Birding as a Coping Mechanism

Marbled godwit
photo: Joe Meche

In the midst of downtime due to the expected dog days of birding in August, there was ample time to reflect on and deal with a multitude of other details. It’s not surprising when you consider the current chaos of Covid-19 and its variants, not to mention the political paralysis we find ourselves in thanks to politicians running our government. And then came our very own record-breaking heat wave, complete with smoke from distant wildfires! 

To keep from losing my mind when many around me were seemingly losing theirs, I sought distractions to bide my time. For one thing, I found that I was becoming so overwhelmed with repetitious news on top of news that I decided to tune out for a while. It was a simple variation on Timothy Leary’s oft-misinterpreted slogan to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” from 1966. His mantra wasn’t just about getting stoned … it was much more complex than that with a focus on maintaining mental health. Your opinion might vary. 

Long before the ongoing pandemic rolled into our lives, every decade seems to have had its own unique brand of stress to offer, all the way from the war in Vietnam to the continuing embarrassment of the Trump presidency. It’s no wonder that stress and stress-related maladies have become such a focal point in our lives, individually and collectively. The most important way to deal with stress is to keep your own toolbox handy for coping. While I haven’t followed the concept of dropping out, I have tried to tune in, just to keep abreast of what I might expect from one day to the next.    

My personal toolbox for coping contains many of my own passions, including music, photography, and reading, as well as biking and hiking. One very large section of my toolbox, however, is reserved for birds and birding, whether it’s being out in the field observing and photographing them or reading about them. Not all of our toolboxes will look the same and we all do whatever needs to be done to cope with stress and maintain our mental health. When I focus on birds, I find the ultimate escape, literally and figuratively.

When I worked for a research company in the 80s, I traveled a lot, and, as soon as I found out where my next destination was, I pulled out a handy volume called “Where the Birds Are.” I knew that whatever happened at each site, I would take time to explore and find places to see a few good birds. Most of the cases I worked on involved spending time in children’s hospitals, and my short getaways were great for taking deep breaths and gaining perspective. Fresh air and birds will do it every time. No matter where I was and throughout the year, when I needed the mental space to deal with the situation at hand and life in general, birds were always there. 

If you read this column on a regular basis, chances are you’re already interested in birds so I might be preaching to the proverbial choir. Nonetheless, I can never overemphasize the benefits of getting out and observing birds and their behavior in their natural habitats. In this corner of the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with an amazing diversity of birds in a variety of scenic locations that only add to the experience. Unlike some places I’ve lived, the seasons are distinct here, and the birds we see often reflect the seasons. We have an ample supply of resident birds that are with us year round, but it’s the migrants that are the true indicators of change.

After the dog days and heat of August, we begin to see early arrivals which might be individual birds or small flocks which are the vanguard of larger numbers to come. Many of the birds that we see in early fall are southbound transients. The shorebirds that often crowd our shorelines and estuaries are on their way to warmer climes for the winter. Through most of September and into October, black-bellied plovers share the cobble beaches of the Semiahmoo Spit at high tide with dowitchers, dunlin, black turnstones, and as many as three godwit species. While most of these birds continue their migration, dunlin and turnstones remain throughout the winter. These shorebirds also attract raptors like peregrine falcons and merlins. 

As the weather gets colder, there will be thousands of birds ranging in size from the magnificent trumpeter swans to the diminutive buffleheads feeding and foraging throughout the county. With our generally moderate marine climate and ample food supply, Whatcom County provides ideal wintering habitat for bay and sea ducks, loons, and grebes. Birders from all over the state descend on local venues to see our birds, especially the Arctic breeding long-tailed ducks. You can disappear into the challenges of identification with scoters, goldeneyes, and mergansers, not to mention the variety of wintering gulls.

As the wintering birds begin to change into their breeding plumage in early spring, they will be joined by the same transients that you saw in the fall as they head north. This time of year is extremely dynamic for birds and for birdwatchers alike, since it heralds the beginning of the breeding season. The first part of spring is a very special time for humans as well as for birds. All of the birds we enjoyed during the previous nesting season return to begin a new year. The migrants from the Neotropics bring their startling colors and songs to further brighten our outings.

When the offspring of the year become old enough to fend for themselves and possibly join their parents to head south again, we come full circle from where we began. The resident birds, however, will continue to fill our time until the cycle begins anew. Keep in mind that the late fall and winter days will be along with spawning salmon and hundreds of bald eagles, as well as a bird of our dreams … the snowy owl. As you look at the year according to birds, you can see how much potential there is for humans to find their own balance with the help of these feathered marvels. The reliability of birds and their seasonal schedules provide a good model for us to observe and possibly emulate. 

If you have stress in your life, birds offer ample amounts of potential for coping. I remember being totally distraught and feeling a great loss at my dad’s funeral. The entire service was accompanied by a tremendous thunderstorm, which my Dad would have loved. Afterwards, when I walked out into the sunshine, the sound of scores of killdeer had a profound effect on this sad time and seemed to help me out of my emotional hole. The killdeer has since become my totem bird and I always smile and think of Dad when I see one. Go out sometime and find a totem bird of your own, or maybe one will find you. 

Hope to see you in the field!  

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Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written over 200 columns for Whatcom Watch.

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