Bird-watching in an age of anxiety

Blue-and-yellow Macaws, Scarlet Macaws, a Chesnut-fronted Macaw and a Mealy Parrot at a clay lick in Peru. (Brian Ralphs/Creative Commons)

It’s 5 a.m. and I am awoken by the screams of Red Purus Howler Monkeys echoing through the thick stands of Amazonian varzea forest — the floodplain. I was scheduled to arrive at my boat 15 minutes ago, and I don’t want to miss out on seeing one of the most spectacular performances that nature has to offer. I ignore the familiar knot in my chest, throw on a poncho, and speed-walk down one of the muddy paths leading to the bank of the Madre de Dios River, making sure to avoid the well-camouflaged and deadly Fer-de-Lance — a highly venomous viper — on the way.

I arrive at my boat, and drift down one of the river’s many Anaconda-infested tributaries, noting Channel-billed Toucans and Royal Flycatchers flying overhead. In the Amazon rainforest, riverbanks form into large, muddy slopes known as clay-licks. At these sites, thousands of birds gather together to feed on the clay, which aids in the digestion of their typical diets of fruit, berries, nuts, and seeds. It is at these clay-licks where one of the most incredible feats of nature can be witnessed: a mass gathering of parrots and macaws. 

As the sun rises higher and higher, I could hear the grating calls of Hyacinth and Scarlet Macaws in the treetops above the river. The tributary widens, revealing clay cliffs of spectacular proportions. The knot in my chest loosens, and there are macaws everywhere. The stress that often grips me melts away; I am free as a bird.   

It was in these impenetrable hectares of rainforest where I discovered what it meant to be truly "present." I was nearly 3,500 miles away from the city, yet a giant mahogany tree on the riverbank reminded me of the Chrysler building. I could not deduce why I felt so oddly at home in the Peruvian rainforest, even with its 16 species of highly venomous coral snakes and pit-vipers. This sensation was defined by a persistent sense-of calm bliss that I could only recall experiencing in fleeting bursts. I first assumed that my tranquil condition resulted from being so far-removed from my familiar New York City life. There was nothing to plan, no deadlines to catch, and most of all, there were no other people around, aside from my family and the boatman. All at once, I could at last pin-point the origins of this tranquil state as a sensation that I temporarily experience while playing the piano, journaling, and most especially while bird-watching.

As the journey continued, I became pleasantly detached from the racing thoughts and restlessness I had grown so accustomed to. Was this a feeling that I could only hope to experience in near-isolation, or was it something I could recreate wherever I was, even in the middle of the bustling city I call home?        

Let me begin by saying that I love New York, even when my anxiety makes me feel otherwise. I have been a resident of New York City for 21 years, and a bird-watcher for about half of that time. There is something magical about being able to grab an onion bagel with extra cream-cheese at Zabar’s, and upon exiting, to observe a migrating Magnolia Warbler on Broadway in rush hour.

The day before leaving for Peru, I remember crossing Central Park and arriving on the East Side, shuffling through jarringly loud groups of tourists, beanie-clad hipsters, fashion junkies, and craft-beer snobs. It is not easy to stay still in the wake of the caffeine-fueled machine, and my chest began to tighten, but the passing silhouette of a bird of prey over Park Avenue suddenly made me pause. It was Pale Male, the city’s beloved resident Red-Tailed Hawk hunting for mice like an NYC divorcee looking for a husband.

With my restlessness temporarily relinquished, I walked east along 5th Avenue where the park borders the street, and giant elms as old as the city itself cast their shadows on the cobblestone. I felt safer in the shadows. On the ground, European Starlings, the winged-rats of NYC, flocked together amongst House Sparrows and Pigeons, voraciously gobbling down food-scraps. The pugnacious European starling was first introduced to the city in 1890 in the Delacorte Theater as a prop for a production of Shakespeare in the Park. Soon after, their numbers boomed, and the European Starling is currently considered one of the most widespread and abundant birds in the New World. Hated by bird-watchers, this species isn’t classified under the Latin name Sturnus vulgaris for nothing!

Overhead was a sight less familiar to bird-naïve New Yorkers, as Blackpoll and Bay-Breasted Warblers made their annual migratory rounds, gleaning insects from branches and remaining hidden in the foliage. Occasionally, someone will ask me what I’m observing. I don’t typically talk to strangers, but people get curious when they see a young man with a Jerry Garcia shirt and a pair of Swarovski binoculars standing in the middle of a bustling city block and staring up into the trees. 

In my experience, anxiety compels a person to become an observer. The senses are constantly deluged by information, and the world can take on the appearance of a strange and hyper-real dreamland. Walking into a crowded supermarket is akin to entering a packed stadium. The white walls are too bright, the colors of the food too saturated and plastic-looking. The sounds of people laughing and conversing assault the senses, as if someone were screaming into my ears with a loudspeaker. I am ever-alert, and distract myself by observing objects in the room, taking note of their colors, sizes, and dimensions. Observing what is around me, be it a bird, a train, or the color of someone’s shoes, allows for me to slow-down the pace of my thoughts, making me feel calm and centered. 

Bird-watching transforms this nervous energy into something productive and of implicit emotional-value to me. Seeing a rare bird grips my mind, forcing it to hone in on a particular set of details, rather than reel in response to a tsunami of sensory information. One could say that the act of bird-watching is analogous with refereeing a soccer game. The bird-watcher and the referee are both keen observers, and their targets are both constantly on the move. It only takes a matter of seconds and one small mistake for the entire course of the game to be thrown off, or for the bird to fly away unidentified.

Seeing a rare bird is always a rush, however, it is not my primary goal when I set out into the field. I am chasing a feeling, a sort of fleeting-high. The objective is to experience the beauty and tranquility of being in the moment, and seeing a rare bird is like the icing on the cake. As a warbler comes into view, my attention shifts to the bird’s shape and plumage, and slowly strays away from any nagging introspection and negativity. In that moment, I’m no longer hyper-focusing on the tightness in my chest, nor am I replaying awkward conversations I had months prior in my head. The warbler in my binoculars is the only thing that exists, and its features are like a puzzle I must piece together in the fleeting seconds before it flies away. In this way, bird-watching allows for me to feel calm and present, while simultaneously eliciting the joy that comes from following my passion.

Before I was born, my parents bought a small, stone house in the Catskills in upstate New York, just around two hours outside of the city. I spent almost every weekend growing up at my Catskill home, and would lose myself for hours in the woods adjacent to my house. On June nights, I would hunt for Gray Tree Frogs which perched along the edges of our small Koi pond, catching insects in mid-air with their long, sticky tongues. In the fall and winter, I would set up camera traps around the property and monitor the mammal species that passed through. I routinely terrorized my mother by catching Milk Snakes in her garden, and flipping every stone in the rock wall she worked so hard to build in search of salamanders. My parents were strong hikers, and my father proposed to my mother on the summit of the Grand Teton, later taking her to Kenya to climb to Mt. Kilimanjaro for their honeymoon. Hiking was an immensely important part of my childhood, and I loved watching what I now know were Red-Tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures lazily circling over mountain summits.

My love of birds was cemented in this place upon first observing the rare and highly sought-after Connecticut Warbler. At the time, I knew very little about birds, but this odd little warbler caught my eye with its strange habit of walking, rather than hopping on the ground as it ran into the cover of the dense shrubs that lined my driveway. Upon discovering that I had stumbled upon something so rare, it was as if an entirely new world had opened up for me. I began to conceptualize bird-watching like a game, as there are a given number of species found within a particular area, some common, others very rare, and all entirely unpredictable. Finding a rare bird gave me the same satisfaction that I imagine I would experience if Scarlet Johansson gave me a deep-tissue massage.

Identifying birds soon became a passion and a labor of love. A few species, like the Empidonax flycatchers, a small family of identical drab-green birds, are impossible to distinguish by plumage alone, even in the hand. This makes things especially challenging, or fun depending on how you look at it, as the five species found in eastern North America can only be distinguished by their vocalizations. By this point, I was head-over-heels in love with birding and all of the challenges that came with it.

Bird-watching became an interactive, real-life version of "Where’s Waldo," and when I couldn’t identify my Waldo bird by plumage, I quickly learned the calls, anatomy, and behavior of all the birds in my local region. I began collecting field guides. First, guides that covered the species found in eastern North America, and later graduating to books encompassing Borneo, Japan, the Philippines, and other exotic regions of the world. Reading about these unfamiliar and alluring species made me feel as though I was traveling to the very remote lands in which these birds resided. When I was anxious, flipping through a guide to the birds of Borneo or Thailand propelled me into a positive mindset, and I made it my mission to one-day travel to these far-away places.

There were times when anxiety left me house-bound, and bird-watching gave me an excuse to get outside and out of my comfort-zone. I was commonly drained of energy, and making the daily commute to the Ramble in Central Park brought me out of my periodic fatigue. I would find myself losing track of time and walking for miles, often beginning my excursions at the 67th St. park entrance and finishing at the Reservoir near 93rd St. When I couldn’t see friends, bird-watching allowed me to become a part of an entirely new community of people who shared my passion, and simultaneously helped me to become a better birder and naturalist in general.

My infatuation with birds led me to meet some of the most influential people in the natural world, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose office was directly next to mine in the Museum of Natural History during a summer internship. Above all, bird-watching has allowed for me to develop techniques to quell my anxiety by being present, which eventually translated into my personal discovery of the incredible healing-powers of mindfulness-meditation. I currently have more field guides than shelf-space, and my collection has now grown into the thousands.

Upon seeing that lifer Connecticut Warbler in my driveway, I have since traveled to Peru, Costa Rica (four times), Kenya (six times), the Galápagos, Russia, and other remote parts of the world in search of my feathered friends. My travels have taken me to some of the very places that seemed so far out-of-reach when flipping through my regional field guides as a young boy in New York City. For a long time, I would fantasize about outrunning my anxiety, half-expecting that my next trip to Peru, Costa Rica, or even the Ramble in Central Park would “cure me” at last. Today, I smile knowing that there is nothing to run from, and I remember the old adage, “wherever you go, there you are.” 

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