Recently, I joined our state's chapter of the Audubon Society; and, in early February, I participated in my first bird watching event. Steam curled off my coffee as I made my way from the parking area to the meeting point. I was nervous.
First days are always a little nerve-wracking.
Would I be able to identify any birds? Since Christmas, I had studied my copy of National Geographic Birds of North America; and I had kept a close eye on the song birds visiting the feeders in my backyard; but I was certain I'd be the least experienced in the field that day. The small pack holding my stadium binoculars bumped against my hip. We were supposed to meet at a point just past the entrance to our city's historic cemetery. My 16-year-old son, a history buff, tagged along to enjoy the winter morning.
We spotted the group right away. Five birders clustered near a hedgerow. I touched my binocular case self-consciously.
"My field glasses are too small," I whispered to my son. The other birders wore expensive Eagle Optics or Nikons, secured to their chests by binocular harnesses.
"Don't worry," my son advised. "You'll still be able to spot some birds and have some fun."
I was doubtful. No one likes to feel like a novice.
We introduced ourselves and headed toward the underbrush.
"There," the leader, Bob, aimed his binoculars toward a few birds pecking at the ground near a fallen tree. "A dark-eyed junco," he said confidently. I unpacked my Bushnells, awkwardly balancing my half-empty coffee cup in one hand while holding my tiny binoculars in the other. I could barely make out the shape of the little bird; let alone the species. A dark-eyed junco? Could he really see the bird's eyes with those binoculars, I wondered. The other birders, in an attempt to make me feel like part of the group, gathered around me, pointing out various birds as we snaked our way around the cemetery.
Bob dutifully pulled a folded index card from his pocket and used a stubby golf pencil to record each species we identified...more than 16 total.
As we rounded the bend in the road near the duck pond, the group slowed to a stop.
"Did you just hear that red-tailed hawk?" one of the birders asked. Everyone was silent, straining to listen. A goose honked at us from the pond's edge. Even I recognized his message: "Move along people...nothing to see here." We never saw the hawk; but I made a mental note to listen to some bird calls. I had no idea I was supposed to be skilled in birding by ear as well as eye. I had work to do!
The group said it was a slow day; but I felt invigorated...inspired even. Later that afternoon, using my book as a guide, I spotted a dark-eyed junco, nibbling from the tray on the feeder outside my kitchen window. I didn't need to be close enough to see his bright, black eyes to recognize his plump gray body, pale beak, and white feathered belly.
I was not the best birder that day in February; but I was learning from some of the best. The fun of trying something new conquered the fear of not being good enough.
First days are nerve-wracking; but as day one slides into day two, then three, and suddenly ten...nervousness gives way to joy, fears fade as friendships are forged, skills are honed, and perhaps the red-tailed hawk sails overhead in plain sight, calling out encouragement.
"You've got this!" he shouts, tipping his wings as he circles overhead.