When birding with others, everyone looks together. Each of us sees different things, and the quality is open, observant, quiet, and quite sociable at the same time. It’s one of the only kinds of crowds I enjoy. Birders help each other hear, see and learn birds. They describe in extreme detail where: up the tree and at 4 o’clock, and next to that dead branch and then over six feet , then look straight through where those two leaves are. Do you see him? Or listen: do you hear that? That’s a warbling vireo! Information travels from one birder to another like a warbler from branch to branch.
Some of us are strong spotters and others know the songs and calls. Some have failing eyesight but know the markings of a species, or the flight behavior of a particular bird.
In birding, the senses open up and alertness mingles with connection: to people and to the larger stream of wind and temperature and conditions that bring in birds, and the bird nerds walking beside me. During spring migration, at times, the wind blows the birds down, or the heat swells from the south and a cloud of new birds float in. It’s extraordinary.
A birding posse is like one organism with many pairs of eyes, many ears and a wealth and history of knowledge, all pooled together in a slow moving, disorganized cloud. If you’re not a birder, it can be extremely irritating: everyone stops for 5 to 30 minutes about every 20 feet. Yet it’s a very unusual way to spend time with other beings: both the birds and people. Everyone loses a track of time and the world beyond the immediate senses.
When I go to certain parks on my own, I will inevitably encounter someone with a pair of binoculars, or a few people, and we share our sightings and what we’ve heard. The park becomes lit up with shared experience and community, all in reverence to the incredible variety of birds that land and move and dive and jump as the light and conditions prompt them.
Yesterday I saw over thirty blue jays in migration overhead. I usually think of the Blue Jay as a showy, loud and slightly manic backyard bird. As a community however, in a shared pursuit, I felt a new respect. My neck certainly hurts from craning up so much toward the tree tops (a condition called warbler neck), but I’m ok with that. I am more than just me when I bird with others, connecting with the more than just one bird, part of the phenomena of spring migration.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.