15 minutes of birding fame fly by

We got a lifer over here!
A photo shows a yellow prairie warbler with black stripes perched in a tree.
The prairie warbler photo that catapulted Emily Mills to birdwatching fame. Photo by Emily Mills.

We got a lifer over here!

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“Do you think the birds care that I call them ‘little motherfuckers’ when I’m trying to take their picture?”

No, probably not, I think in response to the young woman on the narrow forest path beside me. She has been trying to take a picture of a kinglet, a notoriously jumpy little bird. 

Birds have more pressing things to think about: singing, flitting about, finding food, attracting mates. In fact, on this day when I overhear the question, the birds seem largely unbothered by the sudden influx of visitors to their usually quiet patch of scrubby woods. We humans are all gathered with our binoculars and cameras to catch a glimpse of the prairie warbler, a bird that has made me briefly, locally famous.

A few days before, I’d decided to take a lunchtime stroll through our local patch of urban nature on Madison’s east side to see if I could snap a photo of a brown thrasher, an early spring migrant. I am a relatively recent convert to birding. The pandemic coincided with my starting a new job with many colleagues who were (and still are) enthusiastic birders. Between my preexisting love of nature, the exponentially increased urge to spend time outside away from other people, and the access to knowledgeable sources and helpful apps, becoming a birder feels somewhat inevitable, in retrospect.

As a visibly genderqueer human, I wasn’t sure how I’d fit in. I thought I’d have to go it mostly alone. In my previous exposure to birders, they were usually white, older men, many of whom were less than friendly to people they felt weren’t as serious as they were about birds. 

But something has definitely changed in recent years. Maybe the pandemic supercharged people’s desire to find safe, accessible outdoor activities. Maybe it’s part of the overall shift toward making the outdoors a more inclusive space, after centuries of racist gatekeeping. Probably it’s some combination of that and more things I can’t name.

When I started birding, it didn’t take long for me to find groups like the Feminist Bird Club and BIPOC Birding Club in Madison. Both were formed as part of that relatively recent wave of intentionally inclusive spaces for people to engage with and enjoy nature. 

I turned to the Feminist Bird Club’s chat server in order to identify the prairie warbler. All I knew at the time was that a small, bright yellow bird landed on a branch just a few yards away as I was searching for that brown thrasher. I hadn’t expected a warbler that early in the season. They usually start showing up in greater numbers in May, when warm southerly winds help carry most migrating birds on their 1000-plus-mile-journeys north from the Caribbean and South America. But this was mid-April, and I didn’t recognize it as one of the maybe three warblers I could identify at the time.

Turns out, I’d stumbled onto a type of bird that’s rarely seen in Wisconsin. And turns out, when you post that information to any of the birding apps or chats, it means every other birder in the area is going to come check it out.

Over the next week, dozens of people a day turned out to our little park to catch a glimpse of our transient friend. Every day I watched people with huge camera lenses tromp in and out of the woods. My neighbors commented on the sudden influx of cars parked on our dead-end street. When I went out to see the other birds people had found (orange-crowned and blue-winged warblers, northern water thrushes, yellow-bellied sapsuckers!) I was often recognized as the person who’d first “discovered” the star warbler. It was a fun little thrill to be part of such a joyful event for so many people.

In birding lingo, when you see a particular species of bird for the first time, it’s called a “lifer.” I’d had three big ones in the span of days. I’ll admit, there’s a very real dopamine hit from the experience. I was worried there was no way the rest of the season would compare.

Eventually, the prairie warbler moved on, and other rare birds drew the crowds to other parts of the city and state. Our little woods grew mostly quiet once again. 

What is it about birds that draws in so many people? I’d guess it’s something to do with the seemingly infinite variety that exists, and how there’s always more to learn. For me, I also love the aspect of getting to know my neighbors a bit better (I mean people, but I also mean the birds). Where does that bird like to hang out? What do they eat? What songs do they sing when they’re happy, horny, alarmed? Why are so many birds disappearing, and what can we do about it? (A lot, turns out.)

Birding also means getting outside, which I’ve increasingly become aware of as essential to my mental health. It’s not a cure-all, certainly, but it helps a lot. Just to stand outside can be enough. A walk on a bike path, along a forest trail, through a prairie, even just around a neighborhood—you can find birds anywhere, all while getting some much-needed fresh air and sunshine. The acts of looking and listening, too, get me out of my head, off my phone, and into my body and the world around me. And now there are also friendly communities you can tap into, no matter your experience level or time commitment. You can bird alone, but you also don’t have to. That’s a pretty appealing proposition.

And who knows? Maybe you’ll be the one to spot the next rare bird. Just be sure you want people to descend on your spot before you post about it. I wish I’d set up a lemonade stand, at least.

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