I am hardly a birder. I was 19 before I even heard the term “birding” – on the bus ride into my summer job at Yellowstone National Park, hitched with a group of otherwise nondescript tourists, excepting a predominance of binoculars around necks.
We pulled off the main road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower-Roosevelt (my destination) abruptly, twisting and turning and eventually disembarking near the shores of a lake. Perhaps it was Blacktail Pond? Or Floating Lake Island? Both are acknowledged to be “good birding locations” in Yellowstone. I’m hazy on the details; more than 24 hours had passed since my head had felt the comfort of a pillow. The trip from my Pacific Northwest hometown to the park, mostly via Greyhound, had been uneventful, but hot and tiring. I was anxious to make it to Roosevelt Lodge, get my assignment – I had no idea what kind of work I would be doing – and pack it in for my first night in the world’s first national park.
I seemed to be the only one standing on the shores of this lake sans binoculars. I’d never spent time looking at birds before. Truth be told, at that time in my life I was there for the rocks, fresh from completing my first year of undergraduate studies toward a Geology degree. There was certainly excitement in the air among these birders, including another young employee heading to Roosevelt with me. With shaggy, unkempt hair, thick glasses, and a shy smile, my soon-to-be friend Sam probably loaned me his binoculars. He probably pointed out particular species to me. I’d like to say this experience transformed me into a birder, and I spent my summer learning to identify birds by their songs with Sam.
It didn’t happen that way. Of course I found many lovely kinds of granites and travertines and rock formations to explore that summer, not to mention other friendships more aligned with my earth-science-interests than Sam. I wasn’t against birding – I just wasn’t ready for it yet.
Fast forward twenty-some years ahead (25, to be precise, but who’s counting? Stop counting!) and I’m drinking my morning coffee out-of-doors rain or shine and listening intently. Birdsong, once background noise, is now discernible to the individuals, and even recognizable to some, very few as yet, species. I’m looking up male versus female markings and calls of common birds online. I’m using my bird guide and trying to figure out whether it’s reasonable to think I saw a varied thrush in my backyard in April. (It is, and I did!) Most often, when I hear or see a bird as yet unknown to me, I wish I had my Natural History professor, an avid and experienced birder, by my side to aid in identification.