Finding the Joy, Redux

I’ve written here before about how birds helped me discover a love and appreciation for the natural world rather late in life. They gave me years of enjoyment and also led me to my current passions for native plants, dragonflies, and other insects.

That’s why my life was turned upside down when, about two and a half years ago, I had a very painful experience related to the birding community. It had such a negative impact on me that I soon found myself turning down invitations to go birding with friends, just to avoid reminders of what had happened. I decided to get some distance from birding, at least in my part of Ohio.

robin eating sumac fruits w sig

American robin feeding on fruits of staghorn sumac

I had convinced myself that I just didn’t care about birds anymore.  Deep inside I knew that was a rationalization to allow me to keep my distance from the pain. But lately, finally, I feel myself wanting to acknowledge that I still love watching birds.

I’ve skipped all of the local Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) in the Toledo area this year, but I was invited to do two counts in other parts of Ohio recently, and eagerly accepted. Having now done those counts, I’m finding myself rediscovering what made me love birds in the first place. Not only are they fascinating animals, but birds are with us all the time, everywhere. Even in the depths of a midwestern winter, when it seems everything else is silent, dead, or dying, birds are here.

I can go virtually anywhere and find birds to watch, while the rest of the world scurries past, oblivious to these engaging little creatures living among them. That realization always makes me a bit sad for those muggles, but also gives me a bit of a thrill as I realize I’ve got a secret that’s right in front of them, if only their eyes would focus on it.

mockingbird on green gate w sig

Northern mockingbird keeping an eye on us

I did both of the recent CBCs with naturalist Jim McCormac, who writes a fantastic blog right here.  (I encourage you to visit his blog and poke around; your life will be richer for doing so.)  We did the Killdeer Plains CBC last weekend, and the Hocking Hills CBC this weekend.  Both were exhausting days, but full of great birds and conversations.

Because I’ve pulled back from birding recently, my limited skills were in desperate need of a tune-up. I’ve long known that the best way to improve my skills is to tag along with people who are more skilled than I, and birding with Jim is perfect for that because of his lifetime of experience with birds. To someone like me, he seems to have a magical sixth sense about where to find the birds. When I bird alone, I can fool myself into thinking I’m doing pretty well, and get a false sense of confidence. But birding with someone as experienced as Jim makes me realize just how many birds I’ve been missing.

mockingbird on branch of multiflora rose w sig

Northern mockingbird checking up on us again

When I expressed my frustration at not being able to pick out many of the calls he was hearing, he reminded me of the decades of birdwatching that gave him those skills. I get that, and I appreciated his encouragement about it. Having started birding so late in life, it’s doubtful that I can ever hope to develop those great birding-by-ear skills. But I don’t want to give up trying to improve.

On the Hocking Hills count yesterday, we spent some quality time with a northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) who was feeding on a bountiful supply of rose hips on a multiflora rose shrub along a rural road. This type of birding is most rewarding to me, when I get to take time to watch an individual bird’s behavior. We were very quiet and respectful of this bird’s space, and just observed how he interacted with other birds. He was zealously guarding “his” rose hips from a good-sized flock of eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in an adjacent field. At one point when he was off chasing bluebirds, I saw a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) slip inside the rose shrub, momentarily undetected. Sly bird.

mockingbird eating rosehips from multiflora rose w sig

Northern mockingbird feeding on rose hips of the invasive multiflora rose

The mockingbird occasionally popped out to make sure we were keeping our distance, but continued feeding calmly on rose hips between his bluebird patrols. At one point a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) dropped down through the branches of a maple tree in an unsuccessful attempt to nab one of the bluebirds. He then quickly recovered and flew directly toward us, barely 15 feet over our heads. He briefly landed on a power pole beside the car, and then soared off across the fields. Sure wish I’d been quick enough on the shutter button to get that shot.

I’m grateful to have rediscovered a part of my life that had been put on the back-burner for too long. I’m not going to go so far as to say “New Year, New Me,” but I am determined to reclaim the parts of life that make it richer and more meaningful for me. Life is too short to let bad memories steal your chances of making new ones.

#FindingTheJoy

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6 Responses to Finding the Joy, Redux

  1. Annie says:

    You have the right attitude and glad you’ve rejoined the CBC world. After years of counting in Tidewater VA, I’ve not continued the Count in New Hampshire and I miss it.

    • Kim Smith says:

      Thanks, Annie. It does feel good to know I’ve contributed to the long tradition of CBCs. Maybe next year I’ll participate in some of my local CBCs. I think that would be another step in putting the past behind me and making new, positive birding memories.

  2. Gail Berner says:

    So glad you’re back to birding. Because I frequently bird alone (stress relief tactic) and am a late comer to birding by ear, I know I miss birds or don’t identify as many as the long time birders. But, really, who cares? Birding is fun, good exercise, challenging and oh-so-rewarding when I get that infrequent or rarity species.

    • Kim Smith says:

      Thanks, Gail. I like your attitude! I’ve dabbled in competitive birding but find it takes much of the fun out of it for me. I want to enjoy the birds more than I want to check them off a list.

  3. Littlesundog says:

    This is much like my life story – wounded and hurt, I retreat to my den to lick my wounds for a while. Being wild creatures, we eventually yearn to be out there in the wild again, seeking and evolving. You are my bird guru, Kim. I’m glad to see you are back at it.

    I love mockingbirds. We have many around here, and it does seem that they follow me around wherever I happen to be. They’re fearless around here too! I’ve seen them chase off a hawk before, and they do not seem to fear humans. We see them all year long.

    • Kim Smith says:

      Yes, I knew you would understand this, Lori. I just wish it wasn’t taking so long to heal my wounds this time. So much time wasted on anger and rehashing old hurts….

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