Balanced Life magazine: Find the essence of bird-watching

This article appeared in the May 2005 issue of Balanced Life magazine:

BIRD-WATCHING: Find the essence

If a stranger walked through your yard, peered at you through a window and made funny sounds to attract your attention, you’d likely call the police.

Yet birds endure such attention every day. They’re the focus of the fastest-growing hobby in North America: bird-watching or birding. In the U.S., 51.3 million people report that they watch birds, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and more adopt this pastime every day.

That’s a lot of people trampling through woods, parks, and shorelines. Yet few leave any trace of their presence because bird-watching demands a deep respect for nature. To discover the essence of birds, one must feel attuned to their surroundings and wait with patience and stillness, absorbing their sounds and movements like an honorary guest. We can all grab binoculars, flip through a field guide, and check off a name on a list. However, to capture the true art of birding, one must find that quiet place within and surrender to what comes: the beauty of wing beats, a sweet song or a brilliant flash of colour.

Bird-watching is like meditation with open eyes; it requires concentration and a release of expectations. Maybe no birds will appear. Maybe a flock. Maybe a pair. Whatever nature brings is a gift. Such quiet readiness can provide wondrous contentment and a sense of spiritual connectedness.

“When we enter the world of nature in a spirit of openness, splendid experiences come to us unsought,” says Joseph Cornell, one of the world’s top nature educators, in his guidebook Sharing Nature with Children (Dawn Publications, 1979). “Receptivity, combined with our efforts to expand these blessings, clears a channel that enables us to receive still deeper inspirations.”

Such an approach eliminates the need to make species identification your primary goal in bird-watching, or to even take a camera. (As one wise observer said: “To name something is to lose its essence.”) You can begin at home, in your own backyard, with the help of a bird-feeder or bird-bath.

Beyond your home, most rural areas abound with birds, as do forests and wilderness. Bird-watching is a great addition to any walk or hike (see sidebar). Parks make good venues for spotting birds, either on water, land or in the air.

Even cities can offer prime bird-watching habitat. In Vancouver, Stanley Park makes a perfect locale for offshore birds, while Lost Lagoon remains home to many ducks. Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Park, Van Dusen Gardens, Jericho Beach marshes and Queen Elizabeth Park are all good viewing spots. (To find out other recommended areas, call the Vancouver Natural History Society’s Bird Alert at 604-737-3074.)

Bird sanctuaries or reserves make ideal viewing points; some have observation towers. Vancouver residents can enjoy the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in nearby Ladner or venture north of the city near Whistler to Brackendale, a 550-hectare eagle reserve that boasts the world record for bald eagles counted in one day: 3,766.

Bird-watching is a delightful activity to share with children. Afterwards, you can invite them to draw the birds they saw. Cornell’s book offers respectful ways to attract and observe birds, aimed at youngsters age four and up.

After a bird-watching session, you might be surprised how inspired and energized you feel. It’s exhilarating to spot a bird for the first time and share this with friends or family. The fresh air and rich smells of nature, whether it’s forest, marsh, or shoreline, will heighten your birding experience, adding sensory pleasure to your time outdoors.

Don’t be surprised if you also feel tired after you sit or stand without exertion. It takes effort to remain motionless and aware for long periods, training your eyes and ears to pick up sudden movement or sounds.

Enthusiasts who do seek bird identification can consult two excellent field guides: Sibley Guide to Birds, written and illustrated by David Allen Sibley (Knopf, 2000) and Field Guide to the Bird of North America, 4th edition (National Geographic, 2002).

For more information, check out the Internet. Two introductory sites, targeted to the U.S., are and

Whatever your venue, enjoy the journey of discovery into the world of birds. Remember: You don’t need a passport or permission — just bring silence and respect.

“Birding is a quest,” the website reminds us. “You set out to see birds – but the prize you may come back with can only be described as happiness. Learning to bird is like getting a lifetime ticket to the theatre of nature.”

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