It’s easy to think of birding as an escape from reality. Instead, I see it as immersion in the true reality. I don’t need to know who the main characters are on social media and what everyone is saying about them, when I can instead spend an hour trying to find a rare sparrow.
– Ed Yong, “When I Became a Birder, Almost Everything Else Fell Into Place”

Gualala, California
March 30, 2024

It was by luck. Actually, it was more like a small miracle, the kind of miracle that the wild world unexpectedly drops in your lap.

For a moment, I focused my camera on a bright, red and yellow flower, called a torch lily or red hot poker. Native to Africa it is common along the California coast in spring. In the brief seconds that the flower was in my viewfinder, a small bird landed on top. I was able to capture several shots before it flew off and disappeared into the thick shrubs nearby.

I tentatively identified it as a yellow-rump warbler, a common spring bird. Later, checking the photos on my camera, I was stunned to see that it was actually an unfamiliar bird. The field guides identified it as a palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum.) A lifer for me!  (Seeing a lifer is when you see a bird species for the first time and you add it to your Life List.)

Palm warblers are found almost entirely in eastern North America, wintering in Florida and summering in Canada, migrating through all the states in between. So what was it doing here? After a little more research, I discovered that a very small number like to winter along the California coast. Most of the other palm warblers are thousands of miles away. Which means seeing one, and especially photographing one, is a rare event, a small miracle.

Why do those few come to California? To take in the beautiful coastal scenery? Do they prefer the climate here? Maybe they enjoy the casual California culture.

For the birder, any day you see a lifer is a good day. Some birders seek lifers motivated by competition, obsession, and greed. It ceases to be about the bird or nature and more about the person’s ambition. (Check out the not great but still entertaining film, “The Big Year.”) But for most people, including myself, seeing a species of bird for the first time is almost a holy moment, when something unknown and previously unseen reveals itself.

Have gratitude for every living thing you encounter. It is heartbreaking to know that we are quickly losing many individual animals, entire species and healthy habitats.

I have value to my world and my community beyond ceaseless production . . . [P]ursuits like birding that foster joy, wonder and connection to place are not sidebars to a fulfilled life but their essence.
– Ed Yong, “When I Started Birding, Almost Everything Else Fell Into Place”

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