We ardent birders share not only a skill and craft but also a state of mind — more, a state of heart, one akin to love. All the usual explanations of why such an improbably pastime as birdwatching should be so profoundly rewarding — the thrill of the chase, days of companionship outdoors, enigmatic identifications solved, competition and even scorekeeping, witnessing nature in action, times and places of great beauty — all these sorts of reasons fall short unless they acknowledge those extraordinary moments when, as Charles Hartshorne once put it, “life touches life.” Honoring these moments, I think, is the largely unspoken bond among ardent birders. When we do talk about why we go birding, time and again these private experiences are what we birders recall as “when lightning struck.”
The Ardent Birder, by Todd Newberry & Gene Holtan
You’re the best. I’ve suspected that for a few years now, but it hit me most profoundly yesterday. As my faithful readers know, I’m a beginner birder. In fact, I have this feeling that I’ll be a beginner birder for the rest of my life, and that thought doesn’t terrify me in the least. It’s not that I’m not progressing, but just that in the grand scheme of things, I’ll always be at the beginner level. But you know what’s great? I’ve never received anything but encouragement from other, more experienced birding gurus. The birders I’ve met on my outings are generous in their knowledge, endlessly patient with my gaffes and uninformed questions and never seem to get frustrated by my lack of, ahem, ability. In fact, it seems that birders really like having beginners around — there’s nothing like watching someone gaze at an oriole for the first time and witnessing the spark someone else feels when they’re confronted with the bird’s brilliant orange and black Halloween-costume-esque demeanor. I experienced that aha-moment, and the thrill of showing someone else what I consider pure magic when I took my husband birding a few months ago.
A few weeks ago, I signed up to play club badminton at my local community center. Let me rephrase that. I signed up to improve my badminton skills and to gain a greater appreciation for the game. Since the community center welcomes all levels of badminton competence, I didn’t think my ineptitude at the game would be an issue. Yes, I’m a beginner. And on top of it, I’m a beginner who hasn’t played organized sports since high school! And you know what I realized? Not everybody likes beginners. The more advanced players’ faces contorted when they had to share a court with me. Some didn’t even look at me. I was wasting their time. I admit that I kind of flail my body around when I run and haven’t yet learned how to dive at the birdie without letting out a squeal or a shout or how to aim properly, but I’m willing to practice! Last night, a seasoned player took pity on me and finally showed me how to hold a racquet properly and how to rotate my shoulder for a backhand and I found myself thinking — wow, this person is so helpful, he could be a birder! (about two minutes later, he smiled and said, “do you mind if I go play a real game now?”)
I’ve been spoiled by birders — by their generosity of spirit, their excitement about teaching me how to look closely, and their willingness to share their remarkable knowledge. Anyhow, I’m going to stick with my badminton group, even though my presence causes some of them to cringe, and I’m going to keep thanking them for playing with me and teaching me things (should the occasion arrise). Perhaps some of the birding etiquette toward beginners will rub off on them?
You really are the best, Birders!
Informed Birders! It should come as no secret for those of you who know me that I harbor irrational feelings of love and devotion toward New York. All of it. I love the city’s energy, museums, architecture, parks, everything. Imagine my delight when I watched the trailer for this HBO documentary about urban birding called Birders: The Central Park Effect.
The trailer is fabulous, and if you happen to have HBO, you can watch this tomorrow at 9pm Eastern time. And if anybody wants to record it for me, I promise to offer a hearty reward!
Speaking of other NYC wonders, my good friend over at Accordion Diaries (a fabulous blog, whether you have a penchant for accordions or not) pointed my attention to this article. It turns out that if I lived in New York, I could have gone out birding with none other than Jonathan Franzen in Central park in June! Of course, it might have been too much pressure to converse casually with the writer who single-handedly sparked my own own birding obsession, and I probably would have committed countless birding ID faux-pas, such as the time when I mistook a run-or-the-mill Turkey Vulture for an exquisite Golden Eagle. Perhaps best that I couldn’t make this particular outing…
Worldly Birders! I’ve just returned from Paradise (aka: a trip to Norway, which included venturing to the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago north of the Arctic circle)! The trip also included inordinate amounts of pickled herring, smoked salmon, cinnamon buns, cardamom buns and plenty of fabulous coffee — it turns out Norway is the largest consumer of coffee in Europe (information courtesy Lonely Planet guide, which I think I’ve memorized, including all of their jokes, alas)!
Yes, people, that is honest to goodness sun in the sky! And it’s after midnight! It felt both surreal and extraordinary, and for three days sleep seemed superfluous. An odd, otherworldly, colossally disorienting, yet stunning landscape. Apparently (again, I’m channeling Lonely Planet here, so apologies for factual misdemeanors) this is the land fata morgana; since the air is rarefied up at the 68th parallel, fabulous mirages that occur on the horizon and on our last day, I think I saw one. One minute, there was a mountain in front of me, the next minute it was further back, and a few minutes later it had blended into another illuminated mountain. We tried to capture it on camera:
I’m not at all exaggerating when I say the place was unreal. And you see that water? It’s about 5 degrees Celcius, and my husband decided it was the perfect temperature for swimming! There was much much more, and I’ll be posting more photos from our trip as I readjust to living in a world where the day ends at 9pm and nights happen to be dark.
On the bird front, we saw gulls galore, and for those of you who are Gull aficionados, you’ll be happy to know that Lofoten has a colony of Kittiwakes! At this point, I couldn’t really tell you what a Kittiwake looks like, but I know it’s a big deal in Southern Ontario (and distinctly remember trying to pick one out in a swarm of other gull-like creatures and giving up and wishing I could fast-forward the freezing cold morning…). But, in all honesty, I was too entranced by the northern light and too busy screaming OH MY GOODNESS THIS IS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE ON EARTH to notice any birdy particulars. Sorry folks, that’s the effect the North has on me.