Birding with Jay

We’re all familiar with the concept of pandemic hobbies by now. You have yours and I have mine. But now, as we edge into a post-pandemic world (knock on wood!) we’re going to see how many of those hobbies actually stick. That is, will you still be making sourdough this time next year? I confess that my ukulele is pretty dusty these days, fun though it was when I was in full lock-down.

Birdwatching, as it happens, was one of the more popular pandemic hobbies, and I’d be willing to bet that it will persist for a lot of people. With that in mind, I am so happy to introduce today my very good friend Jay Czarnecki. Jay is a genuine birder from way back. I even went birding with him once when we were in college, so I can vouch for his old school credentials. Jay has agreed to write a guest post here where he talks about why you might want to take up birdwatching even if it isn’t already one of your pandemic hobbies. Take it away, Jay!

The Pleasures of Birding

by Jay Czarnecki

It’s been well-observed that during our time of forced isolation during the pandemic, many people sought out the comforts of new hobbies: knitting, language learning, baking. It seems one of the most popular ones is birdwatching, or birding. I’m writing today primarily for those who have joined this rewarding hobby, or those who have a passing interest in the birds around them, or those who are simply bird-curious. In other words: everyone! And after a little introduction, I’m going to leave you with some real news-you-can-use.

Birding is such a rewarding hobby. In 2006, a blogger memorably offered her personal Seven Pleasures of Birding:

1. The beauty of the birds
2. The beauty of being in a natural setting
3. The joys of hunting, without the bloodshed
4. The joy of collecting (day lists, life lists)
5. The joy of puzzle-solving (in making those tough identifications)
6. The pleasure of scientific discovery (new observations about behavior, etc.)
7. The Unicorn Effect: Learning about a fascinating bird that captures your imagination…and then one day, seeing it in the wild. What a thrill!

I agree with all those and would add an overarching eighth: enjoying all seven with people you love. A couple of my best unicorns was a snowy owl, sighted on a wintry and isolated New Jersey beach with my Dad, and a pileated woodpecker, so evocative in miniature of its pterodactyl ancestors, in the Maryland woods with my wife Nancy.

I have a perhaps an idiosyncratic personal history with birding. It all started when I was very young in the 1970s. Ours was a generally outdoorsy family (car camping, campfire programs, a subscription to Ranger Rick magazine), but my entry into birding had a very distinct start, when one day my Dad spotted an unusual bird through the back window in the distant field behind our house. It was brownish and stout, standing quite still, its body low to the ground but with a long tail, black head and red about the face. As curiosity grew after multiple sightings, my Dad purchased binoculars and a birding field guide, and we made the ID: it was a ring-necked pheasant. Many people have a memorable sighting, like our pheasant, that sparks their life-long interest in birding; it’s called a “spark bird”.

I say idiosyncratic because while I’ve been actively birding my whole life, and am always “bird-aware” in my everyday doings, there have definitely been periods of long hiatus. I also kept to the easier identifications and didn’t invest time and energy in the challenging ones (I’m looking at you Empidonax flycatchers). When the pandemic hit, I joined the many people taking up the hobby – in my case it was getting active again and trying to level up a little. So I have a unique perspective to observe developments in the hobby while I’ve been away. As you might guess, these developments often involve the availability of internet-powered knowledge sources and other tools.

And now here’s the news-you-can-use: whether you’re already started up with birding or if you have a vague passing curiosity, after you finish reading this post, go download the smartphone app called “Merlin”.

The Merlin app was developed by the geniuses at one of the centers of excellence for ornithology (the scientific study of birds) in the US, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It works like this: when you hear some interesting birds, you open the app, hit the button, and it identifies the bird based on its song. If you read that sentence and thought “like Shazam”, the popular app that does the same thing for the unknown song you’re enjoying sitting in Starbucks …bingo! Merlin is Shazam for birds.

Identifying unseen birds by their song (“birding by ear”) is hard, an advanced skill painstakingly developed over many years. I am at the very beginning of my birding-by-ear journey. That’s why I’m very excited about Merlin. Not only do you get immediate identification help, you also get learning reinforcement right in the moment, the best kind – yes that song you hear that sounds like a drunk playing a broken flute really is a bald eagle (the militant screech you almost always hear from eagles in the movies is an overdubbed red-tailed hawk). But even better: it can improve the way you bird too. Out birding, I’ve lingered at a spot full of intriguing birdsong, fired up Merlin, and decided based on the results to stick around longer and try to put eyes on something interesting that Merlin says is nearby.

And for those who aren’t yet dedicated birders journeying into the field, just use it in your backyard or urban park! You’ll be surprised at what will turn up. You know you’re curious what that hyper little brown busybody nesting in your flowerpot is (spoiler alert: it’s probably a Carolina wren).

And here’s the deeper payoff: once you become familiar with the most common birds that are around you, you start to mentally check in with them as you go about your business outside. You soon come to learn the comings and goings of our migratory friends who are with you for short stretches of the year, an enriching addition to the anticipation that many of us enjoy as one season yields to the next. You’ve become “bird-aware”. That’s something that I think is rewarding enough in its own right, but also leads to becoming more “wildlife-aware” and “environmentally aware”, and I think only good can come from that. At least that’s what I learned from Ranger Rick.

Here’s the link:

Happy birding!

2 thoughts on “Birding with Jay”

  1. Jay, I’m so happy that subscription to Ranger Rick so long ago sent you down an interesting and enjoyable path, Thankyou Ned for posting this. Ginny Zeller

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