How a pair of better binoculars, Aldo Leopold, and the death of my parents combined to make me a birdwatcher
By Frank Zufall | Published: 10/1/2013
At 55, I love birdwatching.
My binoculars, identification book, and sometimes a notepad for sketching go with me into the field, and my head turns toward every faint swoosh of wings or series of chirps. Northern Wisconsin, where I live, offers forests, lakes, rivers, and pastures filled with birding opportunities. It’s a cheap vacation, I often say, because I can afford the hobby anytime I step outside.
I find birdwatching perpetually interesting now, but a few years ago, I didn’t. Gathering at twilight to launch a morning hike down a mosquito-infested trail to find the sources of tweets and twitters was not my idea of fun. In my 40s, I owned one ornithology textbook and had not the slightest clue that the one would some day multiply to fill a whole shelf. A slightly younger me would never have asked, “Do you mind if we drive about 10 minutes out of the way to look at the migratory flock in the back bay?”
To me, birdwatching appeared to be an obsession propelled by a drive I lacked, a drive to identify and recall the names of birds and to search out new species. It always puzzled me, this interest in relatives of poultry. I didn’t care much what birds were around me, much less desire to know their names.
Yet I like nature, always have. Dad enjoyed hunting and fishing and began taking me with him when I was around four or five years of age, but Dad rarely wanted to know names of plants, insects, or all those birds. I grew to love the outdoors but was content, like Dad, oblivious to the ubiquitous birds. Like the forest you don’t see for the trees, that’s what birds were to me.
In college, I studied biology with a concentration in limnology (freshwater biology). I memorized those aquatic species living in the bottom muck but promptly discarded them from memory days after the test.
Now I work as a journalist. Reporting assignments require securing names, facts, and minutiae. I can do that. A few years ago, I wrote about a budworm infestation of jack pine, but had it not been my assignment, a budworm would have been just a worm harassing a tree.
Each spring, my neighbor offers a public tour of his restored prairie, which features colorful wildflowers, native grasses, and birds that scatter about. After many of those tours, I’ve committed myself to be more like him, but a few days later, an orange and black streak might wing by that any birder would use a vacation day to follow and I would think, “Uh, it’s just a bird.”
But I did change sometime after I turned 50. I became interested in birds, started watching them, and grew curious about their names, their habits, their migratory patterns, and what they ate. I became officially hooked on birdwatching. How did I join the tribe? I’m not sure if I can encapsulate all the reasons, but three recent circumstances, I’m confident, helped me acquire the birdwatching drive.
While I was reporting on a new golf store in town, the owner made sure I noticed a display case filled with binoculars. I thought it a little peculiar for a golf store to carry them, but the owner, a man who also enjoyed the outdoors, was adamant that good binoculars made a world of difference.
I already owned two pairs of binoculars. One had been in my family since the 1950s. The other jewel was a $5 garage-sale bargain. The golf store’s binoculars were Alpens. The brand cost more than I had ever imagined paying for binoculars. I returned with my binoculars to compare. The Alpens made distant objects look clear and close and hands-down better in low light. My old pair felt akin to donning reading glasses from the junk drawer. The image wasn’t sharp and offered little depth; the view was almost two-dimensional. I became a convert to higher-end binoculars.
I bought the Alpens for deer hunting. I used them especially for stalking, walking slowly a few steps at a time, then pausing to scan ahead for a hint of a whitetail. (This is also a good way to search for birds.) My stalking pace slowed with the better binoculars because each step offered another observation perch, like walking the rise of a hill, every few steps offering a new perspective ahead.
Besides stalking, I spent hours in a tree stand waiting for a whitetail to approach. Time can drag in a stand, and a bird is a welcome distraction. I watched lots of Blue Jays, saw different owls in the early morning and dusk, smiled at Ruffed Grouse in the foliage, and delighted in the tree-knockers of the North — the Hairy, Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers.
The longer a deer took to show, the more the birds became an object of study. With corn on the ground, I learned that the first Blue Jay would call loudly, attracting others. Sometimes, it seemed, deer appeared to listen to the jays as well. I observed how a White-breasted Nuthatch wedges acorns into bark creases to hold the food secure as it chips off the husk.
One evening near dark, I heard what sounded like a group of parachutists crashing into pine limbs. Imagine my surprise when, through my binoculars, it turned out to be a flock of Wild Turkeys coming to roost.
With the better binoculars, I could also pick out the nuances of similar species (able to distinguish, for example, between Chipping and Clay-colored Sparrows) and be confident in identifying the birds.
After deer season, I took the Alpens hiking, scouting the landscape, and, of course, observing the birds. Seeing them up close and in focus is a real treat. I’ve suggested that my friends get better binoculars, too.
On another assignment, I covered a presentation by Eric Olson, a member of the Center for Land Use Education, University of Wisconsin Extension, Stevens Point. Olson talked to members of a lake-shore association about how knowing more about the species in and around their lakes would create more empathy, caring, even love for their lakes. Olson emphasized that nature attracts us with its beauty, but that knowledge leads to deeper levels of appreciation, a teaching of Aldo Leopold, author of the book A Sand County Almanac.
“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty,” wrote Leopold in the sketch “Marshland Elegy” from A Sand County Almanac. “It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”
Olson encouraged the lake-shore owners to learn the names of the six species of frog in their lake and the many shorebirds that wade into the shallows or hop along the highwater mark. A name and some knowledge of the species, said Olson, will focus the mind on that species and raise awareness of it. He said you had to be aware of the species, first, to have empathy for it, to care about its habitat, its ability to reproduce, to continue its lineage.
“We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in,” Leopold wrote in “The Land Ethic,” the finale to A Sand County Almanac.
For the first time in my life, I had an understanding of the naturalist’s drive that I had seen especially in birdwatchers. Feed intent with knowledge and you feed the drive. We all know that the feeling of falling in love is accompanied by a desire to know more about the loved one, and as the love grows, the more we want to know. Olson convinced me I could begin caring about birds if I just began purposefully identifying one species at a time. A pair of sparrow-size birds with gray-brown upper feathers and white undersides nested every spring under the eaves of my log cabin. I studied them with my Alpens and then scanned my books and narrowed the choices. Finally, a naturalist at the Cable Natural History Museum in Cable, Wisconsin, confirmed that they were Eastern Phoebes by imitating their Feed me! Feed me! call. Now, every morning during the warmer months, when I walk out the door, two miniature winged parents disperse in frantic alarm, and I shout after them, “Good morning, phoebes!” I know their names.
Let’s talk about age. Many birdwatchers are at least 50 years old or older. I used to think birdwatchers were older because they had time on their hands. Maybe that does have something to do with it.
For me, it is not about having more time. I’m not retired, and I still work lots of hours, but my life did change immensely when I turned 50, and what I’ve experienced these last few years tempered my disposition, I believe, to appreciate birds.
My reality check began with my parents’ decline. Being with each during failing memory and health and daily visits to the nursing home, and then grieving at their graves, stretched my heart to depths of sadness I could never have imagined.
It’s true that death makes you appreciate life. My parents’ passing left me with a new perspective and a new appreciation for just waking up every morning; I didn’t want to waste my years. I also began to see birds differently. I started noticing their vitality, how they were like little dynamos. Watching birds, for me, became a way to be intentional about living well.
It feels more life-affirming to observe the living relatives of dinosaurs than to spend time in front of the television’s glow. I feel much more alive in the field discussing the difference between a Sedge Wren and a Marsh Wren than spending an evening next to a slot machine. Sometimes I am physically tired after hiking and birding, but my spirit is heightened like I’ve discovered a secret that’s been right in front of my eyes — the birds.
When you’re in the habit of noticing sparrows that most folks don’t even see, you raise your overall level of observation.
I’m not one of those people who compartmentalize well, so when I started paying attention to birds, I also began paying more attention to the people in my life. My sister can tell you that for the first time I’ve noticed what perfume she likes, Estée Lauder. When my pastor friend and I go for coffee, I can order his, black, because I’ve paid attention.
For me, birdwatching is a very positive hobby, and I’m convinced my friends and family have benefited from my new obsession — despite how they smirk when I glance over their shoulders to track movement in the trees.
They know what I’m looking at, and for the most part, they are okay with it. For that matter, so am I.
Frank Zufall is a reporter for the Spooner Advocate in northwestern Wisconsin.