Birding in the moment

(published 5-6-19)

The books on my nightstand are mostly about baseball, golf and birding. Those three, with few exceptions. Same with magazines. I’m a reader of habit.

My favorite kind of bird books are the travelogues, like Wild America, The Feather Quest, The Grail Bird, Kingbird Highway and The Big Year. Noah Strycker’s Birding Without Borders further enriched the genre in 2017.

But recently a different kind of bird book caught my eye.

The Art of Mindful Birdwatching: Reflections of Freedom and Being, by Claire Thompson, is for deep thinkers and regular birders alike. I’m in the latter camp, for sure, and the book’s trendy title gave me pause before hitting the Place Order button on Amazon.

Concepts like “mindfulness” and “being present” seem to float right over my head. I’m even a little skeptical of such terms. I do not meditate, practice goat yoga or bathe in the woods. I did hug a tree once, at the Morton Arboretum’s Illumination event. I keep a life list but not a daily journal.

So, could a touchy-feely book about mindful birdwatching be worth my time? Could I survive all 139 pages?

To my surprise, yes! I learned a few things, too. Did you know that birds are so sensitive to sights and sounds that they can read our body language? That’s right, the attitudes we carry down the trail affect how birds respond to our presence. The lesson: be careful how you walk.

Thompson’s advice and insights throughout the book are practical enough to make us better birders, or at least more appreciative ones. She wants us to “let go” when looking at birds, and not let our controlling minds keep us from the joy of the moment.

Birders, the author says, “can easily fall into a pattern of ‘notice, label and move on.’ The more we do this, the more we close up that special place where mindful awareness allows wonder and appreciation to blossom.”
That really hit home with me. In a group or on my own, I’m usually building a list—pursuing the goal of seeing or hearing as many species as possible. I’m think about where to look next, and what birds I’m missing. The success (or not) of the search can sometimes dominate the experience.

Thompson urges us to be accepting and welcome things as they are, to leave expectations at home. We might not see the bird we are hoping to see, not today, but that’s not a failure. Let go of negative emotions, she says, and give full attention to what you can see and hear in the moment. Embrace the unpredictability of birdwatching.

“Through the practice of mindful acceptance, our chance encounters with birds become gifts.”
She means the super common birds, too. We don’t pay them enough attention, and they have stories to tell.

In a mindfulness exercise called Sit Spot, Thompson suggests spending 20 minutes each day watching and listening from the same place—a calming method of getting closer to nature and honing our observation skills. She calls it tuning into “radio bird.”

The trick, of course, is to avoid the static. It’s not easy watching birds—or doing anything—while keeping your mind clear of random, unrelated thoughts. Our attention spans have probably never been shorter. Distracted birding, it’s a thing!

While any kind of birding is better than no birding at all, The Art of Mindful Birdwatching is a good reminder to slow down, notice more and enjoy whatever the birding gods throw at us. Hey, maybe even go crazy and leave the smart phone in the car.

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.