How to Explain the Inexplicable Thrill of Birding?

I’m currently reading Kenn Kaufman’s Flights Against the Sunset – his wonderful memoir about attempting to recount his birding adventures to his dying mother. Most of the essays initially appeared in Birdwatching Digest, and Kaufman’s writing sparkles with humor, liveliness, and never fails to impress me in its robust detail (without overburdening the reader). It’s a joy to read a book where I learn something about the birding experience in every anecdote the writer tells. When confronted with the problem of telling his mother about his life as a birder, he realizes that his “subject matter would have to come from that frontier where the world of birds intersects with the world of the humans who pursue them.”

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How true! I think any birder can relate to that particular difficulty. How do you talk about birding with non-birders? I’m thrilled that when I return home from a day of birding, the first question my husband asks is “what did you see today?” But then, for a minute, I’m stymied: do I go into detail about how we walked through wet woods for an hour, hoping to find an owl and ultimately finding nothing? Do I tell him about all the failed attempts or do I just focus on the quantitative thrills of the day? In the end, I whip out Crossley’s wonderful book, and show him photos of the birds I was happy to see on that particular day. It seems that there’s a point at which words fall short.

But how to describe the actual thrill of the search? Very often when I go out birding, searching for the bird is more exciting than finding it. The day we happened upon two barred owls, the most rewarding part of our search was actually surveying dozens of trees and not seeing the owls, but knowing that the potential of seeing them still remained. Once the actual bird has been located and seen, written up and documented, it becomes a thing of the past, a memory. There’s almost a sense of loss.

What I love most about birding is the quest. I recently saw a fantastic documentary called Birders: The Central Park Effect (dir. Jeffrey Kimball, 2012), in which one of the birders lays out the seven pleasures of bird watching. He likens birding to “hunting, but without the blood,” and I think he’s dead on in his assessment. It’s about the pleasure of the hunt. (I wrote a review of the movie here.)

It’s also all about the element of surprise. As a birder, you may well have a wish-list, but nature never ceases to offer you surprises. Last weekend, we went out in search of flocks of Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs – both of which failed to materialize before us. But instead, we happened upon a miraculous Short-eared owl— a life bird for me! It was as if he’d been the one waiting for us all along.

Here’s a link to a great video from the New York Times called Birders: An Avian Tribe Apart. It gets to the heart of the art, skill, madness, and magic that is birding.

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