With only a few days to go until our “Beginner’s Guide to Birding” seminar at the 62nd International Airstream Rally, I still couldn’t figure out what to say. When Anders and I volunteered to do the talk months before, the mission seemed simple: Persuade our fellow campers to try their hand at birding.
We had just parked our trailer alongside 700 other Airstreams on a sweltering July afternoon at The Meadow Event Park in Doswell, Virginia. More than 1,000 members of local Airstream clubs had migrated from across the U.S. and Canada for this annual week-long gathering.
Spread before us was a sea of silver: Iconic Airstreams, the oldest dating back to 1947, the largest at 34 feet and 5 tons, and all of them gleaming. American flags, state flags, and local chapter flags proudly flew from the bowsprits. Scattered flocks of plastic pink flamingos, the de facto Airstream mascot, greeted folks passing by.
The splendor of it all took my breath away. But then came a severe case of nerves about this upcoming talk. I truly believe people who spend so much time camping could enjoy life more – and perhaps live longer according to scientific studies – by simply tuning in to the birds all around them. So I soldiered on.
My assignment was to craft a short but helpful sales pitch. But what if nobody showed up? And if they did, how could I communicate the thrill of the hunt and the overwhelming dose of awe each time we track down a new species?
This stage fright was not without cause. Lots of people ask us how we came to be birders in the first place. We start to explain, and nearly always, by a couple of sentences in, their eyes glaze over. Or else it becomes obvious that what they really want to know is how on Earth we completely lost our minds.
Family and friends have watched us cram all manner of stuff into a 23-foot “mobile home” and buy a Ford F150 to haul it around for weeks on end. (Our daughter’s reaction: “But you’re not truck people!”)
It doesn’t help that what we tend to talk about is which species we saw during spring migration. We launch into anxious diatribes on habitat loss, plus detailed descriptions of which bird eats what and why it matters. I frequently lose my train of thought at the sound of any chirp, squawk or tweet I don’t recognize.
This transformation toward birding addiction began seven years ago when we started spending weekends camping in unspoiled state and national parks. While we sipped coffee by the fire, birds hopped from branch to branch or pecked at a fallen log. Often there’d be a startling glimpse of blue, or maybe orange, as a Jay or Baltimore Oriole zoomed toward a neighboring campsite.
Anders had finished his part of the presentation weeks ago. He’d put together a slideshow of his gorgeous photos – songbirds in mid flight with feathers splayed, hawks on the prowl and hovering Hummingbirds. (He’d also thrown in a few of his favorite New Yorker cartoons – like the one by cartoonist Mike Twohy.)
But Tuesday night, with only hours to go, I was still agonizing. There’s actually an awful lot to know about birding – shelves of books with titles like “How to Be a Better Birder” and “Birding for Dummies.” What’s most helpful to the beginner?
So I skipped the evening’s entertainment, hunkered down in my cosy Airstream cocoon and forced myself to focus. I thought back to those earliest walks in the woods. How exactly did our basic curiosity about the birds we were seeing evolve into such a passionate pursuit?
Finally, two hours and one headache later, my ah-ha moment arrived.
At the end of the day, becoming a birder is simple. To appreciate birds, you just have to see them up close and then be able to figure out exactly what it is you’re looking at.
In my experience, it requires just two things: A pair of binoculars and a pair of free smartphone apps from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
When seen through binoculars, a blur of feathers becomes this magnificent creation with a canvas of colors, textures and patterns.
At close range, observing a bird becomes an intimate encounter. It’s hard not to assign them distinct personalities and human-like qualities. Focus on a Chickadee for example, and you’ll see the saucy tilt of the head and amusing expressions. Once we watched a male Cedar Waxwing feeding a female during a spring mating ritual.
Click here for the Audubon Society’s detailed and very helpful chart comparing brands of binoculars in prices ranging from $200 to over $2,000. (Though it’s not an Audubon pick, we’ve had good luck with Nikon’s Monarch 5 model with a power of 10×42. They cost about $250 on Amazon.)
As for the Cornell apps, “eBird and Merlin Bird ID,” you answer three multiple-choice questions, and the app instantly presents a few photos of the mostly likely targets. The apps use geolocation from your phone to know where you are, and the Lab’s extensive data in eBird pinpoint what birds are in the area. (For detailed information on downloading the apps and how to use them, click here.)
Finally Wednesday morning dawned, and people began filling the rows of folding chairs in the seminar tent. We could barely believe it when nearly every seat was taken at 9 a.m. We had optimistically printed 30 copies of our “resources” handout, but nearly 50 fellow Airstreamers showed up.
The presentation seemed to be a success – our audience eager and curious. Many of them have backyard feeders and had also been exposed to an array of species on their camping adventures. Afterwards it took an hour to answer questions and help folks who came up to peer through our binoculars.
So, sticking with the theme of Flying Lessons, what did I learn from this anxiety-provoking ordeal? First, it was incredibly fun to be at the center of a swirl of ”regular” people so easily energized about digging a little deeper into birding.
Although I knew 18 million Americans are active “away-from-home” birders, (according to a nationwide study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), it’s still a huge number that’s difficult to believe. So perhaps I should have known all along this would be an easy sale to make. But roaming through deserted forests and fields can be isolating, and I sometimes wonder if my relatives are right about how seemingly odd we’ve become.
In the end, I found this whole experience affirming and reassuring. It reminded me to just be who I am, do what I love, and to trust the irresistible beauty of nature and its birds to do the rest.
Just don’t forget your binoculars.