Our story

by Anders Gyllenhaal

Why Flying Lessons

Painted Bunting

We’ll never forget the first time we saw a Painted Bunting, singing with all its heart, deep in a marsh near New Orleans. For four years we had been searching for this clown-colored bird, but we always seemed to be a week behind the Bunting’s migration path. When we heard its unmistakable trill that morning, Beverly was standing on a bench. She got so excited, she toppled right off.  And  then we stood there in giddy awe, watching and photographing this precious performance for almost an hour.

It’s easy to see why there’s a boom underway in bird watching, documented recently in an article, here, in The New York Times. People get attached to birds in all sorts of ways, but why do so many of us get lured so deeply in? Ask a group of birders, and  you’re likely to hear things like “it’s the lure of the hunt, spending time outdoors, the astounding beauty of the birds themselves.” Some days you won’t see a darn thing. And so when you do end up with a glimpse, and sometimes an entire symphony, endorphins can go haywire.

Hooded Warbler, one of our favorites

If you need a dose of sheer awe, grab some binoculars and go find a bird. Last summer we packed up our Airstream trailer and traveled more than 9,000 miles in a sweep through the South and along the Gulf coast, then up through New England and eastern Canada. We saw a dozen new warblers, puffins, hawks, humming birds, vireos, kingfishers and flycatchers. Along the way, we came to a realization: Birding isn’t only about finding the species you’re after. If we take a step back, if we look at the bigger picture, there are all sorts of lessons to be learned from the birds around us.

No other segment of wildlife is so constantly on display – available to all, no matter where you live – often by simply looking up. Birds play a prominent role in teaching us about the state of our environment, including climate change, one of the most important topics of our time. 

As descendants of dinosaurs and one of the longest-running species of the Earth,  birds are loaded with mysteries, about the magic of flight, the wonders of migration, their evolution.  Only recently have we come to realize how intelligent birds are. Researchers have discovered startling practices that reflect a level of smarts, the use of tools and evidence of emotions never before imagined. The 2016 book, “The Genius of Birds,” by Jennifer Ackerman, explores the intelligence of birds and their humanity — right down to the way crows will leave gifts for people they get to know and like.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Birds possess powers that people have always longed for, chief among them the ability to fly. We’ve already learned our own version of flight, partly by watching how birds do it. Today, researchers are studying birds for further flying abilities, such as how hummingbirds are able to fly backwards and how flocks of birds can maneuver in a remarkable synchronized fashion. The avian aspects of flight may eventually teach humans things like how to better program drones. When we venture into the world of birds, we’re forced to adapt to their way of doing things. One of the most powerful lessons we’ve been working on has to do with patience, stillness, and the need to just stop talking and listen.

An Osprey

The two of us experience birding in slightly different perspectives. Beverly is more attuned to what the pursuit requires of us. Anders is drawn to lessons in how birds behave and how they adapt, thrive and sometimes fail to thrive.

We came home from that summer journey thinking about what we can learn on the birding trail, hence this website named Flying Lessons. We’re still novices compared to many of the veteran birders we’ve met. But as life-long journalists, we realized we wanted to try and share the wider stories, photography and videos as we strive to learn about – and to learn from – the birds around us.

-Anders and Beverly

Our story

Our story

Our mystery bird

We just couldn’t figure out the small, yellow and gray bird that stared out from a series of photos taken in southern Nova Scotia. We knew it was a warbler, but Beverly scoured the Internet and all of her birding guides without finding a match. I went back and looked through dozes of shots I had taken that day without any luck.

Finally Beverly emailed the photo to a birding expert and friend in Maryland to ask for help. Eventually we narrowed it down to a Common Yellowthroat still in its first year, which is what made it so hard to identify.

Beverly and I take somewhat different approaches to birding. She can spend an hour creeping through the woods, pausing to scan for birds camouflaged among the branches. I like to charge ahead to see what’s around the next corner.

As the photographer, I try to keep moving and hope to come upon birds by surprise. I’m happiest when I can catch a bird in flight, taking off or landing to show the magnificent science of flying. I’m comfortable with guesses as to what we’re seeing — and then move on to the next question.

Beverly outside the trailer we live in much of the year

But Beverly is exacting and studious. She is gradually teaching herself to identify species from afar and listens to birdsong recordings to learn the complex calls. Like with the Common Yellowthroat, she won’t give up until she’s figured out what we’ve seen.

Both of us were journalists for many years. Beverly was a reporter and edited The Miami Herald’s food section. She launched syndicated columns on parenting and then on cooking family meals. This turned into the Desperation Dinners franchise, including weekly columnsa series of cookbooks and a national website.

I began as a reporter and photographer at newspapers in Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Jersey before switching to editing — eventually running newsrooms in Raleigh, Minneapolis and Miami. My last assignment was the top editor for McClatchy, a network of newspapers from California to the Carolinas. All of this involved  years of writing, reporting and photography that helped lead us to this website.

When we retired, we got the chance to combine our love of the outdoors and camping with our fascination for birding. We started traveling, first in a small Casita trailer, and then in the Airstream you see in the background. This lets us stay out for long stretches when the birding is good. And even when it isn’t, you might find us sitting by the campfire with books and a glass of wine. Quite often, a banjo is involved.

It might be our years in journalism that push us to look for the broader story and that got us thinking about the layers of lessons we’ve encountered over the past few years.

We hope our stories, questions and discoveries will be of interest to you as well. We’d love to hear your thoughts and observations about learning from the birds. There’s a message form below to send us your thoughts — or please leave comments on any of the posts and pages.

Thank you for spending time with Flying Lessons.us.

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