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Experience is Paralysis

December 5, 2012
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I listen to a lot of podcasts.  Mostly public radio shows and whatnot.  One of my staples is Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  Despite the fact that I occasionally find her interview style trying (particularly when she interviews someone she’s a fan of), she almost always has interesting people on her show who have interesting things to say, and generally those people are from worlds that I have ver little interest in otherwise.

For instance, I was listening to Terry interview an avant-garde composer whose name I can’t remember, and he quoted another avant-garde composer named Erik Satie who stated that comment that is the title of this post*.  “Experience is paralysis”.  He was speaking in terms of composition, in that the more experience one gets the more predictable one’s style becomes and the less able the composer is to change things in any sort of profound way.  It’s a statement about the dangers of inertia as much as anything, and applicable to any sort of long-term project.  Of course, I apply everything to birding.

*And before you accuse me of name-dropping, I only knew the guy’s name because I googled the quote. 

Back when I was a young birder one of my early mentors, a bird-bum/musician named Bo Brown told me about the three stages of birding.  In the first, you see any species of bird any time of the year.  The second, you see exactly what you’re supposed to see exactly when you’re supposed to see it.  In the third, you’re back to seeing any species of bird any time of the year.

Obviously, the difference between the first stage and the third is that in the third, you’re right.  But so many birders get stuck in the second stage, seeing precisely what they’re suppose to see when they’re supposed to see it, and never progress beyond it into the wide world of expecting the unexpected.  In so many things, birding in particularly, you don’t usually find what you’re not looking for unless it stands up and slaps you in the face.  And birding is an odd game, with one’s reputation constantly hanging over one’s head.  Birders can get that little bit of experience and let the fear of being wrong hold them in place.  Stationary. Paralyzed.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and if a birder is going to err, it’s certainly better off erring on the side of conservatism.  But to the extent that it prevents you from growing as a birder and a field observer, it’s as insidious a tool as any composer stuck in a rut.  In order to find unusual birds, you have to expect, to some extent, unusual birds.

Ash-throated Flycatcher - Croatan NF, Jones Co, NC

Ash-throated Flycatcher in Jones County, NC, Dec 2008. One of my best self-found rarities. Unexpected? Yes, but it also practically slapped me in the face. 

I would never consider myself to be much more than a slightly better than competent field birder.  I have my share of self-found rarities and out of season birds.  I’ve been flagged a few times on eBird, to use the parlance of the 21st century birder.  But I’ve only relatively recently begun to really think about how and why certain birders are more likely to turn up good birds, and it’s because they don’t let their experience, or at least their expectations, prevent them from doing the work necessary to dig through every flock of blackbirds or really ponder every weird gull.  If you expect an entire flock of Red-wings or just another Ring-billed Gull, you miss when it’s not.   Rare birds are rare for a reason, and you have to look at every single one to rule it out.

It’s a way of thinking, one that I’ve had to apply to myself consciously in the hope that it would eventually become subconscious.  And maybe I’m farther away from that than I’d like to be, but, as a wise man from my childhood said, knowing is half the battle.

Particularly if the alternative is birding paralysis.

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One Comment
  1. Jennifer permalink
    December 8, 2012 10:04 am

    Hello Nate I wanted to share that I saw an Arizona Woodpecker in my yard.it is the second sighting in a week and I will try to get a photo as I know they should not be seen here normally. It is a male and very beautiful! I live in North Raleigh.

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