Every once in a while I have the chance to put together a new lecture on a topic I find so compelling, it’s difficult to know what information to leave out. These days I’m putting together a series of biodiversity lectures and hands-on activities for a course I’m teaching next month, and planning these is like eating candy, they’re such a treat. I’m especially giddy about the chance to talk about bird diversity, as much for my own interest as for the chance to look at lectures from years back with fresh eyes.
From an early age I had interests in diverse groups of organisms, from bugs to sea anemones. But it was really a love of birds that opened my eyes to the possibility of studying biology. I’ve been a birder since I was 13, when sibling rivalry suddenly piqued my interest in keeping a bird list. One day my father brought home a new bird book, and as my sister paged through it pointing out all the birds she’d seen, I argued that she couldn’t possibly have seen all those birds. My father challenged us to a little contest that involved keeping a list of all the birds we could identify over the next week. A few days later, having listed all the common backyard species, my sister and I were tied. I begged my dad to take me someplace interesting where I could see a few new species. We went to a salt marsh where I vividly remember seeing my first Yellow-crowned Night-heron. From then on I was hooked, contest or no contest (which I won, by the way).
I even converted my husband, starting him off on easy to spot birds like ducks. (It doesn’t seem quite fair because he’s been unable to get me interested in golf.) We planned a camping trip for our one-year anniversary, and I deviously selected our route to pass through some interesting birding spots. We nearly froze in a late spring snowstorm in the foothills of the Cascade Mts., but we saw some great birds before the temperature plummeted. A few months later when my husband phoned to say he was having trouble identifying a pair of drab, brown sparrows near his lab, I knew he’d caught the birding bug.
Although as a family we keep track of backyard bird species, I’ve not been on many bird-focused trips since my children were born. My ability to remember bird calls or to quickly train my binoculars on a tiny bird hopping in dense foliage has waned. Earlier this year, however, I took a morning for myself and set out on a mini-expedition to a city park thirty minutes away. I was in search of a very rare bird, the Red-flanked Blue-tail, which had popped up among the picnic tables and playground equipment in a little oasis of trees within the city. It wasn’t difficult to find the area where the bird had been reported since there were about thirty people gathered around a grove of trees.
I once heard someone describe the hobby of bird watching as an inherently selfish activity since birders set out to add species to their personal “life-lists”. Although this might rarely be the case, most birders I’ve encountered enjoy sharing the excitement of helping others get a good look. This was certainly the case among the blue-tail searchers at the park. The most helpful and enthusiastic members of the crowd were university-aged students, who like me had come on their own but joined the throng. After one young birder spotted the blue-tail, he looked around and made sure others were in good position to see the flighty bird, even calling back people who’d given up and wandered off.
Although many of us would have preferred to bird without the crowd, I probably would have spent a cold, frustrating time trying to spot the bird on my own. With the students’ help, I had an excellent look, and it was lovely to be in the company of others to share in the thrill of a life bird. I wasn’t able to stay at the park and chat, but I later wondered how the students I’d met had become such good birders and whether one of their teachers had turned them onto birding with an inspirational lecture or field trip. I can only hope that my own teaching will open some eyes. It won’t be hard to share my enthusiasm.