Friday, March 26, 2010

Birding without expectations (Evergreen Lake)

In my last post, I confessed to being a "lister" and even defended the practice. But, I will admit, sometimes I think that it would be nicer just to wander around the park, binoculars in hand, equally excited by an American goldfinch and a species that hasn't been seen in the county for a decade, as it was when I was first birding.

I am currently reading "How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher" by Simon Barnes. I am about halfway through; his central point seems to be that the most rewarding form of birdwatching is just about enjoying birds even if you can't identify all the ones you see...and certainly not chasing the rarities. In one part, he discusses how birding is a great form of stress-release, as long as one is not a twitcher (the British term for the hard-core lister type). Barnes writes, "A twitcher might be defined as someone who actively seeks stress in bird-watching. The very name came about because of the neurotic behavior on view when these people are close to a rarity and believe they might miss it."

That description made me reflect a bit. On the whole, I would say that the very reason I became addicted to birding is stress relief: the best moments are a form of meditation, just me seeing the bird, without any other thought in my mind--and even on a bad birding day, I am able to forget whatever is bothering me for at least a while. But, I have to admit, sometimes I do get a little upset when I don't see the birds I want to see, the birds that I know are around somewhere and that other birders, even as I speak, are probably seeing and adding to their lists. This is a real bummer! And then when I miss it, I have to wait a whole year or WHO KNOWS WHEN??? to have another chance. Seriously, that could have been my ONLY CHANCE to see that bird, and I will die or it will go extinct without my ever having found it. Being the competitive, type-A personality that I am, I tend to take it rather personally.

So this morning, looking forward to my afternoon birding, I kept telling myself, "no expectations...whatever I see is fine. No expectations!" I had a mental picture of myself in some Zen-mind state, letting birds drift in and out of my awareness without grasping or aversion.

As if. I wanted to see ducks! After a whole winter season being duck-disappointed, and then a fantastic month of duck luck, I was ready for more. So I went out to Evergreen Lake, where I have had the best sightings this year.

The first sight of open water I passed had pied-billed grebes and -- what's that? -- an impression of some snooty bird, swimming along with its bill in the air. I pulled over long enough to identify my first double-crested cormorant of the season. It wasn't anywhere near so happy to see me, taking off as soon as I got too close to the water--but that's OK, I saw it.

Next stop, at the boat launch...nothing. Seriously. NOTHING. I heard a woodpecker tapping, but I couldn't even find it. I told myself "No expectations" a few times, but my heart wasn't in it.

Further down the road, I saw a bird dive underwater out of the corner of my eye. (Corner of my eye? OK, full disclosure time here: I was weaving over the road like a drunken person because I kept craning my head out the window looking for ducks.) I pulled over and jumped out of the car, bins in hand. All I got was the impression of a dark shape as the bird dove under the water again. I swear, it seemed kind of smug about it--ha ha, just try to ID me!!

I set up my spotting scope and lugged it closer to the lake. My dark diving bird was nowhere in sight. I hauled the scope a bit farther down the road, then a bit farther...scanning the water periodically. Where had that bird disappeared to? A couple times, I was tempted to tell myself it had just flown off, but then I decided to scan the lake one more time...and I saw it, a very long distance from where I first sighted it. A common loon! I love to see loons (in fact, I was wearing a sweatshirt with a loon on it at that exact moment). I had a quick -- but good -- look at its checkerboard pattern before it dove under the water again. Wow, loons can stay under water for a long time. I watched it for a while, lugged my scope back to my car, and proceeded down the road.

Despite the happiness of the loon sighting, I noticed how few birds were on the lake, compared with just last week. Birding frequently makes me thing of the words of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, saying that you can't step into the same river twice. Some people might wonder what Heraclitus was all about, but I know. Every birding trip is different. Even if you just went out a week ago -- a day ago -- this trip will be different.

At my last stop, I finally found some interesting waterfowl (sorry, mallards and Canada geese) -- a norther shoveler, two hooded mergansers, and two American wigeons. I hadn't seen a wigeon in several years, so I let my scope linger on him for quite a while. As I drove home, I caught myself tallying how many "Year birds," "County birds" and "year county birds" I found...and I found my expectations had been happily met.

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