The birding bubble

Human Nature

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The other day, I went with my friend to find a red-necked stint: an accidental transplant most likely from either Siberia or Alaska. This bird is tiny, weighing only about 25 grams — roughly the mass of an average mouse.

Although we never actually found the stint, I was honestly more interested in the people we saw.

Apparently, my friend wasn’t the only one to have heard of the stint. Hordes of birders had also turned up at the Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary, where my friend and I began our search. All along the trail, people stood with their eyes locked to the sandy ground, binoculars held at the ready, spotting scopes steady.

It felt like a secret society that I had wandered into by accident. I am a birding newbie at best, barely able to tell a jay from a junco. But as my friend and I walked along the beach, meeting and greeting the dozens of other binocular-bearing bird fiends, I was amazed by the automatic camaraderie in the interactions I witnessed.

There were people of all ages — something that made me really happy to see — and everyone was united by one common mission: to see the red-necked stint.

Calls of “Did you see the stint?” and “No! I was just going to ask you the same question” as well as the exchange of rueful but good-natured grins between strangers were common.

My friend and the other birders peered through their binoculars, adjusted their scopes and followed the swarms of tiny brown “peeps” up and down the water’s edge. They followed them from a distance, tracking them carefully and cautiously, muttering in annoyance whenever an overhead plane spooked the flock into flight.

While this was going on, I paused to admire the larger birds — the snowy egrets, the brown pelicans and long-billed curlews. I didn’t have binoculars with me, so I wasn’t fully engaged in the birding activities, but I was more than happy to marvel at the other birders, too.

It seemed like such a cool thing, the connection inherent in the birding community. Birding really seemed to bring people together, all drawn to this slightly smelly, marshy habitat through word of mouth, birding listservs and eBird.

It’s almost as if draping a binocular strap over your shoulders marked you as a member of an exclusive club, and in some ways, maybe it did.

Binoculars are extremely expensive, spotting scopes even more so, and while age is not a limiting factor in one’s participation in birding, access to disposable income certainly can be. I felt torn between relishing this sense of community and acknowledging the precariousness of this newfound sense of belonging.

Even though birding communities can bring people together, allied in the quest to catch a glimpse of the rare and the beautiful, others can be places where conversations are muted and progress is quelled in favor of a false sense of tranquility.

I ran into this when I was trying to learn more about peregrine falcons. I joined a Facebook group dedicated to falconry and hawks and posed a question to the group of more than 20,000. I explained that I was a student at UC Berkeley, and I asked those in the group to help me understand the global appeal of falcons.

Days passed before I got my first response. The respondent explained that I really shouldn’t expect many people to reach out, given that UC Berkeley is, as they said, “one of the most liberal left-wing bastian’s in the world” and that they “cannot even imagine a fair representation of a falconry coming out of your school.”

I was shocked at this response and a bit sad, but it reminded me of other instances where nature-appreciating communities seem to favor platitudes over progress.

For example, only within the last few years have efforts to rename bird species been made, as some of the most powerful birding institutions, such as the American Ornithological Society, have been slow to address concerns raised over the problematic names of many beloved bird species.

The names of birds such as the Hammond’s flycatcher and the Bachman’s warbler pay homage to men that were enslavers, commemorating them in ways that initiatives such as Bird Names for Birds are working to change. While some names have already been updated — such as the thick-billed longspur, which was previously named after a Confederate general — the Bird Names for Birds initiative has a long list of other names that have yet to be changed.

Indeed, progress is slow, but the sooner we all realize that it is impossible to decouple politics and nature appreciation from each other, the better.

Back at Elsie Roemer, I felt excited to be immersed in the birding community, even if for just that one afternoon. I enjoyed watching all of the birders and the birds, and I would go back in a heartbeat. But all the same, I remain mindful of the inclusive and exclusive dynamics of the birding community and of nature-related groups in general.

Rigidity and convention are overrated and damaging. Birding — and nature as a whole — must be made universally accessible. That process involves changing standards, engaging in dialogue and opening your circles to complete outsiders as well as curious observers such as me, hanging out on the fringes.

Lia Keener writes the Thursday column on the relationship between humans and the natural world. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.