first person

The Lonely Birder

I was embarrassed to admit how much I love birds. Then I found my people.

Photo: A J James/Getty Images
Photo: A J James/Getty Images
Photo: A J James/Getty Images

The other day, my daughter, who is 14, asked me, “Mom, why do you like birds so much?” I sighed. I get this question a lot. And even though I spend most of my time looking at and listening to birds, serve on the boards of the National Audubon Society and American Birding Association, and am constantly talking about birds, I still find it hard to explain. It feels like I’m being asked “Why do we breathe?”

There was a point in time when this might have made me feel self-conscious. I used to be deeply embarrassed about being a birder.

About 15 years ago, I took an emotional sabbatical from my work as an actor and retreated to my house in upstate New York, about two hours outside of the city. The house sits on 100 acres of working farmland. That year, the farmer was letting the fields go fallow. For the first time since I’d bought the home, four years prior, there were no big harvesting machines or trucks coming through the property.

And there, in the stillness, I started to hear birds in a way that I hadn’t before. It was as if I’d switched my audio input from mono to Dolby Stereo. Bird sounds began to differentiate themselves from one another — no longer generic tweets or chirps but specific sounds with meaning. There were things going on out in the yard: stories, drama, mating, fighting, death.

When I returned after my sabbatical upstate, I had changed. It’s like I had fallen in love, and I wanted to spread this love to others. But I didn’t have anyone to share the good news with, because I didn’t know anyone who liked birds.

I was on my own. Where to start? I thought of Central Park — a place I visited often but never with the intention of looking for birds. I grabbed my newly purchased binoculars and headed for the subway.

It was there that I experienced my first curious glances at the binoculars around my neck. I felt like I did on the first day of second grade, when I wore shiny, goofy saddle shoes and everyone else wore sneakers. I was excited about going to school and felt stupid for showing it. I told myself, Okay, you like birds. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. But I didn’t believe it.

I exited the train at 81st Street and made a beeline for the park. I thought I would feel less weird there, but I didn’t. No one had binoculars. No one was looking at birds. People were doing normal park things: walking and talking, throwing Frisbees, playing with dogs.

Then I heard a bird. Not the ubiquitous house sparrow but something else. I wanted to look but stopped myself. The binoculars would draw attention — a neon sign flashing “weird.” I wanted to leave. But instead, I slinked off the cement path and moved further into the park. It was quiet. No one was around. I heard birds. They were here.

I walked slowly through the wooded area, stopping when I heard a sound or saw movement in the trees. Taking my time with each stop, I marveled at the different birds living in this city. One of them was a hummingbird poking its long beak into an orange, fluted flower. I felt revived and content — like after a nice long dinner with friends.

Over the next few years, I became more comfortable birding. Gradually, I started to tell friends the truth when they asked what I did that day. Instead of keeping it vague and elusive, I simply said, “I was looking at birds.” And eventually, my friends and family didn’t respond with a surprised yet amused “Birds?” but with a nod of understanding. Sometimes, they even asked, “What did you see?”

But I still felt very shy if I ran into another birder in a birding place. And maybe they felt shy too. In my experience, people kept to themselves in the shadows of the Ramble. Each of us gave a pleasant nod, but that was about it. In New York City, every activity is atomized — even birding.

Then I went to my first bird festival. Every year, 90,000 people descend on Oak Harbor, Ohio, for the Biggest Week in American Birding (that’s literally what it’s called). On the way there, I felt the same heightened sense of the new and unknown as I had the first time I took a plane, at 11 years old, to visit my older sister at her college.

After landing at the Detroit airport, I rented a car and drove an hour and a half to the Maumee Bay Lodge & Conference Center. The lodge has an old-school feel to it, by which I mean it was built in the ’70s.

Volunteer staff, mostly older women, greeted me as I walked in. This area has another name, they tell me: the Warbler Capital of the World. In North America, there are about 28 different species of warblers. Most of them spend their summers in South America and breed in various places in the U.S. and Canada. They migrate north beginning in April, then head back south starting around August. Birds follow migratory routes called flyways, which are like highways in the sky, and this place sits at the convergence of two of them. It’s the perfect pit stop with fresh water, food, and shelter until the next leg of the journey.

One of the nice old ladies at the welcome table told me to head to where the action is: a boardwalk 45 minutes away on Magee Marsh. I began driving but didn’t see any birds on the way. I turned onto a long, winding road lined with trees. Suddenly, the trees started to disappear and I approached the marshland with Lake Erie beyond. In front of the lake, I saw a parking lot packed with cars. As I approached, I saw birders everywhere: some in groups or in couples, some alone, an Amish family, birders in wheelchairs, parents with children, a guy covered in tattoos. I was at a concert of birds, and everyone seemed psyched to see the show.

There were so many people on this boardwalk streaming in both directions. And they were all wearing binoculars. Small groups were looking at the same tree, other groups looking at a different tree. A pair gazed through the understory at a bird hopping on the ground. Almost everyone was smiling. Chatter was low, but murmurs of delight were not. I think there might be a universal response to looking at something beautiful, especially when you have to tilt your head up.

I joined a small group clustered on one side of the boardwalk staring at a tree. A woman named Susan whispered to me that they’d spotted a Blackburnian warbler and helped me locate the bird with my binoculars. And there in the tree, I found a small, fiery-orange bird singing.

The winds from the south had brought him from Colombia on his way north to Canada, where he will breed, she told me. The Blackburnian warbler is roughly four inches tall and weighs about 0.35 ounces — though probably much less at the moment, because he had flown more than 2,000 miles and likely been using muscle fat for fuel. It’s a “he” because of that fiery-orange-red throat that fades into a belly of yellow, jet-black wings dabbed with some white. As he sang, Susan said to me, “I can only remember the song when I actually see them sing it.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off the orange. The Blackburnian flitted around the branches of a tree gobbling up insects from the leaves — a feast for the hungry. All along the boardwalk were hundreds of starving, exhausted warblers glimmering on the trees like gems. As the birds feasted on the insects, I feasted my eyes on them. I love being alone with birds, but there is something almost holy when you delight in something with others. I could be myself here. I’d found my tribe.

The Lonely Birder