Fierce Green Fire: Bird watching offers reminders of how we live our own lives

A male American goldfinch, mouth agape, in the middle of a call. Gold finches can be either quite brilliantly colored or rather drab, depending on their gender and the time of year. Photo by Jonathan Hicks

By Jonathan Hicks

Staff Writer

I was not always a bird-watcher. Though it was a pastime that came about over the course of many years, I cannot explain what initially drew me to it. However, over time, I came to find great value in it.

Birding could be exciting or calming. In fact, it could be whatever I needed it to be. While there is no bad time of year to wander in search of feathered friends, there is something great about exploring for birds in the spring. The green is returning to the landscape, but it is not so thick as to be overwhelming or distort one’s view. The bleached snow coating is melting, pouring back into the rivers, and soggy trails make for soft footsteps.

In this, the first week of spring, the emerging green is a reminder that soon the tree branches will be filled with more than leaves. They will be filled with lessons, with birds serving as unknowing teachers. Indeed, the many places we can observe birds are classrooms of a sort. In watching them, we not only learn how they live their lives, but we can also find reminders of how we might live our own. Bird watching has taught and reminded me of many things. I would consider these my top 10:

1. Plan ahead and be prepared for anything—the weather can change at any moment.

2. Bring a water bottle, and keep it full. But remember, whether the bottle is half empty or half full, it’s not going to fill itself.

3. Bring binoculars. You can see a lot without them, but one should use all the tools at their disposal if it will help them examine something more closely.

4. Bring friends—or, more specifically, friends who like to listen. Birds are often best identified by their calls. There are few things more valuable than having someone with you who is willing to listen to whatever songs may be heard on the trail.

5. Bring a camera or journal, because you should always document your experiences. Every day can be a day worth remembering.

6. Learn to recognize patterns. Certain birds behave in certain ways. They sound a certain way. They have specific flight patterns. They each have unique methods for navigating osbtacles. A red-headed woodpecker has a flight pattern much different from that of a red-tailed hawk. People tend to behave the same way…find their patterns, too.

7. Visit different locales. If you only search the forest, you will only find woodland birds. It is easy to forget that just as many birds frequent the prairies, rivers and wetlands. If you want to see something new, it is oftentimes just a matter of giving yourself a new backdrop.

8. Camouflage. The birds that are most difficult to get close to are the ones that blend in; the ones who don’t want to be showy. Not all cardinals are a bright red, not all goldfinches a brilliant yellow. There are lots of brightly-colored birds, but the birds you are most likely to remember are the ones who stayed hidden and only revealed themselves as a result of your dedication and patience.

9. Not every hike will be better than the last. There will be disappointment. There will be days when you don’t find the bird you are looking for. Though you can bring a checklist into the woods, it is not always a bad thing to keep your pencil in your bag. Not every bird will be an elusive, endangered species. There is still a lot of beauty in a common American robin if you look for it.

10. Lastly, be willing to take a step back—   from bird watching (or whatever it is you love) to make sure you don’t just love it, but that you like it, too. Anything you do with regularity can become mundane if you let it. If birding becomes a chore, don’t be afraid to take some time away from it. The room to breathe will likely help remind you why you fell in love with it in the first place.

It’s officially spring. There may be lots of house sparrows on the lawn in the next few months; but keep your eyes open…you never know when a peregrine falcon might swoop into view. Regardless, people generally only find what they are looking for. Here’s hoping that with a fresh spring season emerging in the trees, we all remember to look up and find whatever it is we are seeking.

From the March 24-30, 2010 issue

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