also the time of year that makes me most anxious. And a few minutes ago, my friend Monika put it into words for me: “the bird FOMO is sometimes hard to take,” she said in an email. And that’s exactly it. Before the age of eBird, where I can see exactly who has seen which bird in which location, I think I used to be happier.

Here I am at the bird banding station, holding my favorite migrant, the Black-and-white Warbler. Photo taken by Taeko K, exactly 20 hours before I missed the Least Bittern and experienced severe spring FOMO that resulted in tears. This birding business is highly emotional.

Here is what life looked like a mere two years ago: in May, I would go out birding, see as many warblers as I could and return home entirely fulfilled and glowing. (OK, honesty alert: two years ago I would return home perplexed and wondering about whether I’d ID’d the warblers I’d seen correctly and a little concerned that everything that wasn’t a show-stopping Blackburnian or Cape May Warbler seemed to look like a female Common Yellowthroat. If I am to be brutally honest, two years ago, I couldn’t ID much and that too put a damper on things.) Now, when I come home from birding, the first thing I do is check eBird to see what else was seen in that particular location, and inevitably see the most dreadful news spelled out for me: the Least Bittern I’d gone out to find poked its head out of the reeds exactly five minutes after my departure.

Two years ago, I might have thought: well, I gave the Least Bittern my best shot, I’ll try again next year. Now, I start to feel like a failure. Not only was it there, but I missed it by a matter of minutes. And that Whimbrel I saw flying overhead? Well, had I stayed an hour longer, I would have seen 1000 Whimbrel.

Come May of every year, there’s a certain desperation in the air. Migration is short. The song birds are on their way north and my window for seeing them is relatively small. Every outing matters. The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) has become intense. So intense, in fact, that I wish I could go back to pre-eBird days when I had no idea what I was missing and was consequently happier.

But was I really happier? I’m not exactly sure that’s true either. My ignorance was perhaps more acute two years ago, but I also struggled to identify relatively simple things a lot more. So I’m not convinced I want to return to that state of affairs either.

In the end, after eBird told me that I’d missed the Least Bittern, I went right back out and found the bird two days later. I now knew more specifically where to look (and how long!) and did manage to get phenomenal looks at it. And if I’m even more honest, I wasn’t the one who found the bird; after searching for an hour, I left to find some Whimbrel, and upon returning there were two other gentlemen there who had their eyes on the bird. But I later ran into some acquaintances and repaid the favor by showing them the bittern. And you should have seen the look on their faces — the exact same intense gratitude and awe that I had just bestowed upon the folks who had helped me find the bird. I had just saved my birdy pals from some FOMO of their own!

This FOMO in May just seems to come with the territory. I’ve been seeing a lot, and missing out on just as much, if not more, but that’s part of the beauty of May birding. And I realized very quickly one of the greatest hazards of falling in love with birds: the more you see the more you want to see. It’s a hobby (obsession?) that revolves very much around the pursuit of something, the quest. And where there is pursuit, there lies endless disappointment, because it seems you’ll never get there quick enough and see quite enough.

But there’s also endless appreciation for the things you do see, and with that comes the most profound joy. And in the end, I’d rather have some FOMO than not see birds at all.