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Opinion | When I became a birdwatcher, almost everything else fell into place

Last September, I drove to a protected wetland near my home in Oakland, California, walked to the end of a pier, and started birdwatching. Throughout the summer, I was breaking in my first pair of binoculars, a Sibley field guide, and the Merlin song identification app, but always while hiking or walking the dog. On that pier, for the first time, I had gone to a place solely to watch birds.

In some birding circles, people say that anyone who watches birds is a birder, a kind and inclusive sentiment that overlooks the forces that create and shape subcultures. Anyone can dance, but not everyone would identify as a dancer, because the term suggests, if not skill, then at least effort. and intention. Similarly, I have cared about birds and other animals all my life, and have written about them throughout my two decades as a science writer, but I mark the moment when I specifically chose to devote time and energy to them as the moment when I became a bird watcher.

Since then, my birdwatcher disorder syndrome has progressed at an alarming rate. Seven months ago I still saw very common birds for the first time. Since then, I have seen 452 species, including 337 in the United States, and 307 this year alone. I can confidently identify a few dozen species by ear. I can distinguish greater and lesser yellow finches, house finches and purple finches, Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks. (Don’t talk to me about seagulls; I’m working on seagulls.) I keep up with eBird’s rare bird alerts and have spent many days, some glorious, some frustrating, searching for said rare birds. I know what it means to sink, twitch, urinate. I have become an owl.

I didn’t start from scratch. A career dedicated to nature writing gave me enough avian biology and taxonomy to know roughly the habitats and silhouettes of the major groups. Journalism taught me to familiarize myself very quickly with unknown territory. I got suggestions on the Bluesky social media platform. I went out with experienced birders to learn how they move through a landscape and what cues they pay attention to.

I studied birds that are famous for being difficult to identify, so when I first saw them in the field, I had an idea of ​​what they were without having to consult a field guide. I used the many tools now available to beginners: EBird shows where other birders go and reveals how different species navigate in space and time; Merlin is best known as an identification app, but secretly it’s an incredible encyclopedia; Birding Quiz allows you to practice identifying species based on fleeting glances from bad angles.

This all sounds pretty extra, and birdwatching is often defined by its excesses. At worst, it becomes an empty compilation process that turns living beings into abstract numbers in meaningless lists. But even that style of birding is more difficult without knowledge. To find the birds, you have to know them. And in the process of getting to know them, many other things fall into place.

Bird watching has tripled the time I spend outdoors. It’s pushed me to explore Oakland in a way I never would have: incredible hot spots lurk within industrial areas, wastewater treatment plants, and random residential parks. It has been shown to be more meditative than meditation. While watching birds, I seem immune to heat, cold, hunger and thirst. My senses focus resolutely on the present and the usual uproar in my head calms down. When I see a species for the first time, a lively species, I run on adrenaline while being absolutely composed.

I also feel a much deeper connection to the natural world, which I have written about for a long time but have always stayed somewhat distant from. He knew that the loggerhead shrike, a small but ferocious songbird, impales the bodies of its prey with quills. Now I’ve seen one doing that with my own eyes. I know where to find shrikes and what they sound like. Countless fragments of uprooted platitudes that resonated in my brain are now based on place, time and experience.

When I walk out my front door in the morning, I take an auditory census of the neighborhood, tuning in to the chatter of creatures that have always been there and that I may have previously overlooked. The passing of the seasons feels more granular, marked by the arrival and disappearance of particular species rather than much slower changes in day length, temperature, and greenery. I find myself noticing small changes in weather and small differences in habitat. I think of the tides.

Now, much more of the natural world feels close and accessible. When I first started birding, I remember thinking that I would never see most of the species in my field guide. Sure, backyard birds like robins and western bluebirds would be easy, but not black skimmers, peregrine falcons, or loggerhead shrikes. I had internalized the idea that nature was distant and remote – the territory of nature documentaries and remote vacations. But in the past six months, I’ve watched golden eagles fly, heard duets with great horned owls, watched sandhill cranes dance, and marveled at Pacific loons diving, all within an hour of my house. “I’ll never see that” has become “Where can I find that?”

Of course, having time to watch birds is an immense privilege. As a freelancer, I have complete control over my hours and my ability to get out into the field. “Are you retired?” A fellow birder recently asked me. “You’re birdwatching like a retiree.” I laughed, but the comment spoke to the idea that things like bird watching are what you do when you’re not working, not being productive.

I reject it. These past few years have taught me that I am less when I don’t actively care for myself, that I have value to my world and my community beyond relentless production, and that activities like bird watching that foster joy, wonder, and connection to the place are not sidebars for a full life but its essence.

It’s easy to think of bird watching as an escape from reality. Rather I see it as an immersion in true reality. I don’t need to know who the main characters are on social media and what everyone is saying about them, when I can instead spend an hour trying to find a rare sparrow. It is very clear to me which of those two activities is the most ridiculous. It’s not the one with the sparrow.

More of those sparrows are imminent. I’m about to witness my first spring migration as warblers and other delights pass through the Bay Area. The birds that I have seen only in shades of gray are about to show off their spectacular breeding plumages. Familiar species are about to burst into new melodies that I will have to learn. I have my first lazuli bunting to see, my first blue grosbeak to find, and my first terns to photograph. I can not wait.