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On Being a Birder

It was a totally workaday morning for me. Breakfast had been a microwaved burrito. I’d gotten the kids off to school, and I was at my desk now, gazing at the laptop. Out the window, I could hear the sounds of suburbia: a delivery truck rumbling by, snippets of human conversation, and power tools going off at a construction site up the street. The whole thing was life imitating art, or, rather, artlessness; it might as well have been the establishing shot for a b-grade docudrama on the mediocrity of this modern life.

Then I heard it! Double-banded, arching upward, 25 milliseconds, 3–4 kilohertz—the unmistakable chip note of a Wilson’s Warbler, a migrant, my “FOS,” or first-of-season. I keep a pocketsize digital recorder by my side, so I reached over, turned it on, pointed it toward the leafy maple beyond the window screen, and got a recording.

Wilson’s Warbler, Lafayette, Boulder County, Colorado, USA, Thursday, August 24, 2017, 8:35 am. Recording by © Ted Floyd.


The bird was “just” a Wilson’s Warbler, just about the most common early-autumn migrant in the Front Range metro region where I live. The warbler moved on. Less than two minutes later, I was back at work, back at the desk, back at my laptop. No matter. My day had been brightened immeasurably by that refulgent visitor outside my window.

I never saw it. And yet I did. I saw the bird in my mind’s eye, a blaze of yellow with a smart black yarmulke, its eye fixed and staring, its tail cocked just so. In an instant, my head and heart were flooded with a lifetime of memories: “Willies” everywhere in a forest clearing in Guatemala a couple years back; a family group in an alder bog last month; indeed my lifer, a pert male, nearly thirty-five years ago.

The stimulus for this Proustian moment was 1/40th of a second, not nearly as long as it takes to savor a madeleine.

Isn’t that the most wondrous thing about being a birder? We hear a monosyllabic utterance in a suburban planting, shorter than a sigh, softer than a footstep, and we know, we just know, that something beautiful and powerful is out there, a bright ball of matter and energy, up at treeline yesterday or last week, on its way to Guatemala today. These things happen every single day. Sure, there are the listserv moments and RBA-worthy sightings: full-on, full-fledged, official rarities. We birders delight in those, and we make no apologies for that. But what sustains us, day after day after day, is the promise of wonder and surprise behind every hedgerow, at every bend in the river, in every suburban lot.

I’ve long drawn inspiration from the scientists who taught us that this universe of ours is far grander than we ever knew: Copernicus and Galileo, Curie and Einstein, Hubble and Hawking, and others. And I think it is their spirit that motivates us as birders. In the course of our ordinary, workaday affairs, we affirm, as Darwin did, that “[t]here is grandeur in this view of life.”

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Sally Conyne

    ….. and this essay just brightened my day. Thank you, Sally Conyne

  • Jennifer Rycenga

    Wonderful! But I am left wondering, how long would it take a WIWA to savor a madeleine?

  • Diane Porter

    First computer event of my morning was this little essay. Good start to a day. Thank you.

  • Ed Furlong

    Great essay Ted, that reminds us how the very acts of birding and our practice/identity/psychology as a a birder is so deeply stitches itself into our very perceptions and being. I just heard half/half heard the hoot of a Great Horned Owl this evening, and even before I read this post, I was transported through a collection of personal experiences and memories in an instant. Thanks for sharing your insights again.

  • Birdnscrap

    Thanks for that lovely moment in my day. It’s so true that the feeling of connectedness to nature and the scientists who have gone before us is part of what I love about birding and nature study. Maybe this is what religion feels like, but I wouldn’t know.

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  • Denise Hamilton

    I know exactly what you mean! The FOS migrants that pass through my yard – Yellow & Wilson’s Warblers and Willow Flycatchers just brighten my day!

  • Ted , I try to explain to people all the time why I bird and your post captures it. I love glancing up out my office window this time of year . Last week I paused a conference call to pick up my Binoculars 🙂

    I am out just East of Boulder .

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