Above we see Nick (visiting from Wales), Rebecca, and Guy on a morning stroll through a canyon in the Santa Barbara north county backcountry. If a passion can be described as patient and gentle despite its intensity, that's what these birdwatchers possess. The soundtrack is the crunching of feet on gravel, the song and chatter of birds, and comments such as these, interspersed with quiet wows:
"A falcon. Coming back around...."
"I didn't see any warm tones at all..."
"I could in the face, and then I just saw the tail…"
"The flight would say kestrel to me..."
It is amazing to me how much these folks observe in such a short distance, how much life and layering and richness they perceive, and how oblivious I am. They stop in their tracks every few steps and marvel at the wonders that abound. "There are all sorts of problems in the world," muses Guy at one point, "And then...there's this."
The list of birds they see becomes a kind of poem: Nuttall's woodpecker, Western bluebird, California thrasher, dark-eyed junco, purple finch, cedar waxwing, American kestrel, red-tailed hawk, Anna's hummingbird, canyon wren...just to name a few.
Pretty soon I have a kink in my neck from staring up into oak and sycamore trees trying to distinguish bird forms and movements by following descriptions of bumps on bark, angles of branches, and clusters of leaves, and still, to be honest, I don't always see:
In addition to visuals, the birders are impressively tuned in to sound. "I think I'm hearing hermit thrush," Rebecca might say suddenly.
Or, in this rare instance, she responds to a lovely descent of notes that even I recognized:
In fact, the auditory aspect of birding is Rebecca's special strength, and it has opened up a universe for her. "The sound part of it reveals what I know to be there; it layers it for me. I can perceive so much richness and diversity just by listening. To be honest, sometimes it’s difficult to be so tuned into sound because I can’t tune it out. It can be very distracting."
I ask her if the practice of birdwatching has rendered her more observant and patient with humans in her everyday life. "More than the act of birding," she replies, "what has caused me to be more focused and patient is working with students. Teaching. Because it's a really focused practice, describing and re-describing and re-describing things to maybe connect with somebody until they finally get it. And it's so very satisfying when they do. I get so much out of opening that door for them."
Rebecca was introduced to birdwatching by Fred Emerson, a respected local expert, but it was Guy, who is with us today, who became her mentor. Even now, the two will often notice a bird in the same moment and say its name together. It's fun to be out walking with people who are so comfortable with each other, so appreciative of the environment, and so exuberant about their activity.
"If you had asked me twenty years ago if this is what I would be doing, I wouldn't have believed it," Rebecca tells me, "but I have come to love it. This is my subject. And I've found my tribe."
In a few more paces, something else catches her attention. "Oh my God, how beautiful!" Obviously I am not seeing or hearing with the birders' degree of nuance, knowledge, and relish, but I am struck anew by the beauty of this canyon and its myriad miracles, quietly happening without us.
"Do you realize you've been in a place that doesn't exist?" Rebecca asks Nick as we walk back home. "You've landed in something that was."
Was but still is. Thank God. I feel humble and grateful, as ever.