What’s the Deal with Birdwatching: Part 1 – Details Matter

Here’s a cool thing about birdwatching—almost every guide and organization has their set of ethics around the activity. So, for example, the American Birding Association Code of Ethics are as follows: 

  1. Respect and promote birds and their environment. (don’t intentionally flush a bird just for a photo, don’t destroy their habitat just to get closer, etc)
  2. Respect and promote the birding community and its individual members.
  3. Respect and promote the law and the rights of others

That means that inherent in the act of birdwatching is respect. For the birds and their habitats and for our fellow humans. That’s pretty rad. 

In the relatively short amount of time I’ve devoted to birdwatching I found that it’s opened my eyes to the idea of respect and a whole lot more. Over the next few posts I hope to cover some of the things I’ve learned from birdwatching and how that’s translated into my everyday life. First up—It’s all in the details. 

Details Matter

One aspect of birdwatching that I learned very quickly is that it is way harder than I expected. (In fact, there’s a whole thing to be about that – it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect and we’ll dive into that in a later post). That realization came shortly after I’d identified all the bluebirds and cardinals in my front yard and began really looking at all the other birds flying and fliting around. Y’all – some of those mf’ers don’t look all that different from each other. 

Take these sparrows—the Song Sparrow and the White-throated Sparrow. On the surface, there isn’t much difference – especially at a glance. And often, a glance might be all that we get. Afterall, these are some shifty lil bastards. 

But, it’s once we start looking at the details that we can begin to see some important differences. 

Let’s start top down with the coloration of the crown. Right from the start we can see that the White-throated Sparrow has a darker coloration than the Song Sparrow. 

Next up the eyebrow stripe and eyestripe. The coloration is similar here in both cases, but there are differences. The eyebrow on the WTS is a bit wider and the eyestripe is definitely more pronounced and darker.  

And finally, it certainly becomes more evident if you can get a different look at the bird as well. 

These are small things, right? Details. But it’s when we start paying attention to them that they add up to something larger. 

I think this most certainly resonates most for me  as a writer, where details can literally change the meaning of my work. For example – think of a rock. Chances are the rock that each of you is thinking of varies in shape, color, and size. But if I tell you to think of a pebble or to imagine a boulder, now all a sudden we’re a lot closer to a shared and uniform understanding. And, in writing, I would never mention a boulder when I meant a pebble. It’s those details that make all the difference. 

Also I’ve found that I pay attention to the world around me a bit more. I do my best to take in those details that I might have missed before.

My Spark Bird—The Belted Kingfisher

Taken on Jekyll Island, GA – December 2019

I spent a number of years growing up in Nashville, Georgia—a super small town just north of the Georgia/Florida line. There was a pond close to my house and my dad and I would head out there so he could fish. I would do kid things like throw rocks into the water or collect algae on a stick and poke it with my finger.  

One very distinct memory I have of those trips is the resident Belted Kingfisher that lived around the pond. My dad would point it out, hovering over the water before plunging downward, splashing after it’s next meal. I remember him telling me the name and I’d imagine a bird with a crown or some other symbol of royalty.

Now, the Kingfisher is an absolute beaut of a bird. It’s got a striking look to it, sure, but the way it hunts is fantastically amazing. Either perching on a tree or hovering over the water, it’s head is always completely still. Even when it’s wings are flapping at something like 200 beats per minute, that head remains motionless. And that makes sense, right? It has to have as steady of a view as possible when searching for fish just under the surface. 

And for that it has another amazing adaptation. Their eyes are especially adapted to be able to compensate for the refraction of the water, meaning that they are able to pinpoint the location of fish even when they appear to be in a different spot.  

In my experience I almost always hear the Kingfisher well before seeing it. Their rattling call echos across lakes and ponds, and it’s only then that I’m able to catch a fleeting glimpse of them as they rapidly fly from perch to perch. And though I’ve only recently gotten very serious about birdwatching, it’s those summer evenings watching the Kingfisher just dive bomb the absolute hell out of some fish that was the true spark for me.