Certain determined creatures don’t know there is a pandemic out there. They flit around in the understory or perch on tree limbs, foraging and pecking and standing out in their fine yellow, blue and red plumage.
They trill and squawk and sing cheerily. When they are feeling magnanimous, they will sit patiently while I set up my tripod and focus my long lens on them.
I have always considered birding a spiritual practice of sorts. You have to be quiet, you have to listen, you have to watch. You have to be able to discern one species from another. You have to be the bird. From your vantage point along the Atlantic Flyway, you are in awe of their migratory prowess and perseverance.
I am not a “birder,” per se. I do not keep a list because if I did, it would become all about the list. That’s how my recovering Type A personality operates. I am also just awful at recalling bird songs. I have memorized fewer bird songs than Bible verses – a mere handful.
But it’s May, and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge is a few miles from our home. Two larger, world renowned refuges, Bombay Hook in Delaware and Blackwater in Maryland, are a short trip away.
Apparently, bird-watching has been discovered as an outdoor activity that can be enjoyed while social distancing.
“With coronavirus restrictions dragging on, interest in bird-watching has soared as bored Americans notice a fascinating world just outside their windows,” the Associated Press writes. “Downloads of popular bird identification apps have spiked, and preliminary numbers show sales of bird feeders, nesting boxes and birdseed have jumped even as demand for other nonessential goods plummets.”
Frankly, I am not even that good at spotting birds. Sue sees the yellow and blue flashes, the pair of eagles scowling from a bare tree limb, the great blue heron hiding in the marsh grass. I wheel around, squinting with my binoculars or fumbling with my camera and tripod.
Still, when alone in the wilderness, wondrous things can happen. (Well, besides the infected tick bite that led to 10 days of doxycycline.) Earlier this week, I combined a 3.2-mile walk at Prime Hook with my current Audible book, “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd, and bird-watching. Because the tide was way out, there were more shorebirds than usual – dunlin, short-billed dowitchers, yellowlegs and egrets. I saw indigo buntings, male and female blue grosbeaks, multiple eagles, goldfinches, and a yellow warbler – among others I could not identify.
It has taken a few years for me to get to the rudimentary level where I can ID a female blue grosbeak, who is golden brown not blue, and to get excited when I identify a variety of warbler for the first time. I always have my Merlin ID Bird App with me to confirm a sighting or match a song to a bird. The best website to begin learning and sharpening your skills is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site. You can also keep tabs on birds you and others have seen through their e-Bird app, but as I said I am trying not to keep score.
If you really want to dive in, I recommend David Sibley’s book, “Birding Basics.” But the Cornell website is very interactive and provides a user-friendly window on the world of birding, with video, audio, maps and more.
In these times, birds can be our teachers while we are social distancing. Their lessons include the power of solitude, discernment, patience, and perseverance, as well as the presence of beauty and God in all things.