This week’s blog is about how I've gone to the birds. . .and found joy every day!
In February, I had the honor of being part of an amazing group of women who took one of Gail Larsen’s Transformational Speaking workshops. On the first day, we were asked to give a short talk about any topic we wanted. We had no time to prepare or even think about what we were going to say. This is mine:
One of the things I love most about public speaking is that I always find something out about myself that I haven’t known, or maybe fully understood, until I hear it come out of my mouth. That little talk helped me understand why birds bring me so much joy every single day. Wherever I go, there they are — singing, flying, playing, the winged manifestations of delight!
Joy, I am discovering, is by definition always unselfconscious. So, I am proud to say that I have now fully embraced my birdnerdness. I have binoculars in my car and a small set with which I travel, plus a dedicated birding camera. I subscribe to four, count them four, birding magazines. I have three bird apps on my mobile devices, and a digital life list into which I proudly mark my latest discoveries — last week a whole flock of lustrous ochre Cedar Waxwings with their black Batman masks and flippant yellow tail feathers! But the beauty part of the whole thing is that I not only remain no better at the whole bird identification thing than I was a year ago, but I am also deeply and passionately committed not to be. In fact, I hope I never excel at birding. I just want to continue to let birds fly their way into my heart and evoke soaring joy!
My whole life I was exhorted to succeed — to test well, get into good schools, do as many things as possible at a high level. Last year I took a pottery class with two friends, and I ended up almost hating the experience . . . not because I was bad at it, which I most definitely was, but because I beat myself up for being bad at it. That was a big wake-up call. If I never notice an eye ring or a wing marking, because instead I have fallen in love with a flash of hummingbird iridescence or a pretty turn of a finch head, then hallelujah -- I am saved!
So for this week’s blog, I would like to share some of my favorite bird photographs I’ve taken. Don’t ask me what kind of birds they are. In most cases, I have no idea. I just want to share how they made and still make me feel. And that’s what joy is all about . . . taking those baby steps on the arduous but oh-so-necessary journey from the head to the heart.
Of course, one of the things we all love about birds is that they can fly! These two photographs, which I took in Costa Rica, evoke for me that moment of lift off. Oh — how that must feel. . .to spring into flight!
In Costa Rica, I also became a hummingbird stalker. Taking a good picture of a hummingbird can be tricky. In fact, I have innumerable photos of flowers where hummingbirds have just been withjust the faintest blur of fleeing violet or bright blue. But I love those photographs almost as much as the ones with the actual birds, because they remind me of how ephemeral my moments with hummingbirds are, how special it is to really see them. Sometimes I feel like they choose when they will let themselves be seen. . .because according to legend, hummingbirds float free of time, carring with them our hopes for love, joy and celebration.
Although I have taken countless hummingbird photos, this one is my favorite.
This hawk hung out in our neighboorhood for months last fall. Even though when he comes to visit me, all the little birds at my feeder flee, he is so magnificent that I always fall in love with him. Last month, about an hour after hearing the sickening thud of a bird hitting one of my upper windows, I looked out at my feeder, and I saw him perched on my bench eating the dead finch. At that moment, I was grateful to him — because no matter what I do, the birds still hit my windows — and it breaks my heart each time. But he came to recycle, using something about which I felt terrible to nourish himself. I took these photos through a window that desperately needs cleaning, but I think the blur makes him almost mythical.
This isn’t one of my favorite pictures, but it is definitely one of my favorite birds. The Western Tanager is one of the few birds I have known by name for a long time. In fact, I famously stopped playing a critical point of a tennis match — to the immense irritation of my doubles partner -- to point out a Western Tanager that had flown across the court and landed in a nearby tree. It was so bright and beautiful, I had to stop and take notice! Isn’t that why God gave us these brightly-colored creatures, so that we would stop puffing up our own flimsy feathers and really notice the true beauty of the world.
No one else on the court seemed to care at all, but it did become a running joke among my tennis friends for years whenever someone missed a shot. . .”Oops! I just saw a Western Tanager!”
I still find them so exotic and exciting, and I love the idea that these world travelers choose to summer in my hometown. I feel about them the way I felt when, as a child, I was introduced to one of my parents’ exotic adult friends from a part of the world that seemed impossibly foreign — that just by meeting them, I had touched a different part of the globe. Perhaps more than any other bird, the Western Tanager brings me home to childlike joy!
My most magical birding experience took place a cold cloudy morning in Massachusetts in a gorgeous birding sanctuary along a river. It was October, and every tree and bush exuded the poignant late blush of autumn. That morning, I spent three hours traipsing through cranberry bogs, along woodsy paths of brightly-colored decidous trees, next to meadows of wheaten grasses. About halfway through my morning, I was standing on a bridge with a fellow photographer watching some water birds when I noticed a small path to the side of a pond. I decided to follow it and ended up deep in a forest of tall pines. Suddenly, I heard the whoosh of big wings, and I knew it was an owl. I was lucky to be able to follow its flight with my binoculars and when it landed high in a pine, we ended up spending five minutes in each other’s company, just gazing at one another — he warily and I in utter rapture — before he finally flew away. It was a magical moment.
Because I often go birding alone in strange places, I usually bring my phone. As I continued deeper into the woods, I felt it vibrate, and saw that I was getting a text from my project manager about a client problem. I decided to call her instead of letting it preoccupy me while I hiked. So, we talked as I walked, and ended up spending about fifteen minutes catching up on work-related topics. By this time, I had come into an area of rolling hills and smaller trees deep in the preserve. Suddenly a little bird buzzed right over the top of my head and landed on a branch less than a foot from me. He stared right at me and started to sing, as if to say, Get off that damn phone and Be Here Now. I immediately obeyed. “You’re not going to believe this," I said to Tracy, “but this little bird just told me I have to get off the phone now.” Fortunately, after twelve years of working with me, she’s used to whatever I throw at her. . .and this probably didn’t even register on her weird scale any more.
By the time I had hung up, my new bird friend — a White-Breasted Nuthatch — had been joined by another — a Black-Capped Chicadee. And within seconds, there as a third — a Tufted Titmouse. All three hopped from tree to tree, landing on small branches no more than a foot or two away from where I stood. I immediately sat down on the ground, and grinning from ear to ear, we all had the loveliest conversation about pure joy. I was grinning from ear to ear, all work forgotten, happier than I had felt in a long long time.
A few minutes later, my Nuthatch flew a little ways down the path and then looked back at me as if to say, Let’s go now. And so we did, all three of us. We walked down the path until I reached a small bridge, which I walked across. When I reached the other side, I realized that they hadn’t followed me, but were sitting on branches across the stream, singing me goodbye. We took one another in one last time, and then I turned and walked away.
I swear this all happened. And I will never forget it.
As someone who travels over half the year, I’ve come to think of birds as my fellow travelers. Every morning when I head out for my walk, there they are, singing in my day. Sure they aren’t the gaspingly exotic birds I saw in Costa Rica. But I’ve come to adore the little brown jobs — the sparrows and the finches — who pop out from behind even the most mundane bushes to say hello. And so I’ve included these two photos because they remind me that joy does not require a trip to Central America or a massive murmuration. Joy just requires an open heart and attentive eyes.
You can’t tell me that that finch isn’t just a little bit fabulous with his flame-colored ascot and coiffure, and that that sparrow doesn’t make you smile and want to start a conversation. Can you?
I don’t expect all of you to embrace birding like I have, but maybe one day, when the stress of work has become too much or you’ve just had an argument with your significant other, you’ll walk out to the parking lot and see a crow or a grackle who will remind you that life is more than the next deadline or errand to run. In fact, it can soar and take us with it, if we let it.
And every morning, all you have to do is listen, and you will be sung awake by the joy of birds who remind us all to listen to and love the Song of life.