Saturday is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Global Big Day,” a highlight of the spring migration when birders around the world count as many species they can find in 24 hours.
My birding bag and I were both getting ready.
This post started out as a way to tell you how to get prepared for a day traipsing the countryside in search of wading birds, wood warblers or anything else that might happen to migrate by. But when I sat down to catalog everything I bring along in my birding bag, I came to a jarring realization.
First I need to explain that my birding bag is a small brown backpack with pink zippers that’s a hand-me-down from my daughter’s time at summer camp. It reeks of sweat and bug spray, but I’m afraid to wash it because it’s so old it could fall apart. And then I might, too.
The whole point of having a birding bag like mine is to anticipate disaster and be fully prepared to deal with it. Inside there’s a tube of sunscreen, a water bottle, gum, lip balm, tissues, hand sanitizer, lens cleaners, a protein bar and dental floss. (Dental floss makes a great temporary shoestring or emergency suture, but mine’s there in case a bit of the protein bar gets stuck in my teeth.)
Partly because I was raised in a matriarchal family headed by a Girl Scout troop leader, there’s more:
My bag contains a vial of 99 percent DEET plus individually wrapped insect-repellent towelettes for those hard-to-spray areas. There’s an assortment of Band-Aids, antihistamine, Tylenol and Pepto-Bismol. If anybody needs them, I’ve got earplugs and cough drops. (We don’t want any hacking to scare away the sparrows.) There’s also one paper towel and a $20 bill, because you just never know.
I thought about getting a snakebite kit, but I did the research, and supposedly they don’t work. (Turns out the only failsafe remedy for deadly venom is a satellite phone and a helicopter.)
The very best thing in my birding bag is something I no longer actually need. For years I couldn’t remember how to identify all of the tall white shorebirds. Some have black bills and yellow feet, others have yellow bills and black feet, and some have “yellowish” legs and a bill that’s half yellow with a black tip. So I made a note card with all the combinations. Now my tall white shorebirds are all proudly memorized, but the list stays in my backpack like a little diploma from birding kindergarten.
It’s fine to be sentimental, and when it comes to sunscreen, one really should bring enough to re-apply. But in six years of birding I’ve never suffered intestinal ailments or broken out in hives. The only ear-splitting noise is the occasional cry of a hawk on the hunt.
So why bring the earplugs?
That’s when the realization arrived. Haven’t I finally reached the stage of life where I’m retired and free from nearly all my responsibilities? Isn’t it time to just leave this precautionary baggage behind?
Once I sat down to write this post, I kept trying to justify the girth of my birding bag. All the while, what kept playing in the back of my mind was a new a song by one of Nashville’s young up-and-coming artists. It’s at the top of my playlist, and every time I hear it, I’m reminded of why I started birding in the first place.
The song is called “A Little More Freedom,” and it goes like this:
“…Rev the engine put it in drive, leave the city lights behind. Leave it all behind. I need wheels, open road, nowhere I gotta be, feel the Earth touch the sky, sweeter air I can breathe. I keep on dreamin’ of a little more freedom.”
It’s so satisfying when a song by your son can inspire his obsessive old Mom to forget about packing the Pepto-Bismol and just go outside and watch the birds:
“Break away, chase the wind, leave without a good-bye. Great escape, leap of faith, while I’ve still got the time. I keep on dreamin’ of a little more freedom.”
Here’s a link to a YouTube version, if you’d like to hear the song.
So, Saturday when I head out birding, it really will be a Big Day. I’m dumping the medications and earplugs and betting that a song in my heart is all I’ll need.
You, however, should bring some water and a tube of sunscreen.