Things have been quiet here at Birds and Words because we were in Arizona for a short vacation. We spent three days in Sedona and another three in Tucson and decided that the Southwest is officially our favorite place in the world. I could go on and on at length about the otherworldly red rock formations in Sedona, the hikes we took, the Javelinas (wild New World pigs!) we saw, the magnificently lush desert in Tucson, the Catalina mountains, the sunsets, the tremendous cacti, and perhaps I will tell you about all of that at some point once I upload and organize my photos, but returning home has meant jumping right back into life (remember the unpacked boxes? well, they didn’t miraculously disappear!) and it feels like I’ve been playing catch-up for the last week.
Ever since I started birding, I’ve been terrified of experiencing a moment of tedium, or if not exactly tedium, then an sense of frustration at being an eternal beginner. I feared that there would come a time when my beginner-birder-level would no longer yield endless surprise and joy, but would be a frustrating limitation and… well, what I feared most was that I would one day feel so deflated by my beginner-ness that I’d want to quit birding.
That was difficult to write. It’s hard to admit (pride perhaps?) that one contemplates quitting when things get frustrating.
It happened at the moment I least expected. We were on a beautiful hike near Sedona, at the bottom of Oak Creek Canyon, marvelling at the rusty color of the rock formations. I had just seen (and identified!) numerous Acorn Woodpeckers; I boldly gave my husband a mini-lecture (emphasis on the MINI) about their undulating flight pattern, and was feeling a teeny bit smug about flaunting my birdy knowledge. What I neglected to tell my husband was that I could hear a million warblers gurgling in our midst, but didn’t yet have the skill to ID any of them by song (or, frankly, the binocular-spotting skills to look at any of them for a significant length of time). When we ran into a birder couple, I immediately asked them if they had seen anything fabulous, to which they responded, nonchalantly, “a Red-faced Warbler up there” and pointed in the general direction of extraordinarily high pine trees.
The bird I didn’t see. Red-faced warbler. Image from here.
Even though a minute ago I had been blissfully happy, entirely unaware of the existence of Red-faced warblers, I suddenly turned into a maniacally, insatiably greedy hoarder of a birder. I wanted the warbler sighting and I wanted it *now*! The only problem was that I lacked the adequate birding skills to turn my crazed appetite into a realistic sighting. I surveyed the pines with my binoculars, running them through the tips of branches, craning my neck until it hurt and… nothing. I didn’t know the bird or its behavior or its song well enough to even begin to assess where it might be. And, on top of everything, we were running late and still had a four-hour drive to Tucson ahead of us.
On our walk back to the car, I contemplated throwing away my binoculars. I was done with birding. What use was another inept birder? If I couldn’t even see a Red-faced warbler, what was the point? The point of anything?
In my failure-induced stupor I made it back to the car, and was about to begin my meticulously prepared monologue aloud, in which I would thank my husband for the binoculars he had bought me two years ago, but that alas, the time had come to toss poor old Zeiss into a garbage bin, along with my new Birds of Arizona Field Guide because… and at that very minute, an Acorn Woodpecker whizzed by me, practically demanding that I attend to its gorgeous physique and fixate my attention on the crimson cap adorning its head.
And without thinking, I obeyed. Instead of throwing my binoculars on the ground in a fit of irrational rage (the prepared monologue had accompanying actions, too!), I picked them up, and followed the slick, tuxedoed Acorn woodpecker as it swept across my line of vision, into the sky, onto a tree, through the branches, behind the trunk, tap tap tap, over my head, and back again.
And that’s how it goes. I had missed the Red-faced warbler — catastrophically missed, but so what? Birding is all about seeing and not seeing. And it’s about perseverance, and patience, and refusing to give up. “There will be another trip to Arizona, and another Red-faced warbler,” the woodpecker seemed to say, “but not if you quit.”
The woodpecker demanded I persist, and I obeyed.