By Janet Hook
Almost two years into the pandemic shutdown, I have become a Covid-era cultural cliche. I’m a sweatpants convert. I bought a bike. I joined millions in the Great Resignation this year by quitting my job.
I have also contributed to the boom in bird-watching. Part of a surge in outdoor activity, the birding craze is emblematic of one salutary effect of this unsettling time: Many of us have slowed down and taken more notice of things we have spent our lives looking past — from the deep flaws in society to the exquisite perfection of nature.
The birding boom has produced a run on feeders, binoculars and other tools of the trade. The number of people who downloaded the Audubon Bird Guide app was 81% higher in June 2020 than a year earlier. Bird sightings logged on the app by these birders more than doubled over the first year of the pandemic shutdown, according to the National Audubon Society.
I was part of all that. While working from home when the pandemic hit, I started paying more attention to birds because they were showing up at the “office.” Our family room, with its view of the feeder, had become my new workspace.
At first, I couldn’t tell one little brown bird from the other. But I started noticing when distinctive birds like the Red-bellied Woodpecker visited our deck. I put up more feeders to attract different kinds of birds.
After we relocated our working-from-home base to our summer cottage in Maine, my bird hobby intensified. I read “The Bird Way” by Jennifer Ackerman; I devoured Helen MacDonald’s nature writing; I pored over the Cornell Lab of Ornithology app.
I peppered my family with fun facts about birds–a relief from conversation about Trump and Covid-19. Who knew? Eider ducks can dive up to 65 feet and swallow mollusks whole. The osprey sleeps with one eye open during its long migration flight. The lyrebird, a beautiful Australian mimicking bird, can do an uncanny imitation of a chainsaw.
Back in the Washington D.C. area, I frequently consulted my friend David, an experienced birder. He patiently answered my rookie questions and listened to my sound recordings of birds I couldn’t identify.
My couch-based hobby took a serious turn when, for the first time, I drove a half hour through city traffic to see a single bird. No longer was I just noticing birds that crossed my path or showed up at the feeder; I was beginning to seek them out.
The big turning point came when David told me about the Barnacle Goose — an Arctic bird that seemed to have flown off course and was seen for the first time in the Washington D.C. area. David gave me precise directions for where to see it in Southwest Washington.
I thought it was an implausible destination for a rare bird sighting as I parked amid the ground-gaping construction projects near the D.C. United soccer stadium. But at the end of the street, on the river’s edge, I found three birders already set up and looking across the Potomac River. One let me peer through his spotting scope, trained on the Barnacle Goose. It had joined a flock of much-bigger Canada geese. The scene reminded me of the Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other.”
I quickly learned a lot about a subculture I did not know existed. Birders are very friendly and cooperative. They readily share equipment and information. But they do have a competitive streak. Every year there is a World Series of Birding in New Jersey, where teams compete to identify the most bird species in 24 hours.
Of course, learning about anything will take a quantum leap when you hang out with learned people, so I’ve now taken a couple walks with local Audubon Society experts who seem to have x-ray vision for birds in thick woods.
Having learned even a little bit more about birds, I feel more at home in my community. Now that I know there are several kinds of woodpeckers that stay in the DC area through winter, I see them everywhere — in parks, on the street, and in my backyard.
My new interest adds a dimension to travel: When I spent a winter weekend on the Eastern Shore of Maryland or took a summer vacation in Santa Fe, seeing new bird species was as thrilling as trying new local cuisine.
I was told on one walk that experienced birders like having novices like me around because we get so excited about seeing common species for the first time.
I hope I don’t lose that beginner’s enthusiasm — that openness to beauty in plain sight — anytime soon, even when the pandemic passes.
—Janet Hook is a former political reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal who lives most of the time in Maryland. She is a nicer person when she is in Maine.