It was a Monday in late March when I heaved open the weighty wooden door to return to my own office after a stressful meeting. This brief walk between buildings was a familiar one, but on this particular day it would not be so ordinary. Wonder was waiting on the other side of that door.
On this particular day, a tree I’d passed countless times, bare of leaves but still heavy with winter berries, was adorned with a kind of bird I’d never noticed before. A whole flock of them had gathered to pick at those berries: crisply crested birds with brownish heads and grayish backs, bright yellow tail tips, and sharp black masks. They were beautiful, strikingly so, and I was suddenly gripped by an intense desire to know what they were.
Fortunately, this species is an easy one, and a few minutes with Google sorted out that it was a flock of cedar waxwings that had so startled me to attention. But that moment of disruption, the in breaking of unexpected beauty and the spontaneous curiosity about what I was seeing, solidified a decision for me: I was going to be a birder.
I’d been exposed to the idea of birding as a hobby for several years. My husband is a big Netflix documentary watcher, and one of the few I’d actually enjoyed watching with him was about birding in Central Park. So I had some small idea of what I was getting into, and I knew what I needed to get started. I bought binoculars, I bought a field guide, and I started my life list (a list of birds I observe over my whole life); these were the three boxes I needed to tick, at least in my own mind, to make it official.
I spent my first happy month checking off the easy birds, the ones that are abundant in my area and whose names I already knew. Or thought I did—cardinals, ducks, and robins now took on their proper names of Northern cardinal, mallard, and American robin. These and others breezed onto my life list. By happy accident, I started birding during spring migration, when bright breeding plumage and resounding courtship songs make birding relatively easy. Novelty was around every corner, and I was confident that I was on my way to being an excellent birder.
Soon, though, challenges arose and doubt started to set in. I’d made a few early identifications a little too quickly, and as I continued to read about the details I should be looking for, I realized I wasn’t very sure about some of my sightings. Sparrow identification seemed hopeless; all the small streaky brown birds looked the same to me, and I despaired of ever being able to master them. And as summer drew near, trees regrew their leaves and birds settled into their more elusive nesting behavior; suddenly it was not so easy to even find a bird!
It had been a long time since I’d taken the risk of being a beginner. In adult life, most of my work depends on my having some level of experience and competence. But I am brand new to birding, so I’ve made mistakes and missed opportunities. This was hard at first, accustomed as I am to spending most of my time on things I’m pretty good at. At the same time, though, there’s joy in being a beginner. There’s always something new to discover, and I’m delighting in learning in a way I haven’t in a long time.
Daunting as it is, opening myself to this unfamiliar knowledge base has become an exercise in wonder. More accurately, it is an exercise in disposing myself to wonder, since wonder is always a gift, often unexpected and always undeserved. But I can prepare myself to receive this gift more readily, and I do that by paying attention.
With birds, details like eye-rings and wing-bars have taken on meaning where there was none, reminding me that I’m very often missing much of what I see. Paying attention to birds—one small portion of the beauty of creation—is making me more grateful for the whole of creation. The birds were always there, but I had usually not noticed them. Noticing them in this new way brings beauty to the forefront of how I’m experiencing the world.
So this new hobby of mine is turning out to be surprisingly sacred, and an apt metaphor for how grace works in our lives. God’s presence is always there, but often unnoticed, and it takes practice to know how to see it. The discipline of studying my field guide is not as fun as looking at real birds, but it helps me know what I’m seeing when I encounter their real-life vibrancy. In the same way, the discipline of regular prayer, even when it seems boring, prepares me to encounter God’s real, vibrant wildness wherever it might be waiting.
My winter this year is split between being heavily pregnant and nursing a newborn, so getting out on “official” birding trips is on hold for a few months. To bridge the gap until spring, I put up a bird feeder in my yard, even though it seemed at first a lame substitute for getting out and finding birds in the wild. But this, too, has been an unexpected gift.
At my feeder, I see many of the same species regularly, and I get a closer look at them than I usually can in the field. I’ve become familiar with some of those streaky brown sparrows that were such a frustration just a few months ago. And the more easily identified birds have new gifts for me, too. Since they linger longer at my feeder, I’m able to appreciate details I was missing before: the charmingly undeserved courage of a tiny black-capped chickadee, the subtle blush-colored wash on the sides of a tufted titmouse, the utterly gratuitous beauty of a Northern flicker.
I am still very much a novice birder, and I’m sure that many more frustrations await me. But, mercifully, this is one part of my life that doesn’t need to be about accomplishments. Time spent birding is time spent in wonder and gratitude, and that is time well spent.