January 17, 2011

Becoming a better birder: from seeing to watching to knowing

Over a lifetime we may see a car crash, we will see things change, and if lucky see Bigfoot. We will watch our children grow, watch a movie, and watch the stock market. But what in our lives will we know? We will know where we live, where we’re from, we will know who to trust and will know love and loss. Do not fear the Daily Bird New England has not turned into a new age, smooth jazz, backup ensemble but is simply asking the question: what is the difference between seeing, watching, and knowing?
Seeing is a passive accident. We see things wiz by, a celebrity in a car, a shooting star. Watching however is an active, conscious function. We watch out for danger, watch for a called strike three, when it’s cloudy we watch for snow. Watching implies background knowledge and experience; when it freezes ice appears so we watch out, when a batter has two strikes the third strike is most important, we watch for it.

But at some point we watch long enough that we simply know. Snow predicted for four o’clock? We know to stay off the highway, a 3-0 count in a baseball we know here comes a fastball, we don’t even have to watch, we simply know.

This is the same (as the name implies) in bird watching. As a beginner birds dart past us and if we’re lucky we see them. We buy binoculars to help us see a little more: a bit of yellow on the crown, yellow legs, or a yellow bill. Seeing is the entry point, the immediate response to the avian world, a happy accident. Even an advanced bird watcher might see a rarity now and then.

But once you’ve purchased those binoculars, opened a few books, and spent more than one cold morning in the spring rain you will begin to watch. In late February you will watch for Red-winged blackbirds in the cattail swamp behind your house, you will watch for the continuous flicking of a tail when you see a warbler, you will watch for the Dark-eyed juncos when the frost appears, you will no longer see birds but will begin to watch them, compiling information and experiences.

And finally you will become one of those strange gurus of the trade who hears a “chup” note deep in the reeds and says, Common Yellowthroat, who hears crows calling and says owl! You will have amassed enough watching to simply know. It is a life long journey and the best part is the seeing never looses its thrill, the watching never ends, and the knowing only grows.

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact: alexanderjosephdunn@gmail.com

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