Thursday, November 12, 2015

9 Ways Birding Has Changed my Life

My favorite tail-less Red-winged Blackbird female

I’m a birder- irreversibly, obsessively, and unashamedly taken with birds. 

As Tom Heatley (local Michigan birder and #14 on the 2014 ABA United States Top 50 list) says, “Birding is a disease, and the only cure is more birding!” Throughout the past year, I have discovered and fallen in Love with this passion. I refrain from calling it a hobby because its effects are more profound. If I listed all the ways, it would be the stuff of a novel not a blog post, so instead, here are 9 of the ways birding has changed my life:

#1) A Calm in the Storm
Birding has allowed me to fight some tough battles, including addiction. There have been times I wanted to be free but didn’t know how to fight through the hard stuff. On days I felt tired, sick, or anti-social, birding allowed me to more willingly exist in that uncomfortable space. The calming effect of nature, the fresh air in my lungs, and the overwhelming realization of the beauty surrounding me all bring peace that nothing else can.
#2) Zen
A few years ago, I discovered meditation through running, pushing through physical discomforts and rising above the body. Birding has produced a similar effect, except with birding I can actually be still. I can easily spend hours on end, walking through the woods and sitting under trees, never considering time until the sun begins to set. As I embrace the values of patience, stillness, and an openness of the mind and senses, birding hours seem like minutes to me. In the Buddhist tradition, the forest is considered a special place for enlightenment, for within it “there is only the ever-present possibility of events, encounters, and insights that emerge directly from reality itself, pure and unpolluted by human wants, expectations, and attitudes. Uniquely in the forest, the most radical of all human journeys can take place” (excerpt from Reginald A Ray’s Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body). I feel this too.
#3) Constant Wonder
When I began to get serious about birding, I realized how many local birds I had never seen before. These birds had been living nearby or passing through the area since long before I was born, yet I had never noticed them. Each new bird is a moment of realization, a chance to be curious, amazed, attentive, and aware. Sometimes it isn’t even the new birds that excite me, rather a close encounter, a great photo, or an unusual behavior. Birding keeps me on my toes and keeps me looking up (double meaning intended).
#4) A Break in Routine
Birding changes the landscape of days and lessens the divide between the workweek and the weekend. I’ve never subscribed to the idea of “The Grind”, of working Monday through Friday 9-5 and wishing it all away. I live my life for the day, even if it’s Monday. After all, every day is a new chance for adventure!

#5) A Network of Friends
Kevin R., Jeff S., and me (Photo courtesy: Paul Poronto)
Here I am, one full year into birding, and I’ve somehow managed to meet and befriend more people than I ever have in a single year. Through eBird, walks in the park, and a string of serendipitous events, I have quickly built up a network of birder friends who could also be described as family. These birders have welcomed me into their homes, taken me under their wings on road trips across Michigan, and shared with me anything I need including: toe warmers, extra gloves, bug spray, sunblock, snacks, equipment, books, hugs, and most importantly, an endless stream of knowledge. We don’t always have to be together but when we are, we pick up right where we left off, somewhere between the wingbeats.
#6) A Breath of Relief
I never had a clear plan for my career. I used to spend many days worrying over my lack of conviction. I felt directionless, lost, and envious of those who knew what they wanted to do with their lives. To be honest, I am still quite uncertain about my career goals, but now the not-knowing doesn’t bother me as much. I found what fills my heart with joy and discovered something in birding from which nothing can detract. Blogging about birds has been a recent development. It has given me hope that my marketing education and birding passion can in fact be linked. If I can use my degree to share my passion, that would be the best-case scenario. Until then, I can be at peace with the uncertainty because I find peace in birds.
#7) A New Role
While I’ve always been an avid reader and sponge for knowledge, I have never considered myself a good teacher. Anyone who has witnessed my teaching attempts would understand this, as I often stutter through explanations and make up words as I go. I am very much an introvert who prefers to lead by example rather than explain something. However, birding seems to be the exception. This passion has given me an entirely new identity. People now come to me with their bird questions and sightings because they know I will be interested and will provide feedback. I find myself surprised at my willingness to offer information, reach out to others, and yes, even teach others about birds. To be depended upon in that way feels like a sign of maturity and an indication I have something meaningful to offer.
#8) A Test of Limits
Birding may sound like the antithesis of adrenaline-seeking, but for me, it has been the motivation to broaden my horizons and test my limits. Consider last winter when Kevin (my friend and fellow birder) and I spent hours trudging through snow in frigid temperatures. We were searching for Long-eared Owls who had been spending time in a particular patch of trees. As soon as we were enveloped in that dark canopy of conifers, standing right underneath an impossibly camouflaged Long-eared Owl, there was simply no other place to be. Alternately, I have never been on a plane and am still terrified at the idea. Still, despite my fear, I know one day I will want to expand my birding horizons and visit birds that would never reach Michigan. I find it fitting that birds will most likely be my incentive to fly.
#9) Natural Connection
While birds are often the main subjects of my adventures and photos, they are not the only creatures with whom I have connected. I have always loved nature and the outdoors, but now I feel even more connected to it and aware of it. More and more, I find myself a keeper, collector, and protector of nature. I save centipedes; allow spiders to crawl on my hands; pick wildflowers; collect rocks, leaves, and shells; and eat wild berries. Some days the birding is slow, but there is always, always something beautiful to be seen.

The following is an excerpt from a book that speaks to my soul, a book called Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D. In this passage, Estés discusses the effects of the Wild Woman, or true feminine nature:
Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)

These transient ‘tastes of the wild’… come both through beauty as well as loss, that cause us to become so bereft, so agitated, so longing that we eventually must pursue the wildish nature. Then we leap into the forest or into the desert or into the snow and run hard, our eyes scanning the ground, our hearing sharply tuned, searching under, searching over, searching for a clue, a remnant, a sign that we have not lost our chance. And when we pick up her trail, it is typical of women to ride hard to catch up, to clear off the desk, clear off the relationship, clear out one’s mind, turn to a new page, insist on a break, break the rules, stop the world, for we are not going on without her any longer… When women reassert their relationship with the wildish nature, they are gifted with a permanent and internal watcher, a knower, a visionary, an oracle, an inspiratrice, an intuitive, a maker, a creator, an inventor, and a listener who guide, suggest, and urge vibrant life in the inner and outer words.