What Birding Is

Birding is a crucial, inextricable component of my life. It is the lens through which I engage with the splendor and complexity of the world around me. It fills my days with wonderment and frustration and heartbreak and joy in equal measure. It is more than just a hobby, more than a simple pastime. It is the only way I know how to be. 

Birding is so many things. 

Birding is an excuse to get out and explore one’s surroundings. It keeps me busy on even the hottest, laziest days of the year. It inspires me to rise before dawn on the first morning of summer break after a hectic semester, motivating me to seek out species I have not yet connected with since the start of 2023 as if they were old friends. It is the celebration of a reunion with my first Prothonotary Warbler in over a year, and the excitement of the realization that this vibrant golden bird is busily gathering food to provision an unseen nest of chicks somewhere deeper in the swamp. It is the all-day drive across Long Island, pausing to catch up with Tricolored Heron in the barrier beach marshes, Yellow-throated Warbler at the riverside arboretum, and Red-headed Woodpecker out in the pine barrens before racing back to the City to be home in time for dinner. It is the constant call to adventure, even on a local scale.

Birding is an avenue to connect with people from around the world. It is the shared passion that unites a dizzyingly diverse array of folks from all walks of life, forging unlikely friendships between 18-year-olds and 80-year-olds. It is the message from a friend of a friend, seeking some guidance on their first international trip, and asking if you would be willing to introduce them to your local hotspots. It is an early summer outing with a brilliant birder from the Philippines and his curious cousin from California, traipsing about in Central Park in the hopes of finding something “good.” It is the delighted realization that they look upon your abundant, everyday birds with the same amazement you reserve for when you travel abroad. It is the opportunity to appreciate the commonplace, overlooked majesty of a Blue Jay, a Northern Cardinal, or a Wood Duck through fresh eyes. It is the extra thrill that comes with the genuinely unexpected discoveries, such as a confiding Wood Thrush feeding its fledgling, the overheard call of a hidden Yellow-billed Cuckoo, or a dramatic encounter with a stunning Great Horned Owl in the heart of Manhattan. It is the reminder that all birds are good birds, and we are fortunate enough to share them with many good people.

Birding is a provider of unusual, unexpected experiences. It is a constant, lifelong treasure hunt that regularly delivers magic moments to liven up the humdrum normalcy of everyday existence. It is the out-of-the-blue text alert that sends you scrambling, fighting Independence Day traffic on your way to Staten Island to finally secure a Sandwich Tern for your state list and picking up a side order of Brown Pelicans when you get there. It is the suite of arcane forces that brings rare and extraordinary birds from faraway places to your own neighborhood. It is the infinite potential of never knowing what might turn up or how long the window of opportunity will remain open. It is the unforeseen chance to revisit a Neotropic Cormorant spending the summer on the Hudson River, more than a full year after you dropped everything and rushed to seek it out when it first arrived. It is the magnificent and maddening unpredictability that keeps us coming back for more, continually searching for the next big surprise.

Birding is the little, quiet moments every bit as much as it is the grand, memorable encounters. It is a peaceful stakeout on a dock with a friend, watching a Common Tern plunge dive for fish at close range for hours on end. It is the first hints of migratory activity on an otherwise unremarkable day, with bands of blackbirds and swallows winging their way downriver at dawn and dusk, or big flocks of shorebirds moving along the coast ahead of an oncoming stormfront. It is the realization that the cycle of seasons marches along even when we tell ourselves that it is “too early” or “the winds are bad.” It is the most visible manifestation of a planet that never stops spinning. It is a way for us to keep our finger on the pulse of the natural world, and to be aware and mindful of what is going on in the present. 

Birding is at times a game we play with ourselves, but it is also the joy and memories shared with like-minded companions. It is painfully early mornings and far-too-late nights, patrolling the local patch or sailing out into the deep together. It is taking on the role of chauffeur to aid friends in their quest for lifers, spending countless sweltering hours waiting in a marsh for an audience with a King Rail or straining against challenging seawatch conditions to pick out a lone Great Shearwater gliding across the distant wave crests. It is the joint celebration of exciting happenings, ranging from the achievement of personal milestones for yard or county lists to major events like state first records and lifelong dream birds. It is the universal tie that binds us together in appreciation of our collective experience as observers of nature’s marvels.

Birding is a gigantic family all its own, and in such an expansive community there are inevitably unexpected tragedies. It is the devastating, indescribable heartache of the news that one of the kindest, wisest, most inspiringly good humans you have ever known is gone. It is memories of moonlit nights sharing songs and stories with cold drinks around the campfire on the coast of Maine, or serendipitously bumping into one another a few miles and several years down the road from where you first met when a mythical, world-class bird like a Steller’s Sea-Eagle comes to town. It is the innumerable multitude of lives that were bettered for having met, even in passing, with such a patient and enthusiastic teacher. It is the all-encompassing agony of seeing such a bright light snuffed out so unfairly early, and knowing that the world has lost a larger than life, incomparable man who I was honored to call my friend. It is the legend of people like Tom Johnson, a giant in the birding community who never made anyone feel small. It is up to the rest of us who are left behind to carry on his unforgettable legacy. 

Birding is the perpetual, hopeful anticipation of what awaits beyond the horizon line. It requires intentional mindfulness in the moment, but the art of birding on a grander scale is built on reflection and looking towards the future. It is an effort of iterative improvement, striving to learn from the patterns of the past and the wisdom of our fellows to build a greater understanding of what to expect going forward. It is a promise of new opportunity, with the disappointment of each canceled trip, fumbled identification, or failed chase opening the door for redemption down the line. It is the solace we find when we turn our eyes to the skies, joining together with friends to make the most of each day of collaborative exploration. It is the knowledge that this vast, incredible world we inhabit spins ever on, and there is always something new to see. It is all that we are fortunate enough to experience in our brief time on this Earth, and all who we are blessed to share it with along the way.

Birding is a way of life.