An open letter from a Park Desert

It was a warm and sunny weekend in the Midwest. Having moved to Champaign mid-February, I had anticipated being cooped up indoors for awhile. So when thoughtful Global Climate Change gifted us with a high of 70 this Saturday, I jumped at the chance to get outside. A bit of internet research led me to a disappointing conclusion. I had two options for a Saturday Afternoon Adventure here in central Illinois.

One option was to stroll the abundant, cute little city parks. These parks are refreshing, breaking up the urban landscape with freckles of green. But their recreational potential is really limited to (a) exercising your Yorkie or iguana (b) swinging on swings (not complaining) or (c) admiring the lovely sculptures (again, not complaining; I rode a bronze horse the other day, and it was delightful). Not exactly worthy of busting out my binocular harness.

I chose the second option, which was to take a drive to one of the handful of state parks that form an unfortunately girthy halo around Chambana. At just under an hour’s drive, the closest was Moraine View State Park. The pictures I saw online… well… they didn’t thrill me. The park’s website left a lot to be desired, too. The impression I got from the internet would ultimately echo my feelings about the park itself.

Sure, it was a place to roam. I saw a couple interesting birds and some pleasant scenery. But there were no oak savannas, no mighty mighty river, no wet prairies. There were no trails longer than a mile. In fact, there were no trailheads or maps to help us find the three sad trails that did exist; we drove around for quite awhile before finally spotting a decrepit wooden post marked “nature trail.” That description was a bit inflated, to say the least.

Moraine View State Park lake

Bright colors and cheery atmosphere brought to you by Instagram.

Without getting too melancholy, I’ll just say that I felt a pretty profound homesickness yesterday. What’s that phrase that you always hear, regarding divorce? “I’ve grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle…” Some of my fondest memories of my time in Toledo are from weekend jaunts at Oak Openings Preserve or Maumee Bay State Park or Wildwood or some other lush oasis of green. I could hop on my bike or in my car, and within minutes, be lost among towering oaks or cactus-dotted sand dunes.

You’ve heard of Food Deserts, I’m sure. While not quite so grave, there’s another kind of desert that exists in our society: the Park Desert. And after many years in a metropolis blessed with a truly world-class park district, it is truly, deeply saddening to find myself living in one.

So this Letter from a Park Desert is my humble request of the people of the greater Toledo area, and of anyone who lives in a region with similarly amazing parks:

Please, please don’t take your green space for granted.

Especially for those who have lived in Toledo for years, it’s all too easy to grow accustomed to that “certain lifestyle,” to forget (or not even realize at all) that there are places out there without parks like yours. It’s easy for an after-work jog at Swan Creek or a weekend hike at Oak Openings to become so second-nature that you don’t even consider what it would be like to not have places like these.

(If you couldn’t see it coming: I am now going to climb up on my soapbox for a minute.)

Just as it’s easy to take these parks for granted, it’s easy to take their creation, their upkeep, their quality for granted. When I tell people that my new job involves writing copy for exhibits in museums and zoos and the like, the most common response I get is this: “Oh! I never actually thought about how there has to be someone who does that.” It makes sense. Grow accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and you don’t stop to think about how it got to be that way, who made it, for what reasons.

But parks don’t just appear. (Obviously – or I wouldn’t be here bemoaning Park Deserts.) Parks don’t clean themselves up, they don’t mark their own trails, they don’t give potential visitors information to attract them there. Parks don’t select their own rare and interesting wildlife out of a mail-order catalog. Parks don’t have the ability to maintain their own unique and beautiful habitats (thanks largely to our handiwork as humans).

Parks are the work of nature, sure. But they’re also the work of people. Of very learned, very dedicated, very professional people. People who work diligently, tirelessly, and nearly always thanklessly, behind the scenes to make those parks as wonderful as they are. People who have to make important decisions that will result in their parks either flourishing or fading.

So here’s the corollary to my first request that you don’t take your parks for granted:

Trust in the people who make these decisions.

They are in their respective positions for a reason. They did not walk in off the street, I can assure you. They know what they’re doing. And, perhaps more importantly, they care. They care deeply. They want, ultimately, one thing: they want for you to not have to live in a Park Desert.

So if those people believe that the deer herd must be thinned, carefully and safely, to keep your park beautiful and wild and healthy? Trust them.

If they believe that a marketing campaign will improve user experience, solve costly customer service issues, and attract more visitors and residents (and their money) to your city? Trust them.

If they feel that in order to keep one of these learned professionals – these people who care deeply about their parks and the health and happiness of the public – around and dedicated to their agency, they need to offer him or her a higher salary? Trust them.

These are the people who have offered up the incredible banquet of green (and red and orange and indigo and sienna and brilliant yellow and deep brown…) you find spread before you, yours to enjoy. They’ve kept you out of the Park Desert, and they will continue to do so, if you let them – if you trust them, if you support them and the decisions they make. As a new resident of a Park Desert, trust me when I say you’ll be glad you did.

 

#humblebrag: I’m a Writer (capital W)

Good evening, readers! I wanted to take a moment to apologize for my recent absence from bloglife.

Actually, that’s a stiffly-built formality if ever I wrote one. I really just want to #humblebrag. (I only feel comfortable using this word since it recently appeared as my Word of the Day.)

I’ve been busy of late. After a lovely holidaytime with my family, I jumped into my car and raced off to dazzling Rantoul, IL for an interview with Taylor Studios, Inc., an interpretive design firm.

greeings from rantoul.jpg

Home of 12,000 people, three Mexican restaurants, a healthy population of old-timey fighter pilot ghosts, and one killer interpretive design firm.

The interview must have gone well, because I was offered a position as Interpretive Planner. If you have no idea what the terms “interpretive design firm,” “interpretive planner,” or “fighter pilot ghosts” could possibly mean, you’re not alone. I’ll cast some light on these very vague, millennial-sounding job words in a forthcoming post. (Well, the fighter pilot ghosts are exactly what they sound like.)

For now, I’ll just say that I’ll be doing a lot of writing. And that makes me incredibly happy.

I’ve loved words as long as I can remember. Collecting them like stones, sorting them by color and feel. Stringing them together in different patterns, testing each prototype on paper or in speech, feeling the effects of that particular combination. The only sport I played in school was Power of the Pen; I’ve gone through notebooks like toilet paper.

So when I was offered this position – working with the same concepts I knew and loved from my prior work as an interpreter and programmer, but using the vehicle of writing more than speech, as a part of a small and passionate company that creates incredible products and experiences – I couldn’t be happier.

That is, until last week, when the editor of Adventure Kayak magazine told me that she’d like to publish my last blog post in their next issue as an op. ed. piece. The new job was like a slowly growing campfire: a rising, glowing, hard-earned satisfaction. This? Well, this was a firecracker – one that went straight to my head.

All this #humblebragging to say that I’m very grateful. I’ve worked very hard in my life, particularly in the last year or so, to get to this point. To the point of calling myself a Writer, capital W. And it feels awesome to finally be here.

This time last year, I was flailing, not knowing what I wanted to do or why. I was, by and large, working for my paycheck. Sure, I was invested in my agency, and its mission, and I enjoyed what I did. But my work seldom brought me joy. It rarely got me passionate. I never felt challenged. Perhaps more importantly, I felt resentful toward the people in my life who were so committed to and enamored of their careers that they felt deeply and personally fulfilled by them.

So I guess I’ll try to bring this around to some sort of moral, try to infuse this wholly self-indulgent post with some sort of redemptive message. If you’ve ever been jealous of someone who is totally, sickly in love with their career…

Harness that emotion. Put it to work for you. Tell yourself “I want that,” and take steps toward getting it. Think about what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about, what you love. Figure out how to make it your life’s work. Write down some goddamn action items, the whole nine yards.

And make it happen.

Because when I was asked offhandedly the other day what I did for a living, and I simply said “I’m a Writer,” the feeling was worth the work.

You may not need education, but I wouldn’t kayak without it

This is a response to Tim Shuff’s article We Don’t Need No Education: Credential Overproduction in the Kayaking World, which appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Adventure Kayak Magazine.

Full disclosure: I’m a millennial. I’m of the demographic Tim Shuff characterizes as “busy paying off the student loans for the PhDs on their Starbucks resumes.” I may not have a “Starbucks resume” (and isn’t entirely certain what that is) but I’m trying my hardest in a world where the generational divide can seem downright cavernous. And over the past year or so, I’ve become a kayaker. I’m writing this not to argue, but simply to share my viewpoint. Still reading? Good on you for your willingness to listen to a millennial!

Shuff makes a lot of excellent points, and his overall message (as I understand it) is valid. Kayakers, especially those new to the community, get bogged down by all the training and certification hoops they’re asked to jump through. The wall of intimidating acronyms (ACA, IDW, IT, SEIC, and on) is large and stands prominently in the newcomer’s path down to the water.

Veterans of the sport understand that it’s not the only path. That there’s another route to becoming a kayaker: the “caveman” route. The figure-it-out-as-you-go route. The option to quietly side-step officiality and simply trot down to the surf. So why don’t we millennials take this simpler, nobler path?

The thicket of acronyms is so unavoidable that newcomers might not even see that other route. Maybe that thought has genuinely never occurred to them. Or maybe it has. Maybe they know that the “caveman” route exists. But here’s the thing: that path isn’t free of barriers, either. It comprises lots of obstacles that exist in the lives of us youngsters. There are emotional barriers. There are social barriers. There are financial barriers. We didn’t choose to put those hurdles there, but there they are.

Let’s address the helicopter in the room. Yes, I am one of the earlier products of “helicopter parenting.” My parents were concerned for my safety, and wanted me to know that they were proud of me. And yes, I’m now rather insecure. I’m anxious, I’m timid, I’m nervous. I don’t blame my parents; I had a great childhood and I love the person I’m growing to be. Being helicoptered made me sensitive, thoughtful, and honest. It also made me too terrified to buy a boat, drag it down to Lake Erie, and hop in. What may sound like an adventure to some sounds like a cold and watery grave to this helicoptee. Blame my upbringing, blame my generation, blame whatever you want – still, I could never do it.

Certifications give me something I value above thrill: peace of mind. They give me confidence in my ability to be safe, to live to paddle another day. The confidence they afford me allows me to actually relax and have fun while paddling, rather than worry with each stroke. At the end of the class, the instructor gives me the pat on the back that I need to feel secure. If it weren’t for a class, an instructor, a credential, I’d never have the gumption to get out on the water. Credentials empower the Meek of Heart to conquer the intimidating emotional barrier to paddling.

Classes help with the social barrier, too. You may be thinking that I don’t need an acronymed instructor for that – I should just go out and find some kayaking buddies! Well, maybe that’s feasible in mystical places like The West Coast, where there’s a kayak shop on every corner and paddlers on every pond. I live in Toledo, Ohio. There’s a paddling shop an hour away. There’s one small livery just out of town, but they offer no instruction. There is a relatively new kayaking club, which is a haven and a blessing.

I wouldn’t have found that club, though, if it weren’t for my ACA class. The class was a gateway to meeting the very few fellow kayakers in my area. And given what I’ve already told you about being helicoptered, you can probably guess that I’d prefer not to paddle alone. For people who live in places like I do, the social barrier is a real obstacle to paddling. It’s classes and instructors that welcome us into the sport with open arms.

But even if I could find paddling buds on my own, I’d still be up a creek without… well, you know. When Shuff said that my ilk are busy paying off student loans, he was absolutely right. I was ushered directly off the high school graduation stage and into an expensive 4-year program at a big, impressive (and credentialed!) university. I graduated with a little over $33,000 of debt. I make about $23,000 per year. I live in one of the most affordable cities in the nation, and my monthly bills total about $1000 (that’s with minimum payments). All told, if I want to make meaningful progress toward getting out of debt, there’s not much left over for buying ‘yaks.

So I’m left looking for a boat to borrow. The most economical option is to rent from a livery, but as we already discussed, there’s only one in the area (and that one stretch of river will get old pretty quick), and I’m nervous to just head out on my own. Once again, credentials are my answer. I can go out with a certified instructor for a fraction of the cost of buying my own gear. I can take an ACA class, which is a bit more expensive, but still within my means, and ultimately empowers me to explore other options. Of course I want to buy my own gear someday. But for now, these options are the only ones that make financial sense to this debt-saddled millennial.

So yes, there are two routes to the water: taking the path through the certification jungle, or hurdling the emotional, social, and financial barriers that exist in the lives of people my age. So what’s a girl to choose? Sure, the certification route is time-consuming and bureaucratic and not right for everyone. But the other obstacles can be bigger, badder, and real-er. Certification isn’t the only way, but for some, it might be the best way.

Should we be admonished by the elders of the sport for choosing the route that makes the most sense for us? I think not. After all, no matter what route we take, we’re getting ourselves down to the water. Whether it’s the fast and furious dash of Shuff’s generation, or the slow, methodical crawl of mine – new people are paddling. Isn’t that what we all want?

The best-laid plans…

…I can’t even finish this lead-in. Sigh. Another plan going where best-laid plans go.

The first day of a New Year glows with the best of intentions. Sometimes we state them very clearly, as Measurable Objectives. We craft intricate plans, with bullet points and spreadsheets. Other times, the intentions are fuzzier around the edges, more like Goals than Objectives. (Is it at all obvious that I’ve been writing lesson plans all week?)

Whatever the flavor of plan, it will most likely fail. The statistics, as usual, do not lie. I could quote some here, but you already know the punch line. The overwhelming majority of New Year’s Resolutions fail. And then how do we feel? Awful.

I’m no exception. I made pretty lofty plans for 2015! Plans for a new job. Plans for learning my kayak roll. Plans for a relationship I treasured. They were great plans, and the idea of their fulfillment made me very happy, and so I became attached to them.

Turns out that those plans weren’t so attached to me, though. One by one, they were swatted from my grip by the great cosmic hands of the universe, or whatever. And as most people are when their plans are dismantled, I was left feeling frustrated, heartbroken, disappointed – in short, 50 shades of not great.

So what, then, should be my resolution for this fresh and glorious new year? After the spectacular failure of my plans for 2015, one might think that it would be to never make another plan again. But should it?

A certain quote from CS Lewis brought me comfort in many times made dark by the Great De-Planning of 2015. Lewis said:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Love is really just a different species of plan, I think. To make a plan is to be vulnerable. To make a plan is to create an opportunity to fail at that plan. And that failure could bring guilt, despair, and any of the other 48 shades of not great.

Plans are like love in that way. They’re also like love in that we can’t simply stop making plans just because we know that they might not work out. What would we ever accomplish? From the tiniest plan to feed your cats, to the hugest plan of starting a family, we must have goals. We need some greater vision to move toward, even if the movements are a little disjointed and clumsy.

The problem comes when we become attached to our plans. Sometimes we allow our plans and our visions of achieving them to become an integral part of our happiness. When we cling so tightly to our plans that they become part of our identity, that’s when we’re totally devastated by their failure.

So this year, I’ve decided to do something simple but important: to just approach the year with a sort of nonchalant warmness. I’ve decided to have a goal, but to not attempt to plan out every little strategic move toward that goal. And I definitely won’t be getting attached to any theorized means to my end.

I want to make 2016 the Year of Me. I’m going to build my own identity – one that doesn’t rely upon having a fancy new job, or living in a hip new city, or performing feats of athleticism, or even having a romantic partner. I’m going to just be me, moving toward a goal of self-love and general happiness, no matter what path I end up taking to get there.

I’ll admit that I had big plans for today. Map out my workout plan! Apply for the latest awesome job I found! Finish editing the first episode of Yet Unnamed Podcast! All of these plans represented things that are important to me and my wellness and my betterment. All of these plans were Objectives to support my Goal, my commitment to making 2016 the Year of Me. These plans were laid well.

But when push came to shove, I realized that today just wasn’t a day for plans. At least, not those plans.

I realized that today, what I actually needed was to watch a lot of Parenthood. I needed to eat a lot of Christmas cookies. I needed to take a nap with my cat. I needed to make my bed purely so that I could lie down in it and watch more Parenthood. I needed to attempt to make a really nice dinner, fail miserably, then have a protein bar and a glass of V8 and call it a balanced meal. Oh yeah, that happened in my bed, too. Deep, deep into Parenthood.

parenthood

Season 6 is on Netflix. Haddie’s finally a lesbian. Can you really blame me?

Am I incredibly proud of the noble contributions to humankind I made today? No. But do I feel totally awful? No.

And because I didn’t feel awful when my little Objectives for the day ended up falling through, I know that I still worked toward my Goal. I didn’t become so attached to my To-Do List that I feel woefully incompetent for not crushing it. I still took steps toward happiness, even if they weren’t the steps I’d planned on.

I feel like this is the place for a nice, shiny, pull-it-all-together concluding statement. But not right now. I have some more Parenthood to watch.

 

A birder photobombs a portrait of a lake

Hey, it’s me! Your favorite lady who likes to pretend she has any sort of authority on subjects including love, birding, and fashion advice.

Birding Magee Marsh at the Biggest Week in American Birding, May 2014. Image by Lynn Whitney.

You mean nobody’s ever told you that ladies dig fanny packs, zip-off shorts, oversized t-shirts, and rubber shoes? Good thing I’m here.

I’ve been gone awhile, but I’m happy to be back. One of the reasons I returned to this blog is because I’ve got a couple of new projects in the works, and I’m excited to share them here in the not-so-distant future. You can read a few more elusive hints on my The Birder and The Blog pages. But for now, we’ll just get right back to business.

I wanted to share this photo with you. Not because I’m just bursting to unveil my high fashion to the world, or because I’m particularly proud of my scrawny chicken legs. It’s because it’s a wonderful photo, taken by a wonderful photographer named Lynn Whitney.

It was May 15th, 2015. I was out and about at the annual Biggest Week in American Birding festival, and I was just returning from a walk along the Estuary Trail at Magee Marsh. I remember that it was overcast, a bit breezy. The beach was being enjoyed by birders and non-birders (or birders disguised as non-birders) alike. I was deep in thought, but my eye was caught by a woman taking photographs with some sort of cartoonishly oversized old-timey camera out of the 1920’s.

As I approached, eyeballing ye olde camera with mild curiosity, I didn’t realize that the photographer was eyeballing me in return. In particular, I later learned, she was drawn by my two bird tattoos – a Northern cardinal just above my left knee, and a cedar waxwing on my left ankle. The woman asked whether she could photograph me and my ornithological adornments, and I obliged.

Unlike an iPhone, a vintage 8×10 camera requires a certain amount of attention to get from “I would like to photograph this thing” to “now I have a photograph of this thing,” and so the photographer introduced herself as Lynn Whitney and we got to talking.

It turns out that I wasn’t the first beach-walker she had captured in her lens. In fact, she was working on an entire photo series to share the images and stories of Lake Erie and the people who love her. (That’s me, anthropomorphizing a lake as a female, by the way, not Lynn. What can I say? I’m a sea captain at heart.) I was moved by the way she was moved by the incredible variety of people who could be found engaging with Lake Erie in any number of different ways. After the agonizing amount of time I was instructed to look thataway and hold still while the camera did its thing, as we prepared to part ways, she said to me:

“I just love what happens to people here. Makes me feel like the world is okay for a minute.”

Lynn’s currently working on a website to showcase this project; I’ll link to it here when it’s up and running. Until then, you can read more about her and her photography here or here. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you back here soon.

 

“I’ve been doing this for years”

Last week, I went on a lovely little birding jaunt with the Toledo Naturalists’ Association. We walked around Swan Creek Metropark just before sunset; sadly, I had to depart before I was able to observe the remarkable feats of the woodcocks that mate there. The woods was alive with all of my favorite springtime singers, and it wasn’t too awfully cold.

In the group was a fellow named Nate who seemed to be an experienced and enthusiastic birder. He spotted lots of birds for us, identified many by ear, and was excited about the upcoming North Coast Open, a local birding competition. I listened intently as he related a story of a very cooperative woodcock following his family along their walk, 6 or 7 years ago.

The remarkable thing about this was that Nate was only about 13 years old.

I have an immense respect for not only Nate, but any young person with a passion and a drive to follow that passion wherever it leads them. Think about it: if Nate is 13 and remembers identifying a bird 6 or 7 years ago, it means he’s been birding for half his life. I know several older formidable birders who can’t make that claim! This passion will follow him throughout his formative years and adulthood, molding a passionate naturalist and advocate for nature. With the alarming prevalence of “NDD” and kids who have never seen a chipmunk, it’s these young nature-lovers who bear the weight of hope for the future of our planet.

So my hat’s off to all the young whippersnappers out there who nurture an intense love of anything – especially nature. It’s something I never experienced as a child, and I have really struggled to come into my own and find hobbies and passions as a young adult. Any youngster with the passion and motivation to pursue a hobby, a sport, or anything else long enough to say “I’ve been doing this for years” has my admiration.

They’re always there.

Good morning, people reading!

I hesitate to use the word “readers” because I realize that I haven’t exactly been doing my duty in producing enough readables to keep readers reading. But hopefully there are still a couple of you out there, bearing with me, or at least being pre-programmed to do so thanks to the magic of subscriptions.

Life ebbs and flows, falls and rises, sometimes seeming to follow the pull of the tides themselves. We spend periods of time creating, and then sometimes spend periods of time digesting things that others have created. I’ve been in such a “digestive” period of late: reading, watching, observing.

Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I could also blame my absence on Kimmy Schmidt. But I’ll stick with the more noble explanation.

As the tides changed, I remembered that I started this blog for a reason, and that it simply won’t do to just abandon it. I paid for the domain name, after all, and I gotta get my money’s worth! So here I am again. Not much has changed… say, wait, did you rearrange the couches? Huh.

Despite what yesterday’s snow may have you thinking and have me cursing silently under my breath… spring is upon us! Every day, a new voice joins the chorus: the titmice, the cedar waxwings, the blackbirds. The chorale is slowly but surely reassembling, its sopranos and its tenors making their ways back whence they were scattered to the four winds. What a joyous noise they make!

Last weekend I had a great experience at Toledo Rowing Club’s “Rowing Fitness plus Yoga” program – led by none other than my partner Kristina, who kicked my butt from here to Biggest Week in the best way possible. (Revelation: I am not by any means fit.) The workout was good, and the proceeding yoga was an excellent follow-up. Our wonderful yogi Sandy was playing some typical dreamy, soothing yogalicious music as we moved through some great stretches and flows.

Toward the end of the practice, at a quiet moment, it seemed that all of us at once heard that beautiful, beautiful birdsong drifting in from outside the building. It was a gray, drizzly, chilly morning, but the birds were there, just like they always are. They had a job to do, and they weren’t about to quit for any freezing rain, no sir.

I drank in that tinkling, twinkling song, and so did my fellow yogers. Sandy turned down the volume on her music so that we could hear the birds even more clearly. There’s nothing like the sound of nature, the sound of beautiful, delicate beings returning after a winter apart, to help clear the mind and ground the body. It was the perfect accompaniment to our yoga flow.

Despite my efforts of meditation, the thought drifted quietly across my consciousness: I should write a blog post. I’ve been away for awhile, but what does it matter? I can always come back, just like those sweet songsters. No matter how long they’ve been away, they’re there again – they’re always there.

Carry this thought with you today, readers, as you travel your path. No matter how long you’ve been away from something – be it blogging, birding, banjo-ing, or anything else – you can always return. You can always choose to be there.

Carpe Birdem: Now is the time to start birding!

Apart from the occasional whistle of wind, the world was rather quiet last weekend. Winter Storm Linus draped the Midwest in what seemed to be a soundproof blanket of snow. The few times I poked my head out into the whiteout, I heard no cars, no squirrel chatter, no gossipy dog-walkers, and no birds. No cardinal chips, no woodpecker drumbeats, no chickadee dee dee dees. The oppressive snow had muted them all.

Had I been listening two years ago, I surely would not have noticed this absence. At that time I scarcely gave birds much thought at all. When I began working as an interpreter with Metroparks in 2013, I learned some cool facts about local species, and grew comfortable sharing them at programs. Even then, it took me quite some time before I felt comfortable calling myself a “birder.”

Bridging the gap between “birds are kinda neat” and “my name is Lauren and I am a birder” wasn’t easy. I worried that a simple interest in birds, in observing them and trying to identify them, just wasn’t enough. I met a lot of amazing, serious birders through Metroparks. How could I, a total neophyte, count myself among these ornithological heroes?

I’m here to tell you that bridging that gap isn’t so scary. All you need to start using that particular “B-word” is an earnest interest in birds, a little time, and a humble willingness to learn. In fact, if you’ve always wanted to get into birding but weren’t sure how, there’s no better day to start than today! It may seem counter-intuitive, but winter is an excellent time to start your journey toward birderdom.

Study up

Take Linus, for example. What did you do when he rudely barricaded you inside your home? If you’re at all like me, you did a little housework, watched an embarrassing amount of Netflix, and caught up on some reading.  Snow days are perfect for delving into the expansive world of birdy entertainment! There’s nothing like snuggling up with a good book, and there are plenty that will whet your birding appetite.

If you’ve been intimidated by the huge variety of field guides out there, the library is a great place to shop around before investing! Read the introductory sections to learn some bird ID basics. Just flipping through the pages will familiarize you with taxonomic groupings, different mechanisms for bird ID, and how to best use field guides.

If you’re in a less “technical” mood, there are lots of great birdy memoirs and essay collections out there. If you can’t make it to the library, no problem! There are plenty of excellent articles, websites, and videos to explore online. See my Recommended Reading list at the end of this post!

The power of observation

One of the first lessons I learned on my Quest for Birderdom was that field guides are really helpful… and really #*^&ing heavy. I used to take my field guide everywhere, until I found myself in the middle of the Maumee River with binoculars in one hand and book in the other. One of them was bound to end up swimming, and the guide didn’t have a neck strap.

It’s far better to bring a notebook and pencil, take detailed notes, and later consult your ID tools at home. Not only will this spare your expensive field guide a watery grave, but it will force you to really, really look at birds. You’ll become more intimately familiar with field marks, size and shape, and behaviors. What better time than winter to start working on those note-taking skills?

Invest in a birdfeeder and you’ll observe a diverse crowd of thankful birds – without getting out of your PJs! Of course, birds are perfectly capable of enduring the winter on their own, but they always seem thankful for the extra help. Hang an inexpensive suet feeder from a branch or shepherd’s crook, strategically move your couch to a window with a view, grab a notebook and pencil, and start practicing your note-taking.

If your front door isn’t frozen shut, many parks have great viewing areas to explore. Cozy observation rooms look out onto collections of birdfeeders and water features and attract a diverse crowd of birds. As a bonus, many local birding groups utilize these spaces for regular birding “sits.” If you want to start making connections with other birders, these are the places to do so!

Get to know your “regulars”

Winter is a great time to get to know your locals. Everybody loves to glimpse a rarity, but studying the most common birds in your area is the best way to build a solid foundation of birding skills. After you’ve logged a couple pages of observations, you’ll notice that certain species can always be counted on to appear. Focus your observations on these species, until you feel like every tufted titmouse (or your equivalent) you see is an old friend.

Getting to know the birds that call your backyard “home” is excellent preparation for a very exciting event: the Great Backyard Bird Count! This annual birdwatching event gathers Citizen Science data from around the world. This year’s event runs from February 13th to 16th, and the birds need YOU to participate! All you have to do is observe your backyard birds for 15 minutes, submit your observations online, and… that’s it! Visit birdcount.org to get all the details.

Even when the weather outside is frightful, opportunities abound to start practicing your birding. Books, online resources, backyard birdfeeders, and indoor viewing areas are all great ways to get your feet wet – without getting them cold. If you take time now to learn some fundamental birding skills and strategies, you’ll be ready to hit the boardwalk running when spring migration arrives… and maybe to start using that “b-word” too!

A bird field guide, pencils, binoculars - winter birding materials.

Camped out at an indoor viewing window with all the birding necessities: field guide, pencils and eraser, notebook, and binoculars.

Recommended reading and watching:

One bird, two bird, three b– wait, is that Bird One again?

I’ve always taken notes while birding. These started as personal asides (my blog’s title should betray my tendency to inject romanticism into all), only recording species if they were surprising. I reported peculiarities to eBird, because I thought that’s what eBird was looking for. As a bonus, curiosities are usually easy to count: One. Boom.

But this isn’t the most valuable data. Birds face a grave opponent in climate change, and researchers need to know where species as wholes are found. Vagrant individuals travel heroic distances; while awesome to behold, they generally don’t indicate trends applicable to their entire species. They’re usually outliers, in the most basic statistical sense of the term. It’s the “Usual Suspects,” in all their abundant glory, who betray larger geographical and temporal shifts.

After this concept “clicked” in my bird brain, I began taking more detailed, quantitative notes, trying to record every species. I report lists to eBird as often as I can, and I’d love to do so more. There’s just one thing standing in my way. When I’m dealing with a common species, seen by the dozens, maybe even hundreds, over one birding session…

How the heck am I supposed to actually count these things?

Last week I had a great sit at an indoor viewing area, where I was treated to a huge turnout. I jotted a list of species I saw, and began frantically making hash marks. Initially, I had a system. I’d start with the first species on my list, tally the individuals I could see at that moment, then move to the next species and tally; when I got to the end of the list, I’d return to the first species and start again, adding to the previous tally. Repeat ad nauseam. (Literally. This sometimes makes me nauseous.)

As you may have guessed, this system rapidly collapsed. I was counting cardinals when — Oh! Is that a red-winged blackbird? He’s not on my list yet! Let me write him down… okay… where was I? Cardinals? Or was it titmice? Now who did I count already? Sit still! Were you there the last time I counted, or are you new? Did I skip goldfinches this round? Let me go back to — Oh, wow, a white-throated sparrow! Great, got him. Okay, hang on, did I see you already?

I was left with a list of species and some idea of their relative abundances. I have no idea just how accurate my crazed tallies are. How am I to know if each individual is a new arrival, or has already been tallied? What of those who land, depart, then return some time later? More importantly, does it matter? Does eBird have a resident Dark Wizard of Statistics who recites a mathematical incantation and makes all these inaccuracies smooth themselves over?

A historical depiction of either witchcraft or eBird birding statistics

I’ve never actually taken a statistics class, but this is how I imagine them.

We all know that birds don’t comply with our silly requests, and they seem to hate being counted for some reason. I really want to contribute meaningful data to eBird. So riddle me this: how can I get the most accurate abundance data I can, being only one human with one pencil and two eyeballs?

That wasn’t a rhetorical question, reader. I would like YOUR best tips and tricks, schemes and strategies, and methods to manage the madness of overwhelmingly numerous flocks. How do YOU do it? Please share your advice in the comments. In a way, given the immeasurable value of Citizen Science data… the future of our birds depends on it!

UPDATE! The good folks at eBird have published a couple of helpful articles on the art of counting birds – check them out! They mostly detail strategies to count large flocks on the move. The techniques described are great, but they weren’t extremely helpful regarding the feeder situation I described above. I’ve emailed eBird suggesting that they expand the series to include feeder strategies.

Just a coupla’ updates!

Hello blogland! I’ve got a post a-cookin’, but I just wanted to briefly share a couple of exciting updates.

Firstly, you may notice that Love and Birding is all growed up and has its very own domain space! You can now find me at loveandbirding.com, instead of the dreadfully long-winded loveandbirding.wordpress.com. Oooh! Aaah!

Secondly, the tweeters are a-tweeting. I’m now on Twitter as @loveandbirding. Check that out! Kabam!

And finally, a dear friend of mine just informed me that Legacy, the magazine for the National Association for Interpretation, has just mailed out its January/February issue. If you should happen to receive this publication, you may or may not notice that one of the feature stories was penned by yours truly! I am very excited to have had this opportunity; it’s what rekindled my interest in writing and ultimately led to the birth of this blog. If you are a NAI member, be sure to check it out! If not, tough cookies.

That’s all for now! Look for a new post in the not-so-distant future.