Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Beginner's Mind

"Spring," Rene Magritte

Yesterday on my lunch break I sat in my car at Sportsman's Park and watched great egrets and great blue herons wading through the water and occasionally soaring over the lake's surface and then dropping down with a spectacle of huge, flapping wings and long, gangly legs.

There were several other people parked before the water, and, it was not hard to imagine, similarly entranced by the birds; indeed, I don't think a better stress reliever could be found. And I would also suspect that, for every hard-core birder who has descended upon the mud flats with pricey spotting scopes and enviable life lists this year, just as many people who have enjoyed the sight are not birders at all.

In fact, sometimes I think that the best time to enjoy birds is when you don't know that much about them.

This thought occurred to me last week when I joined the local Audubon group for a field trip. The trip was on Saturday, and as I had taken the rest of the week off to revel in the fall migration -- and boost my year list, of course -- I was really hoping that the excursion would provide a great kick-off to the week. What might I see? An American bittern? A Virginia rail? At the very least, a couple of new warblers for the year?

Alas, nothing so promising. We began at the Grove, a small restoration project in the midst of the new McMansion subdivisions that sprung up around Bloomington in the last decade, and I saw: a lot of great egrets. Some killdeer. Goldfinches galore. A belted kingfisher. A pied-billed grebe. OK, it would take a far more jaded birder than I to say, "Who ordered this snoozefest?"...but suffice to say that it wasn't the most exciting mix of species.

But there were two new birders along on the walk, and great egrets and pied-billed grebes weren't old hat to them. I was struck by their enthusiasm, and also by the generosity and patience of the more experienced birders, trying to make sure that they got good looks at the birds through a spotting scope and happily answering all of their questions.

It made me remember when Sunwiggy and I first started birding, and were the recipients of all that goodwill. I will never forget how awed I was by my first sight of an American goldfinch. The walk had begun with a multitude of grayish-brownish birds -- eastern wood pewee, tufted titmouse, red-eyed vireo, and the like -- and I took a look at them all and made a dutiful note of their names, but mostly what I felt was: How will I ever learn to tell these suckers apart?

And then the goldfinch. It was not grayish-brownish, nor could it be confused with anything else. It was gloriously yellow, the essence of sunshine, the simple joy of a child's Crayola portrait. And if the experienced birders were amused by the sight of someone being gobsmacked by such a common bird, I was too transported to notice.

Zen Buddhists have a concept known as "beginner's mind," the state of receptiveness and enthusiasm one can bring to a brand new pursuit. This state is refreshingly free from the need to be a smarty-pants and defend one's expertise. Not only can you learn a lot more when not having to pretend you already know it, but being a beginner can also be a lot of fun.

When it comes to birding, for example, for the first few trips out, almost everything you see is a life bird. A couple years later, and you have to engage in foreign travel to experience that kind of bliss.

And everything is just so fresh and exciting. Of course, you can't stay a beginner forever. There are only so many times that a goldfinch can be that exciting. And the opposite of "beginner's mind," is, perhaps, ennui.

Unfortunately, the ho-hum start to my Week of Birds dragged on for several days. I went out several times, sometimes squeezing the birding walks in between a variety of errands, and was starting to fear that the excitement of migration was over. I have noticed that sometimes happens in September, where a great birding day will be followed by one (or more) really so-so ones, which I have started to call the Fall Fizzle.

This Fizzle was especially bad, as I had enticed Sunwiggy to travel back to the Heartland from her new home in the Far North, promising a veritable festival of fall warblers.

By Thursday I was getting pretty discouraged. Several birding excursions, no year birds, few birds of any sort. I wasn't all that excited about going out, and decided to give up on pursuing year birds. Still, I didn't want to sit home moping all day.

So I decided just to go out and observe what was there. If I saw only starlings and house sparrows, so be it. That was what would go in my journal. I chose Weldon Springs park as it is only a few miles from my house, and also has several miles of hiking trails and a variety of habitats. As I thought of my day of observation, I even started to get excited.

It brought me back to my second round of beginner's mind in birding: after I'd been birding for a few years, in 2009 I decided to dedicate at least one day each week to visit one of my "local patches" so I could observe and jot down notes about each shift of the seasons in Illinois. As I started out on this project I was already familiar with most of the birds I saw, but it didn't matter. Swallows might not be new, but I wanted to document the exact weekend in spring that the swallows returned, and the one where the juncos left. When would the dickcissels sing on the prairie, and when would the red-winged blackbirds depart?

This led to one of my best years ever, not in terms of species seen (which was not that impressive, actually), but certainly in terms of the enjoyment I got from them.

And now I have rambled on for so long that it is time to sum up! My report of what I observed will have to wait until tomorrow.

Is there anything you do to keep things fresh? Do you have more fun being the beginner or the expert?

1 comment:

  1. I love the Zen concept of "beginner's mind". I remember almost swooning with joy when I first saw a male rosebreasted grosbeak! Getting a Life Bird and Year Birds is great fun, but so is watching the birds one sees all of the time. I'm going to adopt your idea of documenting "local patch" birds, and I'm going to pick 3 birds to study and observe over the winter, 1 being blackcapped chickadees. Still deciding on the other 2. Maybe, for Dad, another shall be the herring gull! MOM