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The Accidental Birder 

Finding focus and a hobby during shelter in place

click to enlarge A red-tailed hawk, the author’s “gateway bird.”

Photo by Caitlin Parson

A red-tailed hawk, the author’s “gateway bird.”

I have yet to purchase my first pair of bird-watching binoculars. My Canon point and shoot camera is not fancy. The feature that sold me on it was its telescopic zoom lens. It's the perfect tool for a budding bird-watcher, which is what I seem to be.

Fortunately, my favorite bird, the red-tail hawk, thrives hunting among the open meadows in the hills of Southern Humboldt where I live. So when it comes to bird watching, I think it's fair to say the red-tail hawk was my gateway bird.

One afternoon last spring, I lost track of time watching one circling above my house. That day I got my first close-up of the underside of that grand birds' feathers, intricately patterned in shades of brown, white and caramel. I was hooked. I knew it was getting serious when I found myself grabbing my camera and racing outside barefoot upon hearing the merest suggestion of a hawk in the vicinity.

Another day, while on a walk with my camera, I spotted a red-tail, this time at the top of a great Douglas fir, perched and scoping for its next meal. I sat down quietly and started snapping away. With the short distance between us and my camera's zoom, I was able to see the hawk's striking green eyes, which I learned are eight times sharper than ours and can track a mouse from 100 feet. I sat in silent observation for nearly an hour, feeling like it was my lucky day.

And so, during a year which by all measures has been unorthodox and challenging, I've found a new hobby. I am becoming a birder. Bird photography has been a good reminder to have patience. I've learned not to expect to always get the best photos; they don't happen every day.

And in these frightening, heavy times I have been finding solace and a brighter outlook when I go out to scope for birds. While the world is uncertain and full of tragedy, watching a hawk gliding in the wind above reminds me of the goodness that is also here. And though they soar through the sky, I find bird watching to be incredibly grounding. I imagine anyone could benefit from a healthy diversion right now. And it doesn't require a big financial investment. Although I have yet to purchase a good pair of binoculars, I know they are available in a range of prices and a beginner probably doesn't need to buy the most high-end pair.

Recently I joined the Northern California birders group on Facebook. On the group page there are bird enthusiasts of all experience levels, many of whom are skilled photographers. I've been impressed by the laid back and friendly interactions I've had since joining. I posted a picture I took of a striking bird I knew nothing about and quickly learned from a handful of thoughtful and energized responses that the mystery bird was a starling. It turns out people have strong feelings about the starling, since it is considered a nuisance and is not native to California. The group is a good platform and resource for someone new to birding and the photography is striking and inspiring.

A couple months ago, I was walking in the oak forest below my parent's house when I locked eyes with a statuesque barred owl. I'd never seen such a massive bird sitting in a tree, nor had I ever seen an owl of any kind in broad daylight. I stared in awe. After 10 minutes or so, it flew off, its enormous wingspan fanning out like a giant wave goodbye. When I told my parents about my special sighting, they said they had been hearing the owl's hoots at night and were pretty sure there were two of them. In a move that would have embarrassed me as a child, my mother went out hooting the following evening and sure enough, there were two of them.

Months have passed and I've kept at it, looking for birds with or without my camera in hand. As spring turned to summer, I was home more than usual, embracing the opportunity quarantine gave me to reconnect with nature. When our cherry tree filled up with fruit in June, many birds came foraging for a taste. This gave me the chance to see and learn more about these other winged creatures. There were Steller's jays, robins, northern flickers, American kestrels, juncos, grosbeaks and the ever-opportunistic ravens.

I walked carefully to the tree, camera in hand, ready to zoom into their worlds. If our cherry tree were of a regular small one, one might think I'd want to chase the birds away. However, our tree, planted by my grandfather 40 years ago, is enormous, with plenty of cherries to share with birds big and small. So, as they foraged it was an ideal time for me to observe them and snap more photos.

Watching this sweet group of songbirds got me thinking how much there is to get to know about the lives of birds. Fortunately it doesn't seem like I'll run out of opportunities in our beautiful woodland community.

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About The Author

Caitlin Parson

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