By Orietta C. Estrada
Each year, I set a birding goal for myself. In 2018, it was to see as many bird species in my home state of Maryland by doing a Big Year (i.e., an attempt to identify as many species by sight or sound within a specific geographic area). Check. Last year, my goal was to start a junior bird club. Check. This year, it was (and still is) to see 40 new birds before I turn 40 in December.
Birding, the act of seeking out bird species, is considered by some to be a hobby. To me, birding is a lifestyle and an obsession. If I miss a day getting outside, or at least parked by a window for a few minutes to observe visitors to my bird feeders, I feel the void. I never leave home without my binoculars and, much to the annoyance of loved ones, am likely to interrupt just about any conversation to point out a neat bird. (To me, most birds are neat.)
I had 2020 all planned out: one trip booked to the North American boreal forest to see several raptor and grouse species in action; one south to the American tropics to count more raptors, like kites and burrowing owls; and another to Chile to visit with family and add heaps of new species to my list (I’d yet to venture to South America since becoming a birder). Then came the pandemic.
It was during my trip to the boreal forest—where I picked up great gray owl, northern hawk owl, and sharp-tailed grouse (right) spottings, plus one that brought tears to my eyes, the spruce grouse—that news began to spread about the outbreak abroad. By the time I arrived back home, US patients were testing positive, and within a few weeks, the virus was widespread. I canceled my remaining trips—so much for my 40-before-40 birding goal. Shortly thereafter came orders to quarantine. Then, the expected eBird reports started popping with rare and new birds—a yearly migration season occurrence during which some birds get confused and fly the wrong way—including a much-needed addition to my list, a burrowing owl. I could nearly taste my own FOMO. As of this writing, I have been in home quarantine for six-plus weeks, under a shelter-in-place directive from my state’s governor.
Medical experts across the US have informed the public that staying home is the only defense against the continued spread of the coronavirus, not to mention the only way to blunt the blow to our health-care systems. As a member of a free society, I fully understand that to participate, I must be willing to give up a few liberties. Regarding birding, those include travel, chasing new-to-me species to accomplish my yearly birding goal, birding with friends, and visiting state and national parks.
At first, the experience felt excruciatingly isolating. While I am not a social birder (I typically go it alone), I am unable to visit parks or travel the long distances necessary to glimpse certain species. Then, something wonderful happened—I got a Facebook invite from a group of birders who are physically distancing themselves from one another but staying social. Joining sparked a renewed sense of perspective on not being able to bird, and the ability to connect with others in the same situation lifted my spirits.
This is how I am birding through quarantine—and how you can too.
Embrace physical rather than social distancing.
Joining #BirdTheFeckAtHome was a fantastic decision. On a daily basis, I’m now introduced to new species, thanks to fellow birders from around the world who are also birding from their homes. The backyard bird envy is intense—not much beats seeing the screen light up with a Vogelkop superb bird-of-paradise in someone else’s New Guinea yard on a day when your own best yard bird is a wild turkey! (No disrespect to turkeys.)
The group is only two weeks old, and already its backyard birders have collectively counted 2,251 species—that’s over one-seventh of the world’s 18,000 species. The birder behind #BirdTheFeckAtHome is a Melbourne-based birder named Ed Williams.
“I wanted to create something fun to take my mind off the horrors going on in the world,” Williams told Sierra. “I also wanted to bring birders together globally, as COVID is impacting everyone in every nation. Like COVID, birds don’t worry about borders.”
From a Global Backyard Big Day in which we all tracked our sightings in a shared list, to a group-curated Spotify playlist (“Rockin’ Robin,” anyone?), it’s a great way to catch some avian enthusiasm. Join #BirdTheFeckAtHome on Facebook and/or follow the BirdTheFeckAtHome group on Twitter.
Get creative making your bird lists (even if you live in a city).
If you’re a lister, it’s time to get crafty. Sure, you might have your yard list, but are you keeping a list of birds spotted from the loo? How about a list of birds seen from your workspace? No? There’s never been a better time to start one. Your location will depend on how creative you can be with unorthodox lists—if you live in a neighborhood or have more space, your options are wide open. If you live in an apartment building, make a list of birds you see on your way to go shopping, while getting your daily exercise, or from any window in your apartment, no balcony needed.
You could also try hawkwatching, looking up at the sky for long periods of time to see what passes over, or doing a Big Sit—that’s creating a circle 17 feet in diameter, sitting within it for 24 hours, and counting all the bird species you see or hear.
After all, in North America, it’s migration until around May, depending on where you live, and birds certainly fly and stop over in cities. Hot on the lists of birders across the US flyways (e.g., Pacific, Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic)? Warblers, which are small songbirds that overwinter in Central and South America but breed in North America.
Nerd out on bird media.
There are birders among us who go as far as having lists for birds that they see or hear in films wholly unrelated to birding. (Some hardcore birders also keep track of when nature documentaries use the wrong bird call in the audio tracks!) Feeling up to the challenge? It can be a lot of fun, but if not, try this instead—go birding in Colombia without leaving the safety of your home. The Birders: A Melodic Journey Through Northern Colombia is a beautifully executed film about birders doing what they love most. What’s more, its creators have developed a way for those confined to cities or unable to bird to do so without setting a foot out the door. Welcome to Quarantined Birding. It’s simple: Watch the free documentary (available via the Where Next website), download the checklist of birds featured in the movie, and try to identify birds as you go. Want to take it further? Close your eyes and try to identify the birds in the film by sound. Good luck out (er, in) there!