September 7, 2023
Cock-of-the-Rock male
Cock-of-the-Rock male
A rather late-in-life friend who came to birding rather late in in her life recently referred to what we birders do as “the birding experience.”  I thought the reference somewhat quaint until I realized she had not only meant “experience” as a noun rather than a verb, but also that she understood birding is a lifestyle, a thing, not a one day walk in the park.  After all, the Fernando Rodney Experience lives on in Seattle sports lore twenty-five years later, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience endures six decades after his tragic death in 1970.

I always feel a little disingenuous claiming Cedar Waxwing as my “spark bird” because I was only four when one was pointed out to me, and then I went nearly two decades without paying much attention to birds at all until my young family and I were attacked by nesting Red-winged Blackbirds as we paddled through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.  Sooner or later birds always pull you back in.

Certainly the two things which spark awareness, besides the miracle of their flight, are the beauty of their song and the endless variations in their plumage.  We have two sons who, shortly after our canoe trails adventure, became Jabber Jay and Blackbird, and family friends from those early days know those sobriquets were all about song and plumage.  Birding, though, cannot be induced.  Neither son is a birder today.

The birding experience is neither one-size-fits-all, nor is it always linear.  Imagine the journey from Biology major to graduate degree in ornithology.  Or a path from graphic artist to producing coffee table books of bird paintings.  Or the long and winding road from a high school butterfly collection to a career as a bird guide in the tropics.  Or a harried parent dealing with kids at home in a pandemic escaping to that walk in the park to preserve their sanity.

In my personal birding experience as an adult I have gone from backpacking with binoculars to doing Christmas Counts to conducting Breeding Bird Surveys to leading local field trips to listing/chasing rarities to foreign travel (Texas, Costa Rica, Peru) to sitting in solitude in a photo blind literally all day long.  I spent three entire years seeking dragonflies and two years photographing moths, but the birds always beckoned me back.

First it was Western Tanagers in a Colorado campground, then it was a Wilson’s Warbler on a Hassayampa River Christmas Count.  For three springs it was Williamson’s Sapsuckers in the White Mountains.  Once it was Northern Hawk Owls in Churchill, and most recently it was the “spectacularly bizarre” male Andean Cock-of-the-rock.  The birding experience may include research, friendship, travel, and a fear and loathing of mountain roads, but for sure it will create awareness of and, hopefully, a caring for the world outside oneself.

We birders can only hope that the mini-boom brought about by the isolation of the pandemic will trigger a burgeoning awareness of nature’s importance to our planet and to our own species, though this may have come too late.  The heat domes, the raging fires, the rising seas, all remind me of the enigmatic Bob Seger song “In Your Time.”
Though unsure whether I wanted to hear only the voices in my head, last month I went to the mountains seeking solitude.  I chanced upon a Peregrine quartering the winds above ominous monsoon clouds.

These are my times.  The birding experience continues.  I am thankful it has illuminated my life, though I regret to admit there are times, in these times, that I am happy to be in my third act.  May Peregrines inherit the wind.
Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine Falcon