I do a fair bit of birding away from home. Most of the time I stick to the northeast, as there is a wondrous array of hotspots within easy reach of my western Massachusetts address. Two to three times a year, I’ll head farther south to the mid-Atlantic, usually Cape May or Delaware during spring or fall migration—still drivable, but it requires a bit more planning. If I’m lucky, maybe once a year I’ll travel farther afield—Florida, Arizona, south Texas, or somewhere on the West Coast perhaps. And once in awhile, I’ll bird some exotic place beyond our borders—most recently Costa Rica, mainland Ecuador, and the Galápagos Islands. Naturally, these are life-changing experiences. After all, how often does one get to the Andes or the Amazon rainforest, or stand in Darwin’s footsteps on the sands of the Galápagos, among the finches that inspired the greatest creative work in the history of natural science? Such places illuminate the glory and spectacle of Nature, and paint indelible marks that alter your perception of the world.
I don’t need to travel far to be confronted with the magnificent, though. Every place I visit has something to offer, some gift to bestow. Last year, I spent several hours with Keith Carver—a good friend and outstanding photographer—in the company of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher—a bird of foreign, tropical domains that nevertheless makes occasional appearances in the eastern US and Canada. This absolutely stunning individual emerged with little fanfare in Hadlyme, Connecticut. Its almost accidental discovery by a local photographer caused a great stir among avian aficionados, and it spent the next several weeks delighting scores of birders as it hunted sometimes mere feet above our heads, to all appearances completely unconcerned by our presence. In November of 2012, a Gyrfalcon appeared like a ghost over the farm fields of Hadley, Massachusetts—a sight so rare that it drew people from Ohio and Pennsylvania, and nearly doubled the human population of this small town well into the new year. This winter, my son and I photographed a Barnacle Goose on a farm in central Massachusetts, far out of its frozen Arctic range and feeding very contentedly with a large group of Canada Geese. And every year, the UMass campus pond—about 15 minutes from home—plays host to a variety of rare waterfowl, all similarly drawn to this tiny oasis at the heart of a thriving and kinetic university. If you’re craving an encounter with a rare goose, this is the place to go.
Frequently, though, the greatest surprises lie closest to home. I make new discoveries just by going out the back door—and sometimes, all it takes is a well-timed look out the window. We live on about a third of an acre, one side bordered by spruce and forsythia, a few lilac bushes on the other, and a smattering of other trees and bushes scattered about—a very pleasant yard, but not, in terms of habitat, anything out of the ordinary. And yet we’ve been graced by some truly wonderful birds. Over the years, more than a dozen species of warbler have visited us, including a pair of Nashvilles who stayed for a week; Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins feast at our feeders throughout the winter; last year, a Brown Thrasher brought her two young to glean insects and seeds from the grass; Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks make regular appearances in the yard; Ruby-throated Hummingbirds sip nectar from blue Iris and Rose of Sharon; Catbirds, Chipping Sparrows, Robins, Tree Swallows, and Mockingbirds have all nested here; for 15 minutes the day after tropical storm Sandy, a flock of Evening Grosbeaks descended upon us to decimate our feeders before continuing south; and just this year, an Indigo Bunting and eight Baltimore Orioles, as vibrant as the citrus we fed them, bedazzled us with luminance and color.
I could easily go on, but my point is this: There’s beauty to be found everywhere, even in your own back yard. The trick is to be present and receptive to it. Once we open ourselves up to the wonders around us, we can begin to see the magical in the everyday, and awaken in us a sense of the possible. Take that first look, see what’s out there. You may not find anything at first, but I can promise you this: Keep looking, and you will.
I can make you another promise as well: if you truly open yourself to it, the experience will change you. You’ll find something that moves you, something that inspires you to learn more. Perhaps it will be a bird, perhaps not. Regardless, you’ll start to care about it, you won’t be able to imagine a world without it. Without realizing it, you’ll have forged a connection to a part of nature, to the world outside humanity. And you’ll want to protect it. You’ll tell others, get them inspired to take their first looks and make their own connections. Get them to care, understand, and protect.
This, for me, is what it’s all about. For me, hell is a world without birds. I can’t imagine the seashore without the sound of gulls, a forest devoid of its songbird chorus, or an October sky without the circumnavigation of raptors. I can’t envision a lake empty of waterfowl or bear the thought of spring’s voice silenced. And sadly, I can’t create change through riches or political power. All I have are my love of birds, the words to convey it, and the hope that they make a difference.
But maybe that’s enough. Perhaps through my words, I can inspire more people to care, to love, to conserve what we have left, and to encourage others to do the same. And perhaps together, we’ll get just a little closer to changing the world. If so, then maybe there’s cause to hope after all.
It all starts with a first look.