In praise of birding


Green heron – photo credit to Brandohl Photography.

Not in praise of birds – though a photograph of a green heron (aka butorides virescens, Latin for “heron so tiny you could smuggle it home in your shoulder bag, and so cute you’ll want to, but you won’t, because it would be wrong”) illustrates this post – but in praise of the act of birding itself.  By “birding,” I mean walking slowly, ideally in a park or other natural setting, most likely with a pair of decent binoculars around your neck, and stopping frequently to investigate a flutter of wings in the canopy or underbrush, or locate the source of a particular song or call, or simply because a spot looks – or has the reputation of being – “birdy.”

I spend a considerable time running in Prospect Park, but it was only after I started birding again last March that I really got to know it.  Like most runners, I stuck pretty close to the main park drive.  If I veered off the road onto the dirt, I still generally paralleled the roadway.  I used familiar mile markers to gauge my pace, stopping only at drinking fountains (and for occasional bathroom emergencies).  With the exception of my Prospect Park Track Club teammates and a few other well-known fixtures of the Brooklyn running community, to whom I would wave (or occasionally run a partial loop with), I passed other runners in silence.

Birding is different.  In part that’s because birders move slowly, but it’s also, I think, because birders are an even smaller and more eccentric tribe than runners.  When we see one another, we almost always stop to compare our sightings and offer tips (“worm-eating warbler was working the lower pool half an hour ago”).  Sure, some of us are testy about off-leash dogs, but in my experience, birders as a group are almost absurdly friendly and helpful.  They also know the park really, really well.  Thanks to my birding colleagues, I now have a greatly expanded geographic vocabulary that takes in the Pools, Upper and Lower; the Lullwater; the Lily Pond; the Butterfly Meadow; and so on.  I am particularly proud to know which lamppost is the famous Lamppost 249 (to complicate things, it now bears a different number) and would be more than happy to point it out to you if you’re interested.

I’ve seen some great birds in the park, starting with the red-necked grebe that paid an extended visit in early spring, and including a prothonotary warbler so bright it seemed to glow, tail-wagging prairie warblers, diving ospreys and bobbing sandpipers.  I’ve watched our three green heron fledglings lose their baby-bird down and grow into streaky adolescence.

I’ve also seen lots of interesting non-bird stuff, and had some interesting non-birding conversations.  There was the couple having sex in a clearing surrounded by phragmites.  There was the (different) couple who became engaged by the Butterfly Meadow: I heard a woman crying, then laughing, then saw her holding up her hand so the light would catch the diamond on her ring finger while she cried/laughed.  There was the older man who works the night shift, goes home to take his tea, then heads to the park to walk – and who told me a long and improbable story about a chance meeting with a musician playing the bass, right here in the woods on the Peninsula, yes, right here, no idea how he carried his instrument in, and how he spent the entire morning jamming with him, spoken word and bass, just jamming.

As fall migration picks up, I’m looking forward both to more birds (my seen-in-the-park list is already up to 114 species) and more non-bird encounters.

(A quick note about this blog – technical difficulties involving the catastrophic failure and subsequent replacement of the hard drive on my brand new computer resulted in a month-long hiatus from posting.  But we’re officially back in business.)


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