Chimney Rock, on the eastern spur of the Point Reyes headlands in California, is well known for the elephant seals that congregate there. One afternoon, while walking down the path overlooking them, I saw a woman looking through a spotting scope on a tripod, directed out toward the water. It turned out she was watching seabirds. She told me she started bird-watching as she got older because she was analytically minded, loved numbers and words, but struggled with visual memory and acuity and wanted to strengthen those faculties. Having similar proclivities, I listened closely. Eventually, she asked me if I wanted to look.
Birds were the last thing on my mind that day. Like any vulgar American, I had been socialized to value the blockbuster, the high status: the elephant seals, the humpback whales spouting just offshore. But when she showed me this modest and compelling bird — one I’d seen many times before, with whitish-gray plumage and a black-capped head, now completely close up — I began to see things differently.
According to the National Park Service, there have been reports of nearly 500 different bird species at Point Reyes, making it the place of “greatest avian diversity in any U.S. national park.” But birds are everywhere, and every day since I met my unwitting bird-watching mentor, I’ve been looking for them. There aren’t any shortcuts to honing one’s skills — it’s just about having a good field guide, a good set of binoculars and patience. Sometimes I have my binoculars in hand; other times I’m casually watching, observing birds’ size, shape, color and patterns as they hop along by the subway station, twitter away under an awning or pick through the trash on the street. Watching birds is a rush, a challenge to slow down the present long enough to glimpse it in all its precise detail.
Last year I took a trip alone, deep in the Oregon Cascades, hiking far into the forested mountains and looking for birds. Eventually I saw a golden eagle, its six-foot wingspan soaring right past me, but I spent most of my time chasing one of the few consistent breaks in the silence: the persistent calls of what I later found to be the dark-eyed junco, a common type of sparrow that’s often slate-gray or brown, with a whitish belly. I found the whole situation endearing: I set out into the sublime terrain of Oregon mountain and forest, only to have my time there dominated by this small, common bird.
Bird-watching is not always exhilarating — in fact, it can be largely mundane, a hobby of quiet precision and focus. Even common birds can sometimes be challenging to identify, especially for novices like me. (The sometimes subtle differences, for example, between female house sparrows and female house finches can still trip me up.) But the practice has sharpened my attention: Noticing compelling detail has become a feature of my daily life, even more so since I’ve begun to shelter in place. When I look out my window now, I notice details I wouldn’t have before, like how herculean people seem, with looks of fixed determination as they haul home way more groceries than they’d normally carry, or how people walking their dogs will almost always slouch a little resignedly when they pause to let their dogs sniff around in something. Yesterday I was staring blankly out the window when I noticed the way the tops of the trees move in the wind looks almost as if they’re silently gesturing to one another.
Birds have taught me to love what is small, what is delicate, what is elusive. I’ve learned that a truth is many details comprising what seems like a unified whole, and I’m more inclined now to immerse myself in the details for their own sake. In looking at common birds in my neighborhood, there’s a refreshing variety in their sameness, a consistent challenge to discern what seems too normal to even notice after so many times noticing. Spotting rare and beautiful birds is thrilling, much like seeing elephant seals or whales. Yet common birds and their details can feel hard to see, because they’re everywhere. Seeking these birds compels you to plumb your memory, to refine the past, to sift small details in service of the present. And those details anchor you, precluding temptations toward self-absorption, self-importance. Bird-watching, in short, is about taking in the most in the shortest span of time.
I remain sheltering in place, scared and saddened. Yet I’ve also been noticing details in my apartment I wouldn’t have noticed before, like the impressive range of noises a radiator can make, or how the dust on my bookshelves is the exact same color as the increasing number of gray hairs on my head. There’s reassurance in noticing these things, a sense of fleeting stability — even if the radiator, the dust and the gray hairs may stay around longer than most birds would. Through birds, I’ve learned to pay attention, and now, in isolation, to seek solace in the act of looking.
I’ve adapted my bird-watching practices too. I keep binoculars on the table of the front room of my third-floor apartment. Throughout my remote workday, I hear birds singing and calling, and I’ll walk over to the windows to take a closer look. Recently, at dusk, a bird landed on a branch right outside one of the windows, peering in. It was hard to identify in the waning light, but it happened to just be a robin. Yet it stood there so still, so severe-seeming, with its chest puffed out. It looked like a guardian of something vital in the gathering dark.