The Birder's Experience— A Narrative
By Kentia Kalanaki
It’s that moment of anticipation when you visit a birding spot you love, the moment when you hear the songbirds all around you and finally settle into a spot and wait for them to show themselves. Of course, you could be chasing after them trying to find them, but I’ve found that doesn’t work as well in many cases. Crouching down in the vegetation, blending in with your surroundings as best as a conspicuous biped can, and simply waiting for the birds to show themselves works better- they always show up eventually if you choose your spot well. The minutes pass by as you sit there in the cold, dewey morning air, kneeling in the tall grass, facing the pond. Or maybe you’re on the edge of a lake, in the mist and reeds, listening to the eerie calls of Common Loons as the sun rises, hoping that one will show itself. No matter where you are, that feeling of hope and anticipation of the birds to come is the same- that almost childish feeling of impatience combined with serenity and feeling rooted in the world around you- the pure, unfiltered happiness that comes from the experience.
As a birder, I’ve gotten to experience these wholesome feelings myself many times. One of my favorite instances happened just a few months ago- I was sitting on a large rock in the middle of Lake Tahoe, the freezing cold water lapping against it just a foot or two below me. As I sat there listening to the bird calls around me and breathing in the crisp winter air, I knew the stop had been completely worth it. After a few minutes, the harsh kyarrr of a Forster’s tern pierced the air. I looked towards the direction from which it came, and I saw three of them flying over the lake to my left in search of fish, still just tiny dots in the distance. I raised my binoculars to look at them, and I admired their beautiful acrobatics as they swooped and dove for fish. As I sat there, the forest behind me full of chirping songbirds, I noticed they were getting closer. Little by little, they brought their fishing party nearer to me until I didn’t have to use my binoculars anymore to see them. They swooped around me, surveying for fish, every so often diving down a few little ways away from me and coming back up with their prize fish still wriggling feebly in their bills. I picked one to follow around with my binoculars as it glided around and dove for fish, and watched it in its graceful hunt for around ten minutes. Suddenly, I saw it coming to fly right over my head. I was absolutely thrilled as it flew little more than 3 meters over my head- and then it turned right back, tucked its wings in as it looked down, and dove gracefully into the water, making a small splash in the water just a meter to my right, and finally pulled a large, wriggling silver fish out in its large orange and black bill. As it flew away with its prize, I was left on my rock listening to the water slosh around me, watching it leave, the sound of the splash it made echoing in my mind. I felt honored- blessed. Like the tern chose to show me a private part of its life, like it had bestowed me with some sort of privilege in showing me its magnificence from such close up. That’s birder’s high- the euphoria that you feel after getting to see something amazing like that.
As I sat on that rock after my experience with the tern, I began thinking about all the other incredible birding experiences I’d had. One of my favorites was from the time I was walking around my neighborhood in the early spring, trying to find spring warblers and baby birds flitting about. I was walking along the edge of the pond, and what should I stumble across but two proud canada geese with four fluffy day-old goslings hopping about, figuring out how to use their tiny legs. I’ve never understood why so many people hate geese; it’s not like they’re scary, they’re literally a fourth of the size of the average human, and they can’t inflict any damage. They won’t even try to attack unless they’re provoked, and the same goes for every animal. Anyhow, I love geese- they’re such interesting, complex, and even friendly creatures. Hence, I was excited when I saw these two geese, who I realized I had seen before in the neighborhood based on the metal band on the male’s left leg. He was a friendly goose, so I knew I wouldn’t be seen as an intruder if I sat down where I was at the base of a large willow tree to watch them. As I did so, they slowly waddled closer and closer to me, seemingly anticipating food. I snapped pictures of them and their fluffy younglings as they nibbled on grass and waddled around in the sun. Slowly, they approached me in my spot underneath the tree- closer, closer, and closer until I could reach out and touch them if I wanted to. I could hardly believe it. I don’t know what made me do it, maybe it’s the human instinct to try to touch anything fluffy that comes by, or maybe it was the easy way the father was standing, with his neck lowered or his tail feathers relaxed in a calm position, as if to tell me, ‘I trust you.’ Or maybe it was the way the goslings were squeaking quietly and gently, melting my heart with every sound they made. Regardless, I slowly reached out, watching the father the whole time for any sign of discomfort, and gently touched the one right in front of me with my index finger. None of them minded- not the father, not the mother, and not any of the goslings. I stroked it with my finger, and finally just let my hand stay there on the grass among them all as they kept wobbling about. My jaw dropped as one of them wandered right up to my hand as if it wasn’t even there, and then put its tiny, thin webbed foot in it. I gasped softly as it lingered there, bringing its other foot up, and then slowly lowered its fluffy chest into my outstretched hand. I couldn’t believe it! A tiny, fluffy, yellow gosling just came and sat down in my hand of its own accord! I didn’t know what I had done to deserve this positively magical thing to happen to me. I felt like a Disney princess, straight out of a movie, with my animal friends around me. I spent a wonderful hour with these absolutely quintessential creatures surrounding me, at the end of which the father slowly guided his young towards the pond to cool off. As I walked back home, I had a similar thought process to the one I had after my encounter with the tern- I felt like I’d been blessed with this experience, like the goose had somehow uplifted me in giving me this close and personal view of its life, of its treasured young. And I felt so good about myself, since this wild animal that had absolutely no reason to trust me had just done so with its young. I felt like I had accomplished something special in that.
My thoughts then wandered to another encounter I remember so clearly almost as if it was yesterday- that one morning when we had driven all the way up to Tahoe meadows to go to chickadee ridge, a birding spot famous for its incredible number of sociable chickadees. According to rumor, said chickadees would interact with people with food to give them. So, excited as a birder can get, I got up early that morning and lugged a bag of birdseed all the way up the long and winding mountain trail, hiking through the fresh snow until I heard the high-pitched, “Hey, sweetie!” and harsh “Chickadee-dee-dee” calls of the mountain chickadees in the trees around me. I slung the bag with the birdseed in it off my shoulder and grabbed a fistful, raising my hand up in anticipation of maybe getting a chickadee to land on me. I didn’t have to wait long- within 30 seconds, I got a whole flock chirping and frolicking in the branches around me. Not long after, a chickadee flitted right up to my hand, perched on my pinky, grabbed a sunflower seed, eyed me curiously, and then hopped off. And then another. And another. 4, 5, 6. There was a steady stream of chickadees- they kept coming, picking through the seeds in my hand, singling out their favorite, and then leaving to eat it on a nearby branch. I stood there for nearly an hour with my hand outstretched in the frosty winter air, spending time with these beautiful chickadees and the occasional white-breasted nuthatch, feeling completely fulfilled.
These are the kinds of moments that birders live for, the kinds of moments that every birder knows. It could be just a fleeting moment in which you see an extremely rare and colorful warbler flitting about the thicket, or it could be spending an hour or two with your favorite waterfowl at the lakeside. These fulfilling encounters, the ones that make you feel special, like you’ve accomplished something unique, ones that help you take a breath and step away from the hustle of day-to-day life- these moments are where we birders find our joy.