While riding along the edge of a field on my Huffy dirt bike when I was around 12 years old, I saw a bright yellow-and-black bird and heard its unusual song. I wasn't a birdwatcher then, but I remember the encounter well. I really wanted to see that bird again after I started birding seriously at age 35.
My love of birds was probably always there, hidden somewhere deep inside me. Like many people, I had been exposed to the outdoors at a young age through camping trips and scouting. But throughout college and the early years of my career, the outdoors went vastly unnoticed. I was just too busy to pay attention.
Around 15 years into my computer-related career, I felt fenced in. Communication had become so instantaneous that I felt like I was expected to work—or at least respond to emails—around the clock. And like most people, I tried in vain to make this the norm. Overworked and stressed, I slept poorly and my health declined. I had to escape it all somehow. As my respite, I chose a path around a green swampy lake in a park near my home in suburban Brooklyn Center.
My wife and I had ridden our bicycles around the paved path at Palmer Lake Park, but never had I gone there by myself. Whether it was just being alone or being in the fresh air, walking the path seemed to help. My wife began encouraging me to keep up my routine. For the first time in many years, I was spending hours outside with no other purpose than just to be there.
As I wandered, I started to notice things. At first it was white-tailed deer. Because the city deer were used to people, they allowed me long looks and curious interactions. I started bringing my cheap, point-and-shoot camera to snap photos of them.
When I couldn't find any deer, I started noticing birds. I was amazed at the sheer number of different species I encountered in the same area in a single season. I remembered my ninth-grade science class where our instructor made us learn 30 species of Minnesota birds. At that time I simply memorized them long enough to pass the quiz. I'm sure I couldn't have named more than three by the end of that semester. But now something was different. Identifying birds didn't feel like learning at all. Instead it felt like discovery. It was something I could do at my own pace and completely lose myself in. With each visit I picked up little bits of information about each bird's behavior. The time of year or the type of habitat became clues for me to try to find the same bird again and again.
In the beginning, bird sounds were much too difficult for me to decipher. But I found that asking "when, where, and what" worked well. Yes, my end goal was to properly identify which species of bird I was looking at, but I was equally curious about their lives. "Why are they in this particular area? Why do I always see that kind on the ground? Why do those little ones move so quickly?" I had lots of questions but didn't realize that this curiosity was a thing called birding.
Picture Them. Another thing I didn't realize is that I carried with me a pocket-sized secret weapon of sorts. No, it wasn't my binoculars or even a field guide. My little digital camera was by far my most valuable tool for learning about birds. While it's true that you can get great close-up looks at birds through binoculars, the average person just can't hold onto that visual in his or her brain for very long. By capturing a photo, you can take the image home and study it, compare it with images in field guides, and ask other birders to help you identify the species.
With a photo, you have a nonexpiring, nonsubjective reference of what you saw at that exact time and place. Heck, the precise time and date are automatically recorded for you within the file. And thus was born my "shoot first and ask questions later" method of birding. And it was so much fun!
With my camera in hand, I became enthralled watching birds and observing their behavior. At the end of my workday, I would spend whatever daylight remained at the park. And on weekends I'd do the same over the course of many hours.
My wife encouraged me to create a blog about my sightings. Being a computer geek by trade, I soon launched the Palmer Lake Park Nature Blog and wrote short accounts of recent visits. Now I had a perfect outlet for sharing my newfound hobby with others, but more important, I had another learning tool. Writing down a few things about a particular bird helped me remember it better in the long term. I was creating a comprehensive, dated record of exactly what I saw where and when. Scientists use the word phenology, the "study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena in relation to climate and plant and animal life." Phenology plays an important role in birdwatching.
Three years into my blog, I could see that I wasn't going to come to the end of birdwatching anytime soon. I began buying new field guides, studying them, and asking my wife to periodically quiz me based on the photos. Online, I found magnificent photos helpful in deciphering species.
The following spring I found myself hiking around Palmer Lake Park carrying my first decent camera and a telephoto lens. Aside from my camera, I discovered social media as a tool that propelled me deeper into this thing called birding. On Facebook I found hundreds of local, like-minded people sharing their appreciation of birds through brief accounts and photographs.
Hooked on Birds. It was easy to get hooked on birds. The most "free" of any creature on our planet, birds come and go as they please, some traveling halfway around the globe during migration. Looking for birds and photographing them appeals to the collector in me. And collecting them, whether in checklists or photographs, can be a never-ending quest. As for photographing wildlife, no subject is more challenging and rewarding than birds. More times than not, they are obscured by tree trunks, branches, and leaves. When they do finally come into view, they typically move again within seconds. Being in the right place at the right time is what it's all about. And when that happens, the reward is magical.
For me, birds have come to represent the very face of nature itself. They have a symbiotic relationship with the environment. This realization tripped something inside me and changed the way I view our world. The habitats that support such an amazing variety of birds are changing rapidly.
To my surprise, after five years of paying close attention to every bird I laid eyes on, I still had not seen the yellow-and-black bird of my childhood. As I learned more, I realized that my odds of again finding an eastern meadowlark had decreased dramatically since I was a kid. Those fields are long gone; apartment buildings now stand there. Last year I finally found a meadowlark, with help from a friend, at Palmer Lake Park of all places.