Birds of North America: A Guide To Field Identification (Golden Field Guide Series)

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Seeing the Birds Through the Trees

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I thought the world would look different at 7:30am. I had Thoreauvian visions of untainted nature, Dillardesque hopes for remote reflection, Emersonian fancies of transcendent scenery. Instead, Prospect Park was just Prospect Park, albeit sleepier. I didn’t find a transformed world by waking up at such an ungodly Saturday hour, but I did find the group of birders I would spend the morning with. (Bless their hearts, birders are very identifiable, with their conspicuous binoculars, chunky boots, tan vests, and ball caps or fishing hats.)

Thoreauvian? Dillardesque? Emersonian? My apologies. Birding has turned me into a romantic and made me prone to hyperoble. It’s also given me very high expectations. I blame Jonathan Franzen, an avid birder, for this. In the title essay of his collection Farther Away, he writes, “I understood the difference between [David Foster Wallace’s] unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.” He even regretfully wonders if, had he started birdwatching sooner, it would have saved his marriage.

I am new to birdwatching, and I came to it obliquely, via a research divergence. But one cannot just lean casually into the feather fray. You must be immersive. So suddenly I heard myself saying, “I need these Eagle Optic binoculars. I need Birds of North America: A Guide To Field Identification. I need to watch The Central Park Effect documentary and read John James Audubon’s collected writings.” Then, before I knew it, I was perusing the Prospect Park Bird Sightings blog, studying up on patterns, habitats, and behaviors on the subway, and lacing up my L.L. Bean Boots for my first birding adventure.

“I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision,” J.A. Baker writes in The Peregrine. I too never gave birds their due. Before my interest in birding was piqued, my observed natural world was so small it could fit inside a terrarium. My knowledge of birds was little more than the scattering of black “v’s” behind the bubble clouds of my childhood drawings, the seagulls hovering on the beach when I dropped a Dorito, and the city pigeons disarming me with their boldness. I could identify a robin, a blue jay, and the other obvious culprits, but beyond that, I didn’t have the eyes to see something that deserved a name, a genus, or a journal entry. My ignorance was so pervasive that as a child, I frequently asked for the name of the black birds that murmured through the sky and sat on phone lines. I never got an answer. These birds were anonymous yet ubiquitous. No name, no distinctive traits, barely even a shape. To me, they simply existed as shadows of the idea of a bir-dah. My learning curve was as steep as Bambi’s. Birds were just flying, pecking, perching creatures, uniform and unassertive upon my consciousness, the monks of the skies. And this is why I embarked on birding: to watch the richness of these feathered creatures unfurl like the beauty of a monk’s interior life. Birds “know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us,” J.A. Baker continues. “Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse we can never reach.”

February 2, 2014. I hit the fields. My new binoculars stowed in my backpack, my birding journal scribbled with a few preliminary notes, and I was ready for my inaugural adventure. I biked into Prospect Park with only a vague idea of where to go, and I was still a little mystified about how one actually finds birds. I had been reading a lot about the ins and outs of identification, but how one sees them in the first place was apparently too obvious for any birder to mention, though I wouldn’t have minded having my intelligence insulted.

I pulled off onto a path that led to some water. As I walked, I told myself to just keep looking up. I gazed into the naked trees, vacant and dull. Maybe winter birding was going to be harder than I thought. I had imagined finding a cloistered log that I could perch on while waiting for various species to peek out or fly by. But even in February, Prospect Park had a lot of foot traffic and even more fences and muddy lawn restorations, limiting me to the broader, paved paths. Lesson #1: Birding means walking.

As I looked at the map, deciding where to go, I heard something. A bird, clearly, but what kind? Was it visible? I looked up for motion, colors, rustling, anything, but I could only see bare branches. So I leaned my bike against the fence, pulled out my binoculars, and held them to my face. I haphazardly directed them towards the birdsong, high up in the tops of the trees. Bam! A red mark filled my vision. I was looking at a bird! Somehow, I had managed to set my gaze directly on a stunning specimen: a red-bellied woodpecker. Of course I had no idea at the time what I was looking at, but I was captivated, breathless, awed. Through the binoculars, I felt like I could touch the woodpecker’s blazing head, as it ducked in and out of a hole. This bird had all the proper pomp fit for my birding inauguration. I was so excited I could have watched it for days, but I noticed another person was standing beside me. I lowered my binoculars.

“See anything?” the woman asked.

“Yes! Some sort of woodpecker!” I exclaimed and pointed. “I have no idea what kind.”

“Oh, that’s a red-bellied woodpecker.”

I saw the woman had her own pair of binoculars around her neck. “Are you a birder?” I asked. She nodded.

“It’s my first time out!” I was still giddy, and eager to get back to watching my newfound love. “This is the first bird I’ve ever seen through binoculars!” I couldn’t get the exclamations points out of my voice.

I was ready to go back to watching the woodpecker, but Kathy wanted to keep talking. She was giving me tips on where to go in the park, different clubs, the use of Twitter.

“Have you seen any birds today?” I asked.

“Yes, but just the usual ones.”

“Like what?”

She rattled off a long list, and none of them sounded usual at all. “I’d be happy to see any of those! It’s all new for me.”

We chatted some more until she went on her way. I turned back to the tree and held up my binoculars, but alas, the woodpecker had moved on too. But I was grateful. The first time I lifted my binoculars to my face, I not only saw an exquisite creature, but I got a taste of the warm community of birders.

I strolled for the rest of the afternoon until my toes went numb, but my list — birders are all about lists! — acquired 12 new birds, some familiar, some not, but they all looked exotic under my newly attentive eyes.

When Annie Dillard watched a free-falling mockingbird spread its wings just shy of the ground, she reflected: “The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Even in Brooklyn, the world’s virtues are everywhere on display, but I had only flippantly and irresponsibly engaged with them, noting pigeons and sparrows, but ignoring the 300 of North America’s 700 bird species that were migrating through New York City each year. “The obligation of a human being is to attentiveness,” I’ve heard Marilynne Robinson say. “Life is always a matter of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus,” Christian Wiman writes. I had a lot to learn about life from birding.

April 14, 2014. Finally, it flitted through my lens. The rare visitor to Prospect Park had had groupies from all over the borough seeking it, but by the time I arrived at the special locale, there was just one other birder. The Yellow-Throated Warbler was tiny, and preferred the highest boughs; its motion was gleeful. I tried to follow the acrobatics, lowering my binoculars when it disappeared and raising them quickly when it reappeared. I had only seconds at a time to marvel at its glimmering throat a misplaced crown. I temporarily trained my eyes to only see the warbler, but my internal voice distracted me: “You’re so lucky someone tipped you off!”; “Your first rare bird!”; “Log this now!”; “Take it in!” I tried to listen to the last directive most of all.

The warbler stunned me. Watching it was exhilarating. Witnessing its beauty felt like a bracing privilege.

Then, just like that, it vanished. I waited around, hoping it would return, but it didn’t (to the dismay of a couple who had just arrived). Finally, I continued on my way, feeling nourished, expanded, light. If before I hadn’t been fully convinced by this new hobby, after that I was hooked. I strolled for another hour or so, looking for my next hit of beauty, each one so fleeting that it couldn’t be hoarded but demanded constant pursuit.

The irony of picking up a hobby that requires attentiveness is that it’s distracting. One weekend, while I was playing catch, the feathery shadows and birdsongs pulled my attention up to the left and right like a marionette. And now when I’m outside with friends, I find myself struggling to focus on the conversation. Rather than being present, I reach for my binoculars. By learning birdwatching, I might have actually made my initial challenge to learn attentiveness ever harder since I’ve filled my multi-tasking arsenal with one more diversion. And I’ve put myself at a higher risk for a social anxiety that has acquired its own acronym FOMO: the fear of missing out. Every nice May day that I haven’t chased the jeweled Spring migrants fills me with regret. The failure to chase a Summer Tanager, because I’m too hungry and tired, pings me with sadness.

“Bird-watching is an exercise in balance,” Jonathan Rosen writes in The Life of the Skies. It also requires prioritization and parameters. I quickly learned that there is a distinct hierarchy of birds. The rarer a bird, the more valuable. Basic economics. At first, it felt unjust to see a gorgeous blue jay or magnificent cardinal dismissed simply for being common, even though their colors and patterns are anything but. However, I think such partiality is part of sifting through abundance. Take the time to still notice the familiar, but chase what is scarce. There is so much beauty, once we finally look for it, that we would be toppled by it if we didn’t exercise some sort of scrutiny.

Birdwatching isn’t all romance and sublimity, though. It can also be frustrating. Your feet get tired and sometimes, you just may not see anything. “It’s the writer’s life, really,” Jonathan Franzen says in The Central Park Effect. “Any artist’s life is failing, failing, failing, waiting around, thinking nothing will ever work again. All the interesting birds are gone. Nature’s falling apart. And then, suddenly you’re seeing a prothonotary warbler, and all of that is forgotten. There’s this moment when the world is okay.” I’m sure that is why birding felt so foreign to me. I’m not naturally inclined to persevere through failure. I think many of us miss out for this same reason. We are too busy inspecting our peers on Twitter and Facebook. We mope in our failures and miss out on our own lives. And this isn’t a 21st-century problem! As Florence Merriam, an American ornithologist and nature writer, observed in 1889: “We are so in the habit of focusing our spy-glasses on our human neighbors that it seems an easy matter to label them and their affairs, but when it comes to birds — alas!, not only are there legions of kinds, but, to our bewildered fancy, they look and act exactly alike. Yet though our task seems hopeless at the outset, before we recognize the conjurer a new world of interest and beauty has opened before us.”

When I went on my first communal birding trip with the Brooklyn Bird Club at 7:30am, I wanted to step right into a new world, but I had to walk to find it. As we traced the park by following its boughs instead of its paths, Prospect Park was finally turned upside down. It transformed it into the otherworld I was hoping to enter upon arrival. Transcendence is not about when you look, but how. After a few hours of walking, and over 20 new additions to my list, the Park was as unfamiliar to me as a street aglow with Christmas lights. Its trees were decked with doodads: a great blue heron, a pine warbler, a blue-headed vireo, a downy woodpecker, and more. And so for a brief moment, my worries and woes were held at bay. Right there in my urban backyard, the world had been made new for me because amid such lavish Thoreauvian, Dillardesque, and Emersonian displays, I had learned to see the birds through the trees.

Image Credit: Flickr/Derek Keats

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