One of the great things about bad birdwatching is that you can be completely lazy and still do it. Birds, unlike say, badgers or snakes, are everywhere, out in the open, easy to spot. All you have to do is pay attention, and they’ll reward you with their everyday presence. And sometimes you can end up having remarkable encounters without even trying.
I already mentioned seeing my first pair of Black terns when I went birdwatching with a friend the other day. Thing is, we weren’t trying very hard. We had expected to see only familiar species and were yakkin’ away about something completely different when they appeared, like magic, right in front of our noses, flying over the irrigation ditches in the polder, diving on occasion to catch a tasty morsel. Stunning birds, they were. And because we were ostensible bird watching, we had our binoculars with us and could watch them as they flew towards the horizon. But at times they were so close that the bins were completely unnecessary.
Today, walking home with my sister and nephew through one of the most exclusive shopping streets in town (a convenient shortcut… not someplace I was shopping myself), a fluttering movement just above the streetlights caught my eye. My first thought was “bat” but it was still full daylight. I turned to get a better look and was amazed to see a Swift swoop over the street and up under the roof of a building. I’ve seen lots of Swifts from a distance, and their eerie cries on the wind are a true sign of summer in this part of the world. But I’ve never been blessed to see one so close, squatting in some of Amsterdam’s most pricey real estate. Truly amazing.
But the most remarkable close encounter I’ve had lately was with a bird I see from close range on a daily basis: the Jackdaw. There are hordes of these birds – the smallest member of the crow family – in my neighborhood, and they’re quite confiding. They hang out in large groups on all of the grassy patches in the area, and at dusk, perch and noisily rearrange themselves around the trees on the far side of the square from where I live, making their high-pitched “Kaw Kaw” sounds. They’re not afraid of humans and watch you with their seemingly knowing gaze as you walk by just a foot or two away from them. But even so, this encounter took me completely by surprise.
I was eating dinner on the couch and watching Springwatch on the BBC. There was a persistent “Kaw Kaw” from outside, but as it’s a sound I hear constantly, I didn’t take much notice. Suddenly it struck me that one of the “Kaw Kaw”s sounded much closer by than the rest. I turned around and this is the sight that greeted me:
The little guy had fledged right onto my window sill. Although his parents were in the tree outside calling to him, he appeared to be more interested in what that strange, large, pink mammal on the other side of the glass was doing. He was there for quite a while, well past dark, and I called an animal rescue line for advice. They assured me he would be perfectly all right even if he spent the night out there, and that as soon as it was light, mom and dad would be back to feed him until he was strong enough to fly off himself. I checked on him occasionally before going to bed, and he’d settled down nicely onto his chosen perch. And indeed, the next morning he was gone. Although he did leave me with a small parting gift.
In the days and weeks since, I’ve seen a young jackdaw in the neighborhood following its parents and learning how to survive. I don’t know if it’s the same little guy, but I like to imagine it is. Wherever he is, I wish him well. Good luck out there, little jackdaw! Take care of yourself!
In my last post, I wrote about the joys of being a bad birdwatcher. As I intimated there, bad birdwatching is not just about getting to know our feathered friends. For me, it’s about learning to let go of perfectionism.
Perfectionism has kept me from doing a lot of things in life. For many years it kept me from any form of athletic pursuit. Perfectionism is what led me to flee an aerobics class in tears, rather than simply laughing at how silly I looked when I couldn’t follow the steps. I joined a gym but felt an almost phobia-like anxiety about entering the place. Who was I kidding? I was no athlete. I was a klutz. I didn’t belong there. For years I would enviously watch the rowers on the waterways of Amsterdam, but the thought that I could actually be one of those rowers was as far-fetched as the thought of me becoming an astronaut. And then something snapped. I signed up for lessons at a rowing school and for the first time in my life I gave myself permission to suck at something and still keep at it. And I did suck at it at first (as did everyone else in that beginner’s boat). But I learned from my suckage, and while I’ll never row in the Olympics, I can honestly say I’m not a bad rower now. And most importantly, I love doing it. There’s very little in the world that can compare to that feeling you get when you’re synched with the rest of the crew and it feels like you’re flying over the water. Being in that boat, on the water, watching the grebes and coots do their summer thing, or getting glimpses of the warm and snuggly lives of folks in their canalside houses as you glide by on a cold winter night… these are some of my favorite moments during the week.
Perfectionism also led me to being so crushed by my second reader’s criticism that I had to put my thesis away for a six month (all the time fretting that I wasn’t working on it). As I watched my precious cum laude circling the drain, and sat nursing my wounded pride, I couldn’t accept that he might be right about areas that needed work. I decided that if I couldn’t be perfect at archaeology, I wasn’t interested in it anymore. It was only when I dropped the idea of perfection that I was able to pick up my thesis again, look at what needed to be done, and do it. Not only is it now done, but it’s actually a much better thesis. Making those mistakes and accepting them was the only thing that freed me up to make those improvements. And I’ve even started to remember what got me excited about archaeology in the first place.
Perfectionism has led to hours and hours of procrastination; if you don’t do anything you can’t do anything wrong. Perfectionism has even contributed to a moderate-to-serious clutter problem; I can’t just throw things away, I have to make sure that things get recycled and passed on properly. I’ve had two garbage bags full of sheets and towels sitting on the floor in my office because I decided that they had to go to the animal shelter (which I can’t get to easily) when they could just as easily be donated at a Humana drop box two blocks away (an equally worthy cause). Paperwork needed to be put in the proper order, some perfect imagined system, and until I had the time/energy to do that, it just kept piling up. Recently a friend of mine suggested a system for filing paperwork that I think even I can keep up with. It’s not the perfectly organized system I expected of myself, but it’s one that’s easy, and actually makes sense. In other words, it’s good enough. And good enough is really all you need. Suddenly it occurred to me that bringing those sheets and towels to the Humana box was also good enough. As was actually throwing away some of the plastic bags that I had been planning on reusing (for the sake of the environment) but were overflowing from the shelf where I’d been stuffing them for years, causing a plastic-bag avalanche every time I grabbed one. (The rest are in a large IKEA bag ready to be taken to the Natuurwinkel – the health food store – the next time I go.) Letting go of perfectionism and replacing it with the idea of “good enough” led to a larger-than-expected, relatively pain-free round of decluttering this week.
For much of my life I’ve been paralyzed by perfectionism. If I couldn’t excel at something right of the bat, I didn’t want to do it. Slowly but surely I’ve been letting go of this paralyzing force, and discovering that the world doesn’t end when you make a mistake. That sometimes just doing something, even if you suck at it, is better than not doing anything. Not only that, but allowing for mistakes, allowing for suckage, allowing for imperfection in yourself, can be the first step to actually excelling at something.
Now if y’all will excuse me, I think I’ve edited this post enough. It may not be perfect, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s good enough.
If you’re bored enough to have checked out the “about” section of this blog, you may have noticed that I referred to myself as a bad birdwatcher. I suspect that many of my friends would object to my applying that moniker to myself. After all, at times I certainly can be quite good at birdwatching, and my non-birding friends are always impressed at my birdy knowledge. Compared to the big boys, though, I am just a novice. But the term “bad birdwatcher” needs a bit of explanation. It’s not about where I fit on some heirarchy of skills. Bad birdwatching is a state of mind.
The term was coined by Simon Barnes in his excellent book How to be a Bad Birdwatcher. It’s been a while since I read the book, so forgive me if my memory of its contents is a bit fuzzy, but what has stuck with me was Barnes’s approach to birdwatching, which truly can be applied to most aspects of life. It can be summed up in these simple sentences from the book:
“Look out of the window.
See a bird.
Congratulations. You are a bad birdwatcher.”
In other words, you don’t have to be an expert, or even necessarily very good at something, to do it and enjoy it.
As someone who has often been paralyzed by her own need for perfectionism, I found this a truly refreshing approach. I don’t have to be a twitcher with an impressive life list and the ability to recognize every LBJ on sight. I can take joy in just observing birds, learning about them in my own way and my own time. I don’t have to go out in search of rarities. I can enjoy the antics of the Long-tailed tits in the trees out back, and it still counts as birdwatching. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in seeing new birds or adding to my list. (I’m very excited to have seen my first Black terns on Tuesday.) It’s just not my priority, and I find that just taking it step by step – first learning to recognize the everyday birds around me, then starting to pay attention to their songs, then adding to my knowledge of different species as I come across them – I’m becoming a better birdwatcher than I ever thought I’d be.
Yet I still proudly wear the moniker “bad birdwatcher”. For me, birdwatching is not about ticking a name off a list and moving on. It’s about enjoying the beauty of everyday things. It’s about appreciating nature in the middle of a crowded city. It’s about marveling at the biodiversity in the life that surrounds us. And it’s about taking a step back and really being in the moment.
And all without a PhD in ornithology.
It’s kind of an accident that my first post on this blog is being written within minutes of the Summer solstice, but it’s certainly not inappropriate. Lots of things are happening in my life right now, and I started this blog as a way to document some of them. Just days ago, I finished (re)writing my thesis, and in less than two weeks, I’ll be graduating, bringing nine years of being a “mature” (sic) student to an end. In exactly three weeks, I’ll be flying to the Pacific Northwest for an internship at the PAWS Wildlife Center, an internship, may I add, that has nothing to do with what I just spent close to a decade studying. To some people in my life, this makes perfect sense. To others (Hi mom!), it’s a waste of an education and a danger to my future career as an archaeologist and an academic.
Whatever. It’s something I have to do. I’ve wanted to work helping animals since I was a child, and this crossroads seemed like the perfect time to test those waters before getting mired in a career. Who knows what comes after that? I don’t believe this has to be an either/or question. I don’t believe in closing doors, nor do I think that’s what I’m doing. It’s never too late to do something you love, and the bones’ll be there when I’m ready for them.
I’ve always thought of myself as a late bloomer. Finally, at the age of mumblemumble, it feels like my life is starting to blossom.