George Armistead tells the story of the winter morning when he was standing in a landfill while on a birding walk. He got a call from
a girl he’d just started dating. “She asked me what I was doing.’’
Then he grinned. “Do I tell her I’m at a dump looking for birds? That it’s 10 degrees outside? And that it’s one of the highlights of my year?’’
Armistead, who started birding at age 9 and went on to become a research ornithologist at Drexel University and now leads birding trips all over the world, was delivering the keynote speech at the annual Wings over Water birding festival on North Carolina’s Outer
Banks. The roomful of birders from around the country smiled with him as he took up one of the quandaries of our pastime.
Why do birders do what they do? How do they explain it to others? Why do they walk for miles in the rain, wind and sometimes snow in search of a glimpse of a bird?
He had one of the best explanations we’ve heard.
About a million people in the United States consider themselves birders. They range from backyard birdwatchers content to see what comes to their feeders to scope-equipped travelers who migrate with the birds as tens of thousands move across the hemisphere every fall and spring.
He talked about how birders often have trouble explaining their pursuit to mystified friends and family. The popular image tends to focus on extremes — the fanatic in khakis and a pith helmet making odd sounds. “I’ve never actually seen a pith helmet,’’ Armistead said.
Instead, he said, the attraction stems from a more fundamental appeal that explains why so many otherwise ordinary people find their way to birding. He pulled out the book he wrote with Cornell’s Brian Sullivan, called “Better Birding,” and read a portion of the introduction.
“You get to be outside in the elements. You are attuned to the weather and your surroundings, and this affords you the perspective to consider your own place on the planet – a refreshing, humbling experience. You are reminded how small your worries often are, and how valuable your time here really is.
“You can go birding virtually anywhere, escape from worry and simply be present in the moment, and in that moment, you are often presented with something beautiful, mysterious and exhilarating.’’