Three middle-aged men stand in a small section of parking lot in front of the iron gates of the boating club. The club sits on the edge of a dam splitting the upper and lower portions of the lake. In the pink light of dawn, the men adjust their spotting scopes and peer through cameras outfitted with comically long phallic lenses. I watch them as they chat and sip coffee from their travel mugs and thermoses. Every couple of minutes they lean down, their heads bobbing behind their scopes much like the creatures they are intent to observe. Birdwatchers.
Suddenly one of them breaks off and steps behind his scope. He tilts it up to a near 45-degree angle, training it on a stand of trees across the lake. The others follow. Excitement! One quickly holds his camera at the end of his scope. What began as my routine morning walk by the lake is interrupted. I initially detoured into the parking lot to admire the sunrise over the lake, but now I have to stay for the show.
I follow the long black pointer of the man’s camera lens. Two bald eagles perch on the uppermost branches of a cluster of spiny pines. Even from my distance, without any fancy “spotting scopes” but the two on my face, I can make out the white crest of their heads, the soft curve of their arched wings equipped with ferocious velocity. I take out my phone and use the camera to zoom as much as I can to see more detail. Grainy and pixilated, the birds are still majestic.
And I think they know it.
With their classic, chiseled features and aura of confidence and command, eagles are like Cary Grant in bird form. They are also America’s national symbol, something that almost didn’t happen. Eagles became the national emblem in 1782 (#branding), beating out Ben Franklin’s first choice for a national symbol: the turkey. Franklin claimed the eagle was a bird of “bad moral character” for its tendency to poach other birds’ captures, going so far as to harassing another bird until it gives up what was theirs to begin with. To review: Ben Franklin criticizing a super power, alpha species whose natural proclivity is to take something that doesn’t belong to it, by force if necessary. Let us pause here for a moment of silence as we mark the death of irony.
Birdwatching wasn’t really recognized as a “thing-,” neither a pastime nor amateur scientific or naturalist pursuit–until the early 1900s. Newly formed organizations like the Audubon Society aimed to protect and preserve bird populations from the deadliest predator of all: man and his staggering ignorance. It’s not like we’re just going to run out of birds, people said as they loaded their guns. That’s like saying cigarettes are bad for you!
Bird watching books, field guides, the affordability and accessibility of binoculars following World War II, and America’s automotive and interstate booms all contributed to a steady uptick in this pastime that, unless you were traveling great distances, required not much else but standing around looking. Of course, I say that with some sarcasm, but when you consider the basic birdwatching principle in relation to our high holy culture of perpetual distraction and micrometer-sized attention spans, birdwatching is kind of the balls.
My friend Alex fell into birdwatching when he was eleven. He told me about growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and having limited access to nature. His house anchored the end of a dead end street that rested against a few acres of overgrown field and trees that had once formed part of a nearby estate. A chain link fence marked the perimeter of the field. Alex found it was criminally easy to ease his seven-year-old self over the chain link fence and drop into what, to him, looked like Oz. Weird deposits of abandoned building materials—marble pillars, old light fixtures—mingled with tall, reedy grass shot through with daylilies and blue bells, plants more often found occupying prize positions in domestic gardens than amongst the concrete and sandy soil of city land. Over time, Alex not only mapped the geography of his own personal Arcadia, he also began noting and compiling the various bird species he encountered—topping out at 90 by the time he left home for college.
“Everyone has a spark bird,” he told me.
“Yeah, it’s like the first bird they remember really seeing that gets them hooked on birding.”
“The ornithological gateway drug?”
He laughed. “Something like that. You know, it sparks you up, fires you up to see more.” He shrugged. “At least that was the case for me, but it was more than just birds. It was all of nature.”
I nodded. This made sense to me. If our encounters with nature aren’t mediated—the African safari, the guided tropical forest excursion—they feel increasingly rare. When it comes to things like grizzlies and pumas, this is a relief. But the more our world shrinks to fit in a screen, the more time we spend serving the bankrupt gods of technology, the less time we’re spending, as gamers say, IRL: In Real Life. And that includes in and with the natural world.
Each time the birdwatchers raise their binoculars to their eyes or peer through their scopes, they are waiting for something to happen, for a secret to reveal itself in the form of a shock of scarlet head or in the unexpected return gaze from two eyes like and both unlike their own.