“What are you looking at?”
It’s a question I hear often during my walks in local parks and nature preserves. And that makes sense: After all, when I’m outdoors you’ll often find me peering through binoculars, staring at something invisible to casual passersby.
Almost always, my first response to the question is a pang of annoyance, which I try to keep hidden. Don’t they realize that I’m watching a bird here? Don’t they understand that I want to be left alone? Don’t they get it that I often come to the park just to avoid talking to anybody?
Well, no, they don’t. They haven’t thought about it as deeply as I have. They just want to find out what I’m looking at. So I take a deep breath, lower my binocs, and turn, often finding a young person or parent and child standing there. Sometimes it’s even a newbie birder, binoculars in hand.
I muster all the enthusiasm I can and point out what I’ve been focusing on. Perhaps it’s a Yellow Warbler singing from its scrubby perch, or a Great Blue Heron flapping overhead like an ancient pterodactyl, or a small flock of Purple Martins wheeling around their nesting gourds.
I always try to make the sightings come to life: I describe how Martins are completely dependent on the nesting sites that we build for them; how all living birds truly are dinosaurs, and herons certainly look the part; how Yellow Warblers are just one of the flood of spring migrants coming this way from as far away as South America.
As I talk, I find my enthusiasm becoming real. (Birds’ background stories are cool!) And almost always, my interest is matched by my listeners’. Often it turns out that they have their own nature stories to share, and I learn something from them, too. More importantly, we have a moment of connection before they walk on and I raise my binoculars again.
Perhaps this all sounds obvious—of course you should share your enthusiasm with others—but the truth is, too often we birders don’t. Like me, many other birders value (even crave) the solitude, the silence, the undisturbed chase that birding can provide. Some also worry about the growing popularity of the pursuit, fearing that the arrival of hordes of newcomers will make favorite spots less enjoyable to visit. (It reminds me of Yogi Berra’s description of a newly popular nightclub: “Nobody goes there anymore—it’s too crowded.”)
So I know that I’m far from the only one to suppress a sigh when I’m approached by a curious stranger. And I confess that as I turn, putting a smile on my face, I sometimes wonder why I’m doing it. Why bother to give more than a polite but terse answer? Why disrupt my own experience—and maybe miss seeing a rare bird—to welcome an outsider into my world?
To me, there’s both a casual and a deep response to those questions. The casual one is, Why not bother? Is this world so filled with warmth and human connection that we should disdain the chance to add to it? Even if a listener doesn’t end up sharing my enthusiasm, I always feel better for having tried.
Honestly, I think this moment of connection is a good enough reason on its own. But the deeper one is even more important. Why bother? Because the future of our beloved local preserves—and all the world’s dwindling wild places—depends on it.
The future? How can that be? Let me give you just one example out of an unimaginable myriad from around the world: the grassland hill that is Croton Point Park’s most striking feature. Notoriously, that hill was once a toxic-waste dump, a Superfund site, an abandoned landfill. And even after it was capped, it remained a scrubby mass of weeds, invasive plants, and trash.
Today, though, it’s covered by native grasses and other plants that are exceptionally beautiful in every season. Crucially, the reclaimed habitat attracts threatened Bobolinks, American Woodcocks, and Grasshopper Sparrows, along with a host of butterflies, bees, dragonflies, and other plant, bird, and insect species whose grassland refuges elsewhere are vanishing at a frightening rate.
The transformation of a toxic dump into a welcoming grassland didn’t just happen. It took the concerted efforts of a host of individuals and organizations (including Saw Mill River Audubon) to turn the landfill into a place worth celebrating and saving. But the job isn’t done: Once reclaimed, it and other preserves don’t maintain themselves. Invasive plants and other threats are always encroaching, and conservation budgets are perennially skimpy.
So to me it’s simple: The fate of countless wild areas around the world depends not only on people like me, but on future generations of equally passionate advocates. And where will those advocates come from? Perhaps they’ll include some of those who are already interested enough to stop me and ask that tentative question: “What are you looking at?”
Of course, I never know what will happen after I show someone that Yellow Warbler, Great Blue Heron, or Purple Martin. Undoubtedly most people forget our little interaction before they even leave the park. But the idea that a few—or even one!—might take a deeper interest, become involved, fight, gives me hope for the future of our fragile planet. And hope is a precious thing…even if I have to miss a bird to experience it.
Copyright © 2023 by Joseph Wallace