Monday, January 07, 2013

My Big Year

I bought a camera from my sister in late 2011 after she upgraded and moved on to a more complicated model.  Cameras are typically not difficult to operate, but I quickly figured out that her cast-off had more bells and whistles than I’d ever be able to learn how to use. I tried to sit down with the owner’s manual (and the corresponding “book for Dummies”) a few times, but after my eyes glazed over after a couple of pages, I knew I needed a discipline in order to make it more of a “hands on” learning experience. Enter the backyard birds. I thought that if I forced myself to take at least one photograph of a bird a day, I would slowly pick up the skills I was looking for—quick, manual focusing with the lens; deeper understanding of good lighting; exposure; framing a photo; better grasp of photo editing; and so on. With such a ready cast of subjects, it seemed like a simple undertaking. I mean, seriously… can you think of a day when you haven’t seen at least one bird either flying overhead or pecking through your yard? That, I figured, is all I’d need, and I began on January 2, 2012.

Cooper's Hawk, January 14
However, as the weeks wore on, I realized it was going to take a slightly bigger sacrifice of time than I had initially calculated. When in a pinch, I tried to snap a few with my cell-phone camera, but the quality of those photos was very disappointing. I found that if I made myself grab the new camera and head either to the backyard or, if I had enough time, to one of two nearby parks, I could get into a rhythm each day. I posted the day’s best photo on a tumblr I set up, which I simply named “A Bird a Day.”  Looking at it you’ll see there are a few gaps—a trip for church in New Orleans in July sidelined the project for a week or so (and, come to find out, there really aren’t any birds in downtown New Orleans, anyway), and the days leading up to Christmas were particularly busy—but overall I consider my consistency a success. A desire to mix-up the species for some day-to-day variety became a little tricky, especially in the shorter winter days when I got home from work as the sun was going down. I didn’t want to post five days of chickadees in a row. Having a bird feeder helped, even if it kind of felt like cheating.
Pileated Woodpecker, February 4
The year is now over, and I don’t think I learned my camera’s ins and outs nearly as much as I’d hoped. I’d like to think that my photos got better over time, and that if you were to compare the shots taken last January and February to the ones taken in November and December you’d see a marked improvement. Most of that was probably due to the telephoto lens that my generous sister leant me at the beginning of June which allowed me to get a lot ‘closer’ with the camera. I also know that I didn’t crack the cover of the camera manual past March.
Eastern Phoebe, August 20

I did, however, crack the cover of my bird book very often. Over the course of the project, I began to notice that my eyes were being opened to other things than just learning a piece of technology. Other than the sense of accomplishment one typically feels when they finish out a whole year of some type of discipline, I also have a much, much greater appreciation of—you guessed it—the birds that live around me and their habitats. I’ve been a self-confessed “bird freak” since my early years of elementary school when I wrote to the Governor of North Carolina (Jim Hunt at the time) and requested him to declare a holiday for birds (He graciously consented, and May 24 is Bird Day in my home state, whether or not my family members choose to believe it). I’ve also memorized countless bird guides and participated in a few Audubon Society bird counts, but this year provided the opportunity to expand and hone my bird identification skills like never before.
Red-winged Blackbird, July 9

Gray Catbird, June 5

Painted Bunting, July14
American Redstart, September 18
For example, I can now identify many species by vocalization, which is a tricky skill to master. I still have a long way to go, but knowing birds by their songs or calls is by far the most accurate way to identify them in the field, not to mention the best way to locate them. In fact, that’s how I found the Hooded Warblers in my backyard in early May (“Do you see Sir William FITZ-hew” is the mnemonic device I came up with for them) and the Painted Bunting at the beach in July, a species which has actually been declining on the east coast for decades. Brown-headed Nuthatches sound exactly like a squeaky bath toy. I also pretty much learned how to tell the difference between a Red-shouldered Hawk and a Blue Jay imitating a Red-shouldered Hawk…most of the time.

I also picked up the knack of knowing where certain species liked to hang out. This is a biggie in the world of birding. Look up high—very high!—for the vireos and tanagers. Look down low for most of the sparrows. Venture around the edge of a pond in the summer or fall and you will probably run across a Yellowthroat. Eastern Bluebirds love suburbia. On some level I already knew most of these “rules,” but the knowledge gained after repeated, daily practice is so much more useful than what is gained from reading a book. It’s like my semesters of field education in seminary…except this time I was in a real field.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, August 26
I also noticed that I haven’t lost that childhood excitement when I see a species for the first time, which is, happily, something that occurred a lot this year. One afternoon I was at the garden in the backyard and something small about twenty yards away flickered and caught my eye. It was a Black-throated Blue Warbler, a species I’ve seen in books for years but never happened to spot in nature. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there it was. I was lucky to have my camera with me, so I got a photo. I saw my first Golden-crowned Kinglet this year. Palm Warbler. Tri-colored Heron. Orchard Oriole. Each time I saw a species for the first time—and I know this is going to sound ridiculous and super-nerdy—but it felt like I was seeing a celebrity, or maybe even meeting a pen pal for the first time. After all, I grew up reading about these guys in my books. I studied them for hours, read about their eating habits, pored over their migration routes, breeding and nesting behaviors in the way the most normal schoolboys memorize baseball stats. I don’t care if other people think it’s stupid or silly. When I see them in person for the first time it’s fascinating, and I’m glad at 39 I still get that thrill.
Common Yellowthroat, September 28
The total tally for the dailyvogel project was 90 different species, and I know I saw even more than that. I never even got a photograph, for example, of the species I probably saw more than any else: the ubiquitous pigeon (or Rock Dove, Columba livia). What amazed me was the sheer diversity right around me. Of those 90, 57 were spotted either in my own backyard or were readily visible from it (Canada Geese, to my knowledge, never actually landed in my yard, but they did fly high overhead, and so they still count!). An additional fifteen or so species were seen in one of the parks within two miles from my house.  If someone had told me at the start of this project that I would see almost sixty species of birds from my own backyard, I wouldn’t have believed them. But my photographs are proof. They’ve been right here the whole time—hidden in plain view, as they say.
Wood Stork, July 13
Red-shouldered Hawk, November 9
Psalm 40:5 says, “You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; no one can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.” The psalmist is responding to an occasion of the Lord’s deliverance, the details of which are not fully clear. We do know that he is deeply thankful for how the Lord has provided for him. In the hectic rush of his day-to-day, something pulls the psalmist outside of himself to “wait patiently” (v. 1) and pause to notice the many ways in which the Lord his God has been present for and gracious to him. He finds it overwhelming.  It fills him with joy, and in his gratitude he becomes “all ears” to the ways God calls him to service and a life of fullness. The current religious systems of sacrifice and burnt offerings have effectively obscured his thinking regarding the ways in which God actually operates: that is, through grace...more grace than he could ever know. Struggling with a failing heart, the psalmist goes on to hope for God’s deliverance once more, but he is always sustained by knowledge of the Lord’s steadfast love.
I suppose that is essentially what I take from this dailyvogel project. I picked up a lot of interesting things, but now that it's over I find myself mainly reflecting on how it took a year of daily discipline (and patience, too, especially from my wife) for me to appreciate the offerings of avian life on display in my own immediate surroundings, as ordinary as those surroundings may be. Is it not so with all of God’s blessings and acts of deliverance, the memories of which often just flicker in the distance as we obsess over the latest thing directly in front of us? If we were to pause through things like regular worship, prayer, and Bible study and take the time to be aware to the ways in which God can—and does—pop up here, there and everywhere, providing for us each and every moment, might we be amazed at how many we could identify? And how might these recollections—these rolling tumblr posts of grace, if you will—buoy us in times of sadness? Surprise and giddy joy are not my only reactions to the results of my big bird year; like in the case of the psalmist, thankfulness abounds. As I put down my camera from this daily discipline, I pray I can then dust off the inner eyes of my heart to see the activity of a loving Creator who grants us all quite an abundant and big life.
White-throated Sparrow, December 6

Carolina Wren, December 31
Eastern Kingbird, July 11
Hermit Thrush, November 6

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