Sunday, August 5, 2007

What I Should Have Said

              Me and my big mouth...

"So, tell me about birding—I really don't know anything about it."

We were at my sister's place in San Diego yesterday, after a thoroughly unrewarding day of poking around the Tijuana Estuary. Apart from a few Clapper Rails, an Osprey, a Northern Harrier, a Cooper's Hawk, several Brown Pelicans, Killdeer, and Forster's Terns, the day's birding had been a wash. Nothing new for our life lists, and not even any sightings of any local birds that don't usually make it all the way up to Orange County (such as the Gull-Billed Terns or Little Blue Herons.) And now we were sipping wine in the kitchen with one of their neighbors, who was asking very nicely exactly what birding entailed, and what its appeal was.

And being sleep-deprived, sunburned, and dizzy from wine drunk on an empty stomach, I gave him a totally incoherent answer. I nattered on about Big Days and life lists, and left the poor dude with the impression that birding is something like paintball for nature lovers with obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Here's what I should have said instead:

I like birding for the same reasons I like Harry Potter novels—both allow an escape into a rich alternate world filled with both great beauty and incredible tension and danger. But birding is even more rewarding than great fantasy fiction: unlike Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, the magical parallel universe opened to birders is real—and all you need is a pair of binoculars and some patience to get in.

During the spring, I spent a lot of time in ordinary suburban parks filled with playground equipment and picnic tables. None of the minivan moms and kids yelling about how bored they were had any idea what was going on right over their heads. Did any of them have any clue that the trees were filled with gorgeous wild creatures with colors and patterns even brighter than those of domestic parrots? And that many of these would only be here a few weeks, before slipping off again to some distant locale?

If I were to tell one of the kids that I was looking for a bright yellow bird with a traffic-cone orange head, or a tiny songbird of blazing metallic aquamarine, most would think I was joking. After all, everybody knows that birds in southern California are all brown or black or grey. But Western Tanagers and Lazuli Buntings are unambiguously real—and with a bit of effort and some luck, I can find them.

And when I do, I know I've slipped into that parallel universe—but even better, I know it's not really a parallel universe, but the same one in which I live, work and fight off freeway traffic, only in exquisite detail. Because I bird, I can see parts of the physical world that most people miss. I can find incredible beauty and dramatic life-or-death struggles in seemingly mundane environments.

The search for different birds can become competitive, and the competition can be fun—it's rewarding to be able to quantify how much of the veiled physical world one has mastered, and to match one's skills against those of other birders. But the real pleasure of birding for me is just being a part of this hidden world: watching raptors pursue their prey, and fledgling terns learning to fly and hunt, is satisfaction enough.

I can see all of this, and most people can't or won't. Strangely, this makes me feel powerful.

And this is a kind of power nobody can take away.

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