The alternate universe of birds

At my infrequent appointments, my hairdresser always asks me what I am doing the next weekend. This standard conversational gambit is usually fruitful for her, I’m sure. But I seldom have any plans to report. Last week, however, I did. “My husband and I are going birding,” I said.

“What’s that?” she said.

I explained birdwatching to 26-year-old Megan as best I could, although I don’t think I managed to make it sound very exciting. She did get the part about being out in nature, but we soon turned to other topics, like who’s in the Voice finals.

In fact, I wasn’t sure how excited I would be about spending a couple of days birdwatching. We are not serious or experienced birders. We love the birds we hear in our woods–though we have trouble spotting them–and see at our feeders, especially at this time of year, when the summer nesters are returning and migrants are passing through. It’s been years, though, since we signed up for any guided expeditions.

Last fall we spent a few days in West Virginia with a high school classmate of Vic’s who is an accomplished birder and bird photographer. We invited Herb and his wife, Sarah, to visit us sometime, and we promised to take them to some Michigan birding spots. That prompted us to do some research, because we knew little about Michigan birds. We joined the Michigan Audubon Society. And that is how we learned about the Tawas Point Birding Festival, which is held in the middle of May, at the height of songbird migrations. Tawas Point is a narrow peninsula on Lake Huron where birds land to rest and feed after night flights up hundreds of miles of shoreline. We decided to visit the festival and see whether it was worth inviting our friends to next year. And whether we ourselves might want to do more serious birdwatching.

What images do you have of birdwatchers? Middle-aged and older folks wearing drab, baggy clothes and floppy hats, binoculars around necks, goofy expressions of joy on faces, chasing through underbrush for glimpse of Golden-winged Warbler? Yup. That was us and our groups. Add to this guides who could detect a dozen birdcalls at once, many beyond my hearing range, and who looked a little like birds themselves (Bill was an owl, Caleb a handsome hawk, Peggy a prairie chicken), and you realize the stereotypes are not far off. Birding can look like a silly and eccentric activity.

But it is all for the sake of the birds. Birders are unselfconscious and unafraid of looking foolish, braving wet, early-morning chills and girding themselves against ticks, just so they can see these beautiful creatures in their habitat or, even more thrilling, at a brief stopover on their long, grueling journeys. How far they have come, how exhausted they must be, how far many of them still have to go. They sing and call and mark their territory and show their habits and preferences–some for low brush, some for the tops of trees, some for groups, some for solitude. Some feed on seeds, some on bugs, some become the prey of other birds.

If you start watching birds there may be a moment that makes you cross the line between casual watching and serious birding, or at least wanting to do this more often. For me it was watching a tiny Blackburnian Warbler hopping about in a bush. He stayed long enough for me to get a good look through my new, birder-worthy binocs. I heard his song and saw him singing it. That was it. I was hooked. In love, you might say.

The bird world is an alternate universe that is visible from our own world if we pay attention. Watching its beautiful, demanding life unfold is a privilege.

Blackburnian Warbler, not the one I saw. Photo by Herb Myers

Blackburnian Warbler, not the one I saw. Photo by Herb Myers

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