American Birding Podcast



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.”