By David Rice
I had planned to take my family this winter to see (and hear!) the cranes on Woodbridge Road near Lodi: arrive in mid-afternoon, watch some cranes feeding in the fields, and wait for dusk to bring the vocalizing flocks, silhouetted against the sunset. But the combination of crawl-space decluttering and inertia stopped me, and now we can’t go. It’s early spring, the cranes are leaving, and we’re sheltering-in-place.
The GGAS field trip to look and listen for birds in the mountains near the Santa Clara/Santa Cruz County border? I signed up this year, after not signing up last year, but the trip’s cancelled. Shelter-in-place.
Knowing the cranes are there, even if I missed them, is reassuring. Knowing GGAS is here is reassuring; I’ll donate the money. But missing the pleasures and comforts these birding outings would have given me—that birding always gives me—got me thinking about how I think and feel about birding.
Although I know that birding is part of who I am, although I dream about birds—and really should have kept a life list of my dream birds; would it be more than thirty now?—maybe I have underestimated how important birds are to me. As the old song goes, “You don’t miss your water ’til the well runs dry.” We know about the ongoing decline of many bird species, of course, but “shelter-in-place” brings home to me how much I count on being able to go birding, even if I don’t or can’t go sometimes. Maybe, by assuming I can go birding wherever and whenever I choose, I’ve taken birds for granted and now, when I can’t, I see even more clearly how much I value them.
Which brings me to the gulls that arrive every morning to feed at the grassy area inside the local junior high school track where I walk. I’ve seen them eating worms, and there must be other protein sources as well in the well-watered grass, because they are always there. (Mainly Ring-billed Gulls, some California Gulls, saw a first-year Herring Gull once.) I stopped the other day and just watched them. I wanted to paint the adult Ring-billed Gull’s pristine light gray/black wing tips breeding plumage.
There is something calming about gazing at a bird for more than a brief identifying-second. The scientists who study meditators should study birders. We can approach a semi-trance state while looking at a bird, if we let ourselves look long enough.
You may not have a local gull flock within walking distance of where you live, but many of us have feeders, or take walks in parks—since we’re not on total lock-down— and we can easily observe our resident White-crowned Sparrows and House Finches; maybe we can listen to a mockingbird. If you also have taken these common birds for granted at times, and if anxiety management is also near the top of your to-do list these days, maybe looking longer at these sparrows and finches can be part of our shelter-in-place treatment plan.
The stress management experts, and common sense, tells us to get out of our heads when we’re anxious: we can’t calm down if we’re thinking about what we’re stressing about. We’re supposed to try to think about something else. Birds can help us do that. I am not giving up my plans to bird the desert again, although that probably has to wait until next year, when I really am going to make that crane trip. For now I am trying to open myself to whatever birds I see or hear near my home.
The other day, while watching the White-crowns at our feeder, I began hoping the neighborhood Bewick’s Wren would show up. I have a history with this species. Two years ago, on the GGAS Lassen birding backpack trip I have co-led for almost forty years, two birders found an out-of-place, up-slope migrating Bewick’s Wren in the willows at the edge of the Lodgepole Pine/Red Fir forest; no oaks or chaparral for miles. Eventually, we all got to see it.
One of the birders who found the bird, Tex Buss, is an artist, and back in San Francisco she painted “the elusive Bewick’s Wren of Snag Lake.” (It was, indeed, hard to see.) Remembering that “elusive” Bewick’s Wren is soothing to me, just as you probably have a history with some bird that calms you down when you think of it.
We can’t stop the coronavirus, but we can pay attention to the clinking California Towhee as it feeds beneath our feeder, or under some park brush and, while doing so, we can stop paying attention to the coronavirus for a while. I don’t want to take birds for granted. Birds are too important to me. Shelter-in-place has made them even more so.
David Rice has been a member of the Golden Gate Audubon Society since the late 1970s. He is the author of Why We Bird, with illustrations by Robin Pulich, published by GGAS in 2012. It is available on Amazon, $12 plus shipping; all proceeds go to GGAS. If you would like to purchase David’s book, click here.
Note from GGAS: Here’s a daily reminder that you are not alone! We want to feature your stories about birding during this crisis. Do you have a shelter-in-place birding story you’d like to share with us? Contact GGAS’s Communications Manager, Melissa, at firstname.lastname@example.org with 800-1200 word testimonials. Wishing you joy and peace through birding.