The old class mates, social acquaintances or family members who have me on social networks see my birding related posts and their automatic assumption is more than likely, “He must really like looking at birds. It sounds boring”. Though the reality of the situation is far different than what they assume. While for many birdwatching is a hobby, something to help them relax on their days off, perhaps on their patio looking for some new species at their garden feeder, or those who enjoy hiking and at some point in their life decided that they wanted to know what they were seeing while out in nature, and so they bought some bird guides.
However, for many who call themselves birders the idea of calling it a hobby feels wrong, inaccurate and a little bit blasphemous. In the movie The Big Year, there was a scene where Owen Wilson’s character was speaking to his wife, who felt neglected by his birding:
Husband: You can’t compare golf to this.
Husband: Golf’s just like a hobby.
Wife: And the birding is what exactly?
Husband: I don’t know, it’s like a calling.
Husband: This is like my calling.
And regardless of what one thinks of that movie, the mentality that his character displayed is one found in many birders. To a lot of us, birding is not something that we do when we found ourselves with extra time on our hands or are feeling bored. Instead, it’s the center around which we schedule our time. While I would consider myself dedicated, there are those who are far more so and who would give up their Christmas leave in order to see a single bird.
A Healthy Obsession
Obsession is usually something looked down upon and one often feels ashamed to admit an obsession, but is obsession not merely the product of passion and dedication? Is it not the manifestation of drive and the desire to achieve something?
You will find that most of the successful birders are those who are most obsessed, their obsession is what takes them places others wouldn’t go. It’s what makes them spend large amounts of money to see a single bird. It’s what keeps them up at night, planning what their next target is going to be. These are all things that will aid in their success in birding.
Me, I am prone to obsession already and whatever I do, I make sure that it’s done to the extreme. Moderation is mediocrity to me and who wants to be average? Unfortunately my obsessive tendencies remain hard to tie down, and I will often find myself drifting between obsessions and in turn end up not birding for a couple months because my mind is completely preoccupied with something else. However, my other interests often die and are never revived, but with birding – even when I am in a period where I may not be as active, I know that I’ll return and that it’s only a matter of time before I am swept up in the excitement of seeing new birds and twitching rarities.
While some people are like me, and obsess for periods or rather in waves, there are others whose passion and obsession for birding never dwindles. They remain dedicated 24/7 and 365 – and these are the people you will find at the top of the lists. It’s also not an exaggeration to state that one’s dedication to birding can easily destroy a relationship, and for most dedicated birders – if it comes to that, they’re going to choose the birds.
Birders are Collectors
When I was a kid I started out collecting coins, then stamps. Eventually I turned to trading cards such as Pokemon and later Magic The Gathering. To me it was the most exciting thing in the world, opening up a booster pack of cards, not knowing what you might find inside. It was never about playing the game, and my cards remained sealed in sleeves and in a folder, the interest I held in it was almost completely tied to the topic of rarities. I wanted the rarest cards and I wanted them all. It would keep me up at night, wondering how I could get the money to open another pack and hopefully pull that holographic Charizard.
Eventually, in 2009 my one colleague at work mentioned his interest in birding and discussed it a little. I was immediately interested after he mentioned that it was often focused around finding rare birds. Of course at the time, in my head I imagined that rarities were probably birds that a few thousand other people saw too. I had no concept of being one of the only people in the province or country to see a single bird. It took me 2 years after that until I bought my first bird guide and slowly began to dip my toes into the birding world.
Before long I began to understand more, and I immediately felt like this was what I had been looking for, as someone with an interest for both collecting and nature. I was able to go out in the field and not know what I may come across, and while I always enjoyed being surrounded by the common birds and sought to better my photos of the common species, my mind is almost always on seeing a new bird, discovering something different. And it has paid off more than once, with sightings of Tawny Eagle, Green-Backed Heron and Long Crested Eagle all within my first year of birding.
Birding became the easiest way for me to feel like I was able to do what I love, and what gives me my adrenalin rushes – while at the same time knowing that in the process I’m getting outside and enjoying nature and the natural world instead of sitting indoors. It’s guilt-free collecting.
The Meaning of Life
British birder Brett Richards was once asked “What is the point of birding?”, to which he replied something along the lines of:
“There’s no point to anything in the universe – we’re all here by accident. The point of life is whatever you make of it. Ask most people what they want most in the world and they’ll say world peace, but that is just a start. They want world peace so that they’ll be able to do what they enjoy, and to me that is birding.”
His words resonated with me, as that is something that I have often asked myself. “What is the point? You’re looking at birds with all your time, what is that going to achieve in life?”
An existential query perhaps, and one that people tend to ask themselves often. When I ask myself that question with regards to other aspects of life my conclusion is that there is no point. I will die, and whatever I have achieved will in all likelihood disappear. I have no desire to have children at any point in my life, so I cannot think that I will be leaving behind a legacy in that regard.
So what is the most important thing to me in life? Honestly, it is to not be forgotten. It need not be my nature or my personality that lives on, but merely my name that will be seen after my death that comforts me. Perhaps a little red cross in a bird guide where I found an out of range bird. Both these things give me hope and comfort.
Because of this, I have an extremely dedicated desire to make it onto the listings at Zest For Birds. These listings continue to hold the names and the achievements of those both living and those who have passed. And to make it onto either the provincial or the Southern African list would potentially the biggest achievement in my life. The higher I get, the more I will feel as though I have achieved. It’s potentially a bit of a depressing thought to some no doubt, but to me it is the comforting thing I can think of.
I imagine I am mostly alone in these final sentiments, and to most the list is focusing more on competition than it is on a legacy — but who knows?