When bird became a verb

By Kimberly Mayer,

Journal contributor

You might drop by the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park for the art, you might stroll it for the plantings and nature preserve, or you might do as we are doing, and go for the birds. It is warm in the sun and cold in the shade in May. Dressed in drab colored field clothes, vests and jackets with plenty of pockets, hats on our heads, and sensible shoes underfoot, a group of birdwatchers winds its way through the park with bird guide Tyler Davis. Around everyone’s neck, binoculars.

Before binoculars, birds were killed for study. “I shot the first kingfisher I met,” John James Audubon wrote in his journal, “pierced the body with wire, fixed it to a board, another wire held the head, smaller ones the feet… there stood before me the real kingfisher. I outlined the bird, colored it. This was my first drawing actually from nature.” (The Birding Life: A Passion for Birds at Home and Afield by Sheehan Stites).

Originally called “field glasses” in England, binoculars made all the difference. The first real pair of handheld binoculars were introduced in 1825 and by the end of the century, birdwatching had become a recreational activity. “Binoculars don’t bring the birds closer to you,” states Simon Barnes in The Meaning of Birds, “they bring you closer to the birds, taking you into the tree, across the sea to the ledges of the cliff, out to the middle of the lake, and above all, they take you into the sky to fly with the birds.”

At a time when birds themselves are on a decline, birdwatching or birding is ever-growing. We are drawn to it for a host of reasons:

~ “I feel a much deeper connection to the natural world…. Birding has tripled the time I spend outdoors and proved more meditative than meditation… My senses focus resolutely on the present, and the usual hubbub in my head becomes quiet.” (Ed Yong, “When I Became a Birder, Almost Everything Else Fell in Place,” The New York Times 3/30/2024).

~ Improving observation and memory.

~ Listening to birdsong is calming.

~ Birding is an inexpensive hobby, and our archipelago, a bird rich location with 291 species of birds recorded. (Birding in the San Juan Islands, Lewis and Sharpe).

We stand in an open field as bald eagles soar on high, riding the thermals. Such is the wilderness in our backyard. No one says a word.

From mud flats to freshwater lake and marsh pond, field, farmland, and pasture, dry grasslands, open woodland, forest, and shrubby thicket, there’s a variety of habitats in The Sculpture Park. It’s a breeding ground for numerous species, and in our recent morning, the act of bird copulation called a cloacal kiss.

Birders often speak of their “spark bird,” meaning that first bird love, the bird that got them seriously into birding. Tyler shared his spark bird moment with us, recalling Rainbow Lorikeets in downtown Cairns, Australia. He was twelve years old at the time and thrilled to find this brilliantly colored parrot flying wild. His mother gifted him a guide book, Birds of Australia, by Simpson and Day—one senses that he still has the book—and “this is what ultimately got me hooked on all things avian,” he says with a grin.

So much depends upon a spark bird.

Bird walks led by Tyler Davis are from 8-10 am on the first Wednesday of every month through October at The San Juan Islands Sculpture Park.