I do not know my finch from a grackle- my extent of observing birds is being able to say, “there’s a bird”. During my visit in Vancouver, I was fortunate to spend an outing with my colleague Michelle Lamberson from UBC, who continually astounds many of us with her stunning photographs of birds up so close. She took me to several locations on the delta south of the site, including Reifel Bird Sanctuary, a heron nesting ground near Tsawwassen, Iona Beach Park.
Just that act of sharing a special place would have been enough, but on this day, I find it is more than her photographic skill, but an ability to sense and zone in on detail that amazed me. Plus there is this whole connected culture of other birding people we met, all of whom seemed to know and respect her a great deal.
I will draw some rather simplistic conclusions, and based not much more than on a days worth of observation- but learning bird watching is a process we can pull valuable lessons from.
By no means an original thought, it struck me how special is the process of learning bird identification. First of all, it is a personal commitment, not something you fit in between other bits of life, not something you dabble lightly in. More so, from what I can see it is a highly mentored approach, where someone who has the keen internal audio library and lookup system can point out (figuratively) a subtle sound, and explain what it is. Yes, you might be able to sit at home and practice listening to recorded sounds, but I’d bet no one gets very far without being there in the field, under the (donated) tutelage of someone experienced.
And while I am hazarding guesses, I would assume you get to that place only by someone else having done the same for you, and in many ways, it becomes a pay it forward kind of scheme.
And yet it goes even farther- you go from a space of hearing a muddle of sounds (if at all) to being able to isolate the tiniest of detail, or of being able to go from seeing a bird on a tree across the pond, to being able to discern if the yellow band is on its throat or across the wings. That learning to parse detail, to see the world differently, maybe in more fidelity, fascinates me- how else do we get there beside focused time, energy, and guidance? You cannot half ass it or fake it.
The rewards too are intrinsic, not for some certification (well there are real badges [link]); maybe for building a reputation, but I guess more likely just for the love of learning and being in a place of learning.
I recently watched this short film called Birdwatching created by a high school student (via Mary Ann Reilly) about birding being something that both unites people and separates others. Ia gree with her assessment that it is the subtle but effective use of multiple camera angles, natural cuts, and movement that makes this film feel alive.
It is the line near the end about birding being something that can be effective when you are out and a part of nature. Elliot shares.
It’s like this thing I just read by this guy, Robert Lynn, who said “In order to see birds, you need to become part of the silence.”
and Steph responds
I’m kind of interested in ornithology I guess the biggest thing I learned from them is, if you want to get close to birds, you really have to become part of nature, because as soon as they sense something that does not belong, they will fly away
(which is something she is learning in her story)
And this all seems something honed by generations of tradition, be it identification of animals, plants, bugs, minerals – this combination of being in the place of the thing being studies (not in place of, but in addition to bringing it into a class or home), the focus, fine tuning our observational skills, the learning by mentoring– these are elements I am wondering how well we deploy in broader areas.
So when I get to my home this month, I’m going to try my hand at just studying the birds I see just a little bit closer, not to pretend I will turn into a bird watcher, but just to see what happens when I try some of the observational things I noticed on the day out with Michelle.
UPDATE: July 5, 2012 Just for fun, I took a series of photos of a bird feeding a small one (Michelle pointed the action out to me) and made it into an animated GIF. Being there, almost.