My father and I drove to High Island today to check out the spring migration of birds from Central and South America. High Island is the first piece of land many of these birds encounter after flying over the Gulf of Mexico. They’re tired, hungry, and thirsty, so they descend upon the woods of High Island, often in mixed flocks, and are often so tired that they allow humans to approach at close range. If conditions are right and there’s a “fallout” of birds, you can see more than a hundred species in a small area.
Birding depends so much on serendipity that going out with the sole intent to birdwatch is pretty risky. Today, however, was a definite win! I’d seen tanagers only a couple times in North America, but today we saw so many that I lost count. The weather was fantastic. We saw a scissor-tailed flycatcher (male), gray catbirds, summer tanagers (male and female), scarlet tanagers (male and female), rose-breasted grosbeaks (male and female), wood thrushes, an Eastern kingbird, a northern waterthrush, a white-crowned sparrow, northern cardinals (male, female), a male indigo bunting, a cerulean warbler, a male Baltimore oriole, a male orchard oriole, a common yellowthroat, a yellow-throated vireo, a Kentucky warbler (we watched it catch and eat two plump caterpillars as it flitted through the undergrowth), an Eastern wood-pewee, an Inca dove (unlike the other dove species around here, it sounds like a rattling rattlesnake as it takes off), roseate spoonbills that were nesting, great blue herons, nesting snowy and great egrets, common gallinules, and other birds. (I didn’t have a field guide with me, so I used a mnemonic link system to remember these species as we hiked.) Most of the songbirds were all over the fruiting mulberry trees. The tanagers were so busy gorging themselves that they hardly paid any attention to me as I photographed them from as close as a few feet away. In true Texas fashion, some people a mile away were clay shooting or something and blaring extremely loud oldies music. In the quiet woods, the birds would flinch every time the gunshots went off.
However, this article isn’t about birding on High Island. (If you’re interested, here’s an active photo blog of birds seen there during spring migration: High Island Birding News. The photos are phenomenal.)
(This article is also not about the unpopularity of birdwatching among young people . Birdwatching is so unpopular, especially among young men, that my male friends and I stood out during a trip to High Island several years ago and were interviewed by Texas Parks and Wildlife staff and given free T-shirts.)
This article is about bandwidth. If you can identify birds and know a few things about them, then your outdoor activities will be more meaningful and enjoyable, because instead of calling every flying vertebrate a “bird” (or a bat, in North America), you have more context and therefore a greater understanding of the same experiences as the person next to you with no knowledge about birds. You have more bandwidth. You’re more alive. You’re less likely to buy wild land and pave it with asphalt or concrete. You’re less likely to be bored. You need less to be happy.
And that, I think, is what birding is really about. I hardly ever go out just to birdwatch anymore. I birdwatch while I’m running, cycling, or hiking. It adds a lot of depth and interest to these experiences. I feel more alive for knowing what’s going on.
Similarly, when I started learning guitar, it completely changed how I listened to music. It massively expanded the range of music I could listen to without being bored, because I now had a better understanding of what it takes to create music.