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 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.