cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

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.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so)


  1. Hi Alan,

    Loved this post! Since I have retired I have gotten into photography as a hobby and wow, have I learned a lot! I know little but the learning is fantastic. I am even going on an Audubon birding tour this coming Saturday. I was just a point and click gal for the years I taught and had no idea all that was involved in photography. My photography has led me to a keen interest in birds and many other sidetrips of learning. I only knew robins, cardinals, owls but this hobby has led me to setting up bird feeders, etc. and reading many books on birds. I just got these two: “Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird” and “Attracting Songbirds to your Backyard”. Should make for interesting reading.

    On another note, I think of your mom everytime I see a butterfly. She was such a special lady.

    A friend of mine has planted wildflowers to attract butterflies and birds – I photograph a lot at his house and we have taken over to the back yard and it is a haven for birds now. This guy, Sam, is a close friend. He and his recent wife are a lifelong married friends. I miss his wife, Diane, but spent many pleasant months the last few months birdwatching with her. And photographing! Sorry this is so lengthy! You struck a cord in me! Best to you!


    1. Anne, as my Mom used to say, I am “blown away” by your sweet words and remembrance of Alyce’s butterflies. And I could not be more excited to hear of your newly discovered interests of photography an birds- never stop learning, never!

  2. HI Allan,

    Thank you for catching the day and the sentiment so well! Your post reminds me of all of the people that I’ve had a chance to learn from – and I have so much more to learn… I am blessed to be in a place that has so many birds and phenomenal, friendly birders! The BC birding community is wonderful. I’ve also “met” a number of wonderful birding people through Flickr – that I’m hoping to someday see in the field.

    I’m amazed by the people who can pick out the subtle difference in bird calls – particularly things like flycatchers… pesky little creatures. I agree – listening to recorded calls is helpful – but listening n the wild is so different. One of my favourite things is to walk about with someone who can ID birds by their fight behaviour…

    Speaking of that – those swifts at Reifel were so cool…

    I can thoroughly relate to what Anne says – the synergy between photography and birding is amazing. I think back and laugh at myself with some aspects of that combo – I always wondered why people spent so much time trying to get pictures of small birds. Seemed crazy – now I spend hours on that task. I also find it entertaining that I have a hidden patience streak when it comes to getting a photo. Who knew?

    Good luck learning the bird locals… I’ve got to get back down there for the birds AND the rocks!


  3. I too know how important it is to just watch and be still in order to experience birding through birds’ eyes. It’s amazing how much one can learn by just being present in the moment you’re looking out at even your backyard.

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