How the birds are teaching us humility, persistence — and joy


These Roseate Spoonbills gather year after year on a small pond hidden deep inside Georgia’s Jekyll Island. It’s where they like it.

Over the past few years, the birds have been leading me to a new lexicon of personal slogans. One of my favorites is, “They Like It Where They Like It.”

This phrase captures a lot I’ve been contemplating about birding. What it means, more or less, is this:

No matter where I hope a bird might be found, and even if I am absolutely convinced I’ve glimpsed a particular species, there’s a pretty good chance I’m wrong. This is because, as any birding guidebook will tell you, birds are creatures of habit. Or more accurately, they are creatures of habitat — as in, “They like it where they like it.”

For the first time in anyone’s recollection, this Vermillion Flycatcher turned up in a preserve near Tallahassee, Florida — far from where it was supposed to be.

Every now and then a lucky birder discovers a “vagrant,” official lingo for a bird that’s somehow veered off course and outside its preferred territory. One made national news this fall — the Mandarin Duck that turned up in New York’s Central Park.

But for the most part, birds are unfailingly consistent.

Even so, when I’m deep in the woods — oblivious to time or temperature or when I last ate a meal – magical thinking can be the result. It’s like I’m convinced that a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, (or whatever bird I’m determined to find), will magically appear if I just keep hoping hard enough. Or maybe I just dreamed I saw one — 19 weeks of nonstop birding is enough to cause hallucinations.

Our hike into the bayou near New Orleans was two hours old — and threatening to go without a single bird — when this Painted Bunting saved the day.

And then there’s the flip side. About half the time my catchphrase is a victory cry full of sheer joy and wonder when a coveted bird is finally found — in exactly the place it was predicted to be.

“You see, I told you,” I’ll likely proclaim in utter satisfaction. “They Like It Where They Like It.”

Here’s another slogan I’ve come up with: “It’s a NOB.”

A NOB is a birding walk during which you don’t see anything. As in: Not. One. Bird.

How can you spend an hour or two in the woods without a feather to be found? It happens – and way more often than you’d hope. And at the end of the trail, either Anders or I will concede defeat by simply saying, “It’s a NOB.”

We went looking for Tundra Swans last week on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. This wizened old Bald Eagle alighted right beside us as if to pose for this photo and give us something to take away.

But what I’ve learned is that NOBs are an important part of birding. They make me humble, preserve the thrill of the hunt and reaffirm my confidence in the natural order of things. It brings to mind what a minister said to me one Ash Wednesday while painting a sooty cross on my forehead:

“God is God, and you are not.”

In the case of a NOB, this could be translated as, “Birds are Birds, and you are not.”

Amen to that.


2 responses to “How the birds are teaching us humility, persistence — and joy”

  1. I’m not sure how to comment on individual postings, but just wanted to say how much I’m enjoying the wit and wisdom of your writing — and all the glorious photographs! Thanks so much!

  2. I am loving these stories and photos. I feel like I get to feel like I am there and learning in the process. I caught myself laughing out loud to Beverly’s post about humility. I think fisherman should coin something similar NFC (no fish caught). Anyway, keep them coming. I appreciate the tone of humility you both display in these posts. Humbled to nature. PS I definitely find I am paying attention more to birds, the more I read.

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