People of all ages are flocking to the secret world of birdwatching
by Nicole Rivard
Lauren Höbler, 28, and her wife often spend their weekends on day-long hikes birdwatching.
It was on a day they didn’t intend to look for birds that they experienced the most electrifying discovery of their lives.
During a morning walk along the shore of Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont they found themselves looking straight into the eyes of a snowy owl.
“It suddenly got up and glided across the lake. It was honestly one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen,” Höbler recalled. “Something spiritual happens when you get to see how graceful these creatures are— you feel this connection. It was a very powerful moment with a species that is very rare to see in the wild.”
That heart-pumping adrenaline rush from such a discovery is what Höbler thinks would surprise people the most about birdwatching.
It is this hobby’s best kept secret.
Birdwatching has long been thought of as a low-impact activity for an older, retired set, and a geeky hobby, not a thrilling pastime that teens, millennials and forty-somethings now seem to be flocking to.
“People think of it as a very passive activity, but it’s actually quite the opposite,” Höbler explained. “You have to have very keen vision and be attuned to the sounds around you. You have to be so patient, but it’s not a slow patience. It’s an adrenalin-filled patience because when you see the bird, all your senses are activated.”
She compares birdwatching to learning a new language. When you gain those new skills, your world kind of just opens up, she said.
“It’s this secret world unto itself,” said Elisa Yang, 18, who started the California Young Birders Club in 2014. “Until you enter it, there’s no way to predict the vast collection of jargon, characters or quips that make it special.”
What is luring the younger set— some prefer to be called birders versus birdwatchers—to a hobby that “old timers” have always known is exhilarating is online social networks such as BirdFellow, databases and apps that keep track of birders’ checklists and rank users against each other.
One popular platform is eBird. “I think everyone, regardless of age, realizes the revolutionary momentum these new programs offer,” Yang said.
Milan Bull, 69, the Connecticut Audubon Society’s senior director of science and conservation, certainly does.
He’s blown away by young people he’s met like Jory Teltser, a high school senior and president of the Connecticut Young Birders Club, who is largely self-taught and can identify hundreds of species by sight and sound.
“The Jorys in this world are the young guns of the birding community—passionate, smart, driven and simply sponges for all info about birds,” Bull said.
Teltser starting birdwatching in 2010 and his “spark” bird—the one who hooked him—was a Northern saw-whet owl.
“Each bird has its own character and personality, and each species is inherently fascinating in its own way,” Teltser said, explaining why he spends so much time thinking about and going birding.
“Birds undergo some of the most mind blowing feats of nature known, whether it’s the Arctic tern’s migration (flying upwards of 1.5 million miles in a lifetime) or the nonstop migration of the rubythroated hummingbird over the Gulf of Mexico.”
Typically, millennials can be so immersed in their “screens” that they are alienated from the natural world; however, with birding, technology is helping them reconnect.
“Social media has forever changed birding culture. Birds have gained an increased exposure, and this has lead to the spreading of their appreciation, not to mention the increased support of wildlife and habitat conservation and preservation,” Teltser said.
Birdwatching is also helping young people establish bonds with human animals. Höbler, who just relocated to New York City from Boston, admits it can be hard to find community when you are new to an area.
“It’s a fine attunement—birdwatching. There’s a pace and a rhythm that you develop together while you are birdwatching,” she said.
“This feeling of connection that is transcending language—it’s what a lot of people are seeking. It’s more than the digital communication we so frequently have with one another. These moments in the flesh with nature, experiencing it with other people, it’s very powerful.”
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Urban birding has become so popular that Conde Nast Traveller magazine dubbed it one of the hottest trends of 2017. So, I decided I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about. In late August, I joined Bull for one of his bird walks at Deer Pond Farm in Sherman, Connecticut. I was fascinated by how quickly Bull, who’s been birding for some 64 years, could identify species just by their sound before he pointed his binoculars to the treetops and we followed suit.
Even though he didn’t need it, Bull demonstrated the Song Sleuth app—Shazam for birds.
Users open the app, push record, and allow the app to record the bird’s song, after which the users are presented with the three most probable birds who sing it.
Meandering along the trails, I found myself fully engaged, lured by the satisfaction of discovering another bird around each corner. We saw woodpeckers, flycatchers, tanagers, goldfinches and blue-grey gnatcatchers.
Being able to tell the difference felt like an accomplishment—like learning a new language as Höbler alluded to.
My biggest thrill came from seeing a beautiful red-shouldered hawk.
Seeing this “ambush” predator, known to drop rapidly onto prey, demonstrated that wild still exists. That’s heartening since most days I worry human overpopulation and development is causing it to disappear.
Apparently, I’m not alone.
ONE WITH NATURE
That desire to be stewards of wildness is also motivating young birders. After all, birdwatching has long been a tool to make politicians, conservation organizations and the public aware of things that need to be done to protect wildlife and habitats.
“In this increasingly technological world that we live in, people are finding that there’s something missing, and that something is nature,” said New Yorker and birder Pete Lengyel, 44.
“There is an urgency to get to know your local environment and the way that it’s changing,” added Höbler. “Birdwatching allows people to become involved in their local environment.”
Lengyel, a co-founder of the Kings County Brewers Collective in Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up in San Diego exploring what wild spaces were left. He craved more nature in his life when he moved to New York City.
After seeing the documentary “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” he started his own birding group, the Beerders. In the film, biomedical editor and birdwatcher Chris Cooper, 55, brilliantly distills down his ‘pleasures of birdwatching’ into a list of seven, Lengyel said.
“My top three are the beauty of the birds, the joy of being in a natural setting and the joy of the hunt, without the bloodshed.”
The film addresses the geeky stereotype of the birdwatcher.
“That is definitely the perception and certainly a barrier to entry into the hobby for some, but I find the rewards far outweigh any potential for ridicule from anyone who’s too cool to pick up some binoculars,” Lengyel said.
THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
Michael Audette, 70, who I met birdwatching in August, chuckled when he recalled not wanting to tell anyone he was birding. That was 15 years ago.
“When I first started birding with my wife it was to be a good husband— to go along and do something she liked,” Audette said. “Birding always struck me as not for ‘real’ men— certainly not if you were a ‘jock’ type, tough guy (which I thought I was).”
Today birdwatching is his pride and joy.
“That comes from the many things I have learned, not only about birds, but about so many other things I would never have come to know, if it weren’t for long walks in the woods or along the seashore,” Audette said.
The element of scientific discovery such as new observations about bird behavior, which is also on Cooper’s list, is why birdwatching transcends stereotypes and age.
Recently while visiting San Diego, where he had lived until he was 28, Lengyel identified hooded orioles, lesser goldfinches and blue grosbeaks.
“It was such a surprise to discover that all of these species were in my hometown and I’d never noticed them before,” he said. The delight of discovery is definitely what Yang enjoys the most.
“You never know what you are going to observe on any particular day, what kind of questions are going to be raised and which revelations you’ll come across,” she said. “Every day is more exciting than the last.”