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When I wasn’t birding

February 18, 2011
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I wasn’t always a birder.

I realize that’s not much of a shocking statement.  Very few of us have always been birders, picking up the avocation at various times throughout our lives in response to a whole myriad of avian stimuli such that many of us can even remember the exact moment that we became a “birder”.  I can’t remember that first moment, but I have records back to 1993.  I was 13, and serious enough about it that birding was the primary way by which I interacted with the natural world for at least the next few years.  It’s a story I’ve told a few times in several contexts in this space, that of my fortunate years as a young birder – Florida, Texas, Arizona and all – and I still revel in those memories because so much of my teen years, the early teen years at least, were spent in the presence of birds, though my interest was that of an eager collector rather than a real connoisseur.

But when I became a sophomore in High School I drifted away.  A teenager’s time is often spread far too thin, and mine was no different.  I showed an aptitude for music, and when that started to take my weekends away, and the regular time sucks of school work and socializing gradually eroded time spent birding. By the end you could barely distinguish me from any other regular teen who didn’t have a life list pushing 400 and a pair of binoculars socked away in a closet somewhere.  And, with a few exceptions, I pretty much stayed that way for a decade.

When any of us become birders, at least those who didn’t grow up doing it, we never lose that aching regret in the back of our mind that asks, “What if?”.  What if I’d been a birder when I took that business trip to London?  Or that family vacation in Puerto Rico?  Or that road trip to California that passed right by Bosque del Apache?  What would I have seen?  What could I have done?

It’s perhaps best not to dwell too much on the pre-birding years lest you start wallowing in the birds left unseen in ignorance, but my own birding career necessarily requires that sort of forced contemplation.  My career is a doughnut, two periods of intense birding – the latter of which I’m currently in and don’t intend to see end – surrounding a birding vaccum.  The fact that I came back to birding cannot be properly considered except in the context of my missing years.  It’s my cross to bear.

And what was I up to during those years?  I spent the better part of four years in what seemed at the time to be the wasteland of northern Missouri, but upon closer inspection appears to be precisely the sort of place where Snowy Owls and  Prairie Falcons show up on a regular basis.  I went to California and Great Britain on a couple occasions, managing to miss picking up any life birds along the way.  But most frustrating was the fact that I spent six whole months living in Sweden, studying (such that what I did could be called studying) in Västerås, a small town on a large lake west of Stockholm.  I had a great deal of free time to travel the entire continent and I did get around, to Finland and Estonia and Germany, but there were no birds on my agenda.  I nearly completely missed them.

I say nearly completely because I vaguely remember a few.  No Hawfinches or Tengmalm’s Owls or Capercallie (though none of them were far from where I lived), but a few gulls here and there and once, on a spring afternoon around Easter when the cohort of international students traveled to a local park called Djäkneberget, I saw the only bird I distinctly remember.  Hitching it’s way up tree was a Green Woodpecker, a gorgeous bird and a reminder of what seemed like a past life.  I didn’t have binoculars and the bird was, as I realized after the fact, roughly as common a Northern Flicker in North Carolina but the sighting lingered in my memory, even now, as some sort of sign that the birder in me was still just below the surface.  It was only a matter of time before it would return.

I bring this up because, while it seems like something of a redemptive story that I returned to the birdwatching clan after all, it’s still enormously frustrating to me that those influential years slipped away.  It’s one thing to miss out on a few dozen lifers, but it’s a completely different thing to miss the power of a passionate interest to concentrate your focus on the task at hand.

I was not the best college student.  There are, no doubt, several reasons for this – all of which can be laid at mine own feet incidentally, I’m long past passing the buck or anything – but I was one of those students who skated by High School and thus was likely ill-prepared for the rigors of college scholarship.  I still believe it’s a great tragedy of the system that 18 year olds are burdened with making a decision that ostensibly affects their entire life anyway, but I digress…  I studied biology sort of out of default and stuck with it out of stubbornness, but I was far from ready for it and my grades suffered accordingly.  I recovered by the end, but never enough to completely make up for a rough early go.  It is my great regret that I wasted that opportunity; that the mistakes of my 18 year old self have far-reaching and unforeseen impacts on the opportunities of my 30 year old self.  But this is not intended to be a pity party, only the framework for my ultimate point.

Which is this; had I been a birder – more than that a true amateur ornithologist like so many of us are – I would have had a built in context for everything I was learning in my Bio classes.  Evolution, ecology, even the flipping Kreb’s Cycle, can be applied to birds in some way.  It provides the putative biologist with a built in example you’re already well-familiarized with.  It’s a leg up, and that’s not necessarily something you consider except in hindsight.

I can’t guarantee that simply continuing to bird would have made a difference.  There are other factors too; having an adviser with a shared interest, choosing an appropriate program (I had an honest to god young-earth creationist teaching my Intro II course.  You know, the evolution one…), and more than anything, better study skills.  But there’s no doubt that passion and personal interest can drive you when motivation is otherwise low.  I can’t go back and whip the younger me into shape, but if there are any would-be biologists out there I hope my advice is heeded.   Use your birding, it’s the foundation you’ve already built for yourself.

Because you may not have always been a birder but you likely always will be. and you won’t want to look back to those years to ask, “What if?”

Green Woodpecker by Paul Appleton via flickr (CC BY-NC-2.0)

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5 Comments
  1. February 18, 2011 10:08 am

    I was once into fastpacking. The sort of backpacking where you shave every once of your backpack (I remember I reduced the weight of my foam mastress by cutting it to the shape of my body) and try to go in remote places where nobody usually go, at a pace of a marathon a day. I remember those 3 weeks I spend in June 2001 exploring yellowstone national park by myself, I remember those 5 days spend in the Denali backcountry (it was september, and I apparently got the first permit of the year for that section of the park), the 5 days spend exploring the coast and backcountry of Seward, Alaska, the week in the Iunta mountains in Utah, etc, etc. Oh, and the 30 years or so I spend in Europe without even noticing there was outside something more than house sparrows.

    Agree with you. Tough to think about those missed opportunites. But I guess it just give me an excuse to visit those places again

  2. February 18, 2011 3:57 pm

    Good post Nate. I started in 1994 myself….in college I would sometimes go a couple months without birding but I don’t think I missed too much. If it makes you feel any better, I was far from being a good student and I KNEW, deep in my heart of hearts, that birds would always be a fascination of mine and a career as well. I did ok in most advanced classes (especially bird classes) but I was slaughtered in more basic stuff like botany and advanced chem….but so far none of that has really come back to haunt me. No regrets!

  3. Nate permalink*
    February 18, 2011 4:10 pm

    @Laurent- Absolutely. I don’t know when or if I’m going back to Sweden. But when I do, it’s Tengmalm’s Owl away!

    @Steve- Yeah. I think my frustration stems from the fact that I feel like I could have done better. It’s not complaining really, because more than not I’m perfectly happy with the way things worked out, just a feeling of unfinished business. And unfinished birds.

  4. February 18, 2011 5:00 pm

    I hear ya Nate! I lived in Argentina for two years and saw all kinds of great birds, but was not a birder then and never made an attempt to identify them. Then I lived in South Carolina and two years in Arizona before I caught the bug. Many lost opportunities for birding, but I hope to give myself a chance to make up for it. My problem in college was that I was so focused on school and work and family that I didn’t take time after my freshman year to enjoy the college life. But that freshman year was a lot of fun and I still passed all my classes.

  5. February 18, 2011 11:24 pm

    I really should not think about my prebirding days. University offered field courses that took me to Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago. The birder in me most have been somewhere though. Every year I would go through the undergraduate calendar hoping the ornithology course listed would be offered. No such luck. The sweetest bird seen during the spring field courses, yes,the Resplendent Quetzal while in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. I still cry myself to sleep about that one.

    Nice post!

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