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Misidentifying Birds; Finding Peace and Possibility

When I feel heartbroken or stressed, I head outside. My friend Teresa and I arrive at Wonderland Lake (a man-made pond), with a plan to go birding. My mind is in a fog. Lately, all I can think about are mass shootings and wildfires burning.

Neither of us are birders, but we like the idea of being able to recognize bird songs and match them to the singers. The catch is that we are also dog owners. And because we can’t miss a chance to walk the dogs, we are now birding with energetic pups on a leash.

My hands are full; I have a pair of binoculars in one hand, my coffee cup and the dog leash in the other, poop bags and my phone in a back pocket. Just as I’m feeling certain that this is not how the pros do it, I look over and see that Teresa is also carrying hand weights. “I figure we can lift weights while we wait for the birds,” she says. “Oh, right,” I laugh. “We can call ourselves the BBC: the Birding and Beasting (our bodies) Club.” 

There is no time for weight training as we are too busy controlling our dogs. There are cottontail rabbits everywhere and the dogs want to set chase. “MORE bunnies!” I hear Teresa say to her dog. “What is that command?” I ask. “I made it up,” she says. “I want Bandit to know that we can keep walking because there will be more bunnies up ahead. It’s like “leave it’ with an incentive.” “MORE bunnies!” She says again, now carrying her dog away from the place where a cottontail is hiding. Meanwhile, my dog Leo is chasing Canada geese into the water in a loud, frenzied burst of flapping wings, honking, and splashing water. It is not the peaceful morning I had envisioned. 

Once I get Leo settled, Teresa gestures for me to come close. “What’s that?” she asks.

“A red-winged blackbird?” I suggest.

“No. There. In the water. It’s swimming.”

“A fish?”

“No, it’s bigger. It must be a mammal.”

“Aren’t we supposed to be birding?”

“See it? See it now?”

I put my coffee down, step on the dog leash, and bring the binos up to my face.

“Where are you looking?”

“There! It’s HUGE. It’s like a beaver or a shark or something.”

“Maybe it’s a muskrat,” I offer.

“But it’s got an enormous fin!” she gasps.

“It’s a carp,” says a voice.

I turn to see who is speaking. A boy, about 9 years old, casts a fishing line into the water. He says again, “It’s a carp. They’re everywhere,” in the same way he might have said, “Will you please shut up.”

“Thank you!” We say sheepishly, and skulk past him, embarrassed. We can’t believe our own ridiculousness. Then we burst into laughter. And it feels so good to laugh.

Eventually, we find a grove of willow trees, full of birds. We are mesmerized by the abundance of high-pitched whistles, low-pitch whistles, chatter and squeals coming from above us. I lift my binoculars to notice a bright orange bird, slim bodied with a longish tail, hanging upside down from a branch. But it’s tough to see it clearly. Bird names that we know in the far-recesses of our brains stumble out of our mouths.

“It’s a Western Tanager or an Oriole!” Teresa says in an excited voice.

“Or a Goldfinch or a Grosbeak!” I loud-whisper back.

It takes all of my focus to listen and watch carefully. It has black wings with white bars and a narrow beak. I am thrilled to see its beak open and close. It’s making a chuckling, whistling sound. I know this bird. Common in Colorado. Teresa and I all but shout at the same time, “It’s Bullock’s Oriole!”

I feel awake and alert in a way that I haven’t felt in months. My synapses are firing. I am alive and connected to my surroundings. This simple act of paying attention has lifted my brain fog and my mood. And the more I pay attention, the more birds I see. There are over a dozen flame-orange orioles, darting in and out of the fresh, green willow leaves. I walk my dog here all the time. How have I not noticed these birds before?

Once back home, my husband, the naturalist, asks, “How was it?”

“Well, we learned the difference between a carp and a muskrat,” I say.

“I thought you went birding.”

“Oh, we did,” I say. 

And then I tell him about our morning. And I can hear how lifted and light my voice is, how transformed I am from my short time in Nature, paying attention. I feel less passive, more active, ready to transform pain into possibility. 



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