A Pandemic, a Cancer Diagnosis, and a Year List Like No Other

How birds became a thread of sanity through my tumultuous year.

The year 2020 was supposed to be the year I rediscovered the joy of birding.

Not the joy of birds, mind you. As a science writer with a focus on ornithology, I spend a lot of time reading and writing about birds. But the more my job tethers me to my computer instead of taking me outside, the less time I seem to spend actually birdwatching. So, last December, I decided to change that with a New Year’s resolution for 2020. For the first time ever, I would keep a year list of every bird species spotted. To keep it from becoming a chore, I wouldn’t put any pressure on myself to hit a certain number of species or chase rare visitors. Instead, it would be a “lazy" year list: a record of the birds I spotted while enjoying nature with my family during the 366 days of 2020.

I started my year of birds on January 1, with a Bald Eagle that flew low as my toddler son and I walked along a creek at the edge of town. With travel planned to conferences in Puerto Rico and Boulder, Colorado, I thought I would have plenty of opportunities to add fun species to my list with little extra effort.

Ha ha, right? You already know what happened next. Coronavirus spread, global lockdowns, and now nine months of social isolation and grief. But the global catastrophe we’re collectively experiencing was only half the reason why my lazy year list took an unanticipated direction. While everyone tried to adjust to the new pandemic reality, I was also dealing with a second, much more personal calamity: a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, news that diminished my mental landscape at the same time as COVID-19 curtailed my physical one.

In March, as pandemic closures ramped up, our local options for getting into nature became inaccessible, one by one. I added Western Meadowlark to my list at an Oregon state park on March 21; by the following weekend, Oregon state parks shut down. I arrived at Whitman Mission National Historic Site outside town with my son one morning, the spot where I’d added Killdeer and Great Horned Owl earlier in the month, to find the gates closed and locked. Ditto the reservoir where I’d recently spotted the year’s first Northern Harrier.

By April, the only nearby birding spot that remained open was a 50-acre patch of city park land adjacent to a hospital—a thicket of blackberries and cottonwoods criss-crossed by a couple miles of trails. It wasn’t a place we’d spent much time before. But desperate to get out of the house, my husband and I started walking there every Saturday morning, our two-year-old in the backpack carrier we’d bought with more adventurous hiking in mind.

Nearly every entry on my year list from April and May is from that little nature area. At first, I was disappointed; so much for my big plan to rediscover birding. But the place’s charms snuck up on me. I started learning to pick out the songs of different flycatcher species. My two-year-old added the words hawk, dove, and robin to his vocabulary. And our little patch ended up sustaining me when the arrival of the pandemic in March was followed by a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

My year-list notes and entries from my appointment calendar from the spring tell parallel stories about those months:

April 4 - Varied Thrushes singing as they passed through on their way to their breeding grounds closer to the coast

April 6 - CT scan

April 11 - a Rough-legged Hawk high overhead, on its way back to the Arctic

May 2 - Lazuli Buntings filling every tree with flashes of turquoise

May 7 - PET scan

May 9 - Calliope Hummingbirds, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Yellow-breasted Chats arrive as spring migration picks up in earnest.

May 11 - Scan results show cancer is stage 4.

May 18 - surgery to place a chemo port

I turned 33 on May 27. On June 1, I started chemotherapy.

My diagnosis was an unthinkable event in what was already an unthinkable year. As summer unfolded, I was lucky enough to be spared the worst potential side effects from the cancer-killing poisons circulating in my bloodstream. But the mental load was enormous. I developed a grim tunnel vision, unable to think about anything beyond the next infusion, the next check of my white blood cells, getting through the next long morning alone with my son while my spouse worked. Our weekly walks and the birds of our patch were the only things prodding me to keep looking up.

It was August when I learned via a social media post that the Umatilla National Forest campgrounds in the mountains outside town had reopened. With a PET scan to check the progress of my treatment looming, I convinced my husband to take a day off work so that we could spend the night after my scan in a tent beside a lake. It wasn’t Puerto Rico. It wasn’t even Colorado. But adding Gray Jay and Townsend’s Warbler to my lazy year list during that trip was a reminder that the world was still out there, waiting for me.

A long week later I learned the news: The PET scan was completely clear. I was officially in remission. This news changed everything. Suddenly I could cautiously peek more than a few months into the future; I’d almost forgotten what that felt like. My tunnel vision began to clear. It felt like emerging into sunlight after a long interlude underground.

The renewed mental clarity doesn’t mean my world—or the world in general—is now perfect. People are still dying of COVID-19, even as vaccines start being distributed and administered. Climate change is still threat. My cancer could come back. But now, as throughout this year, the birds are out there. They gave me hope through my cancer treatment, and they give me hope now. They’re a reminder that another world exists outside our human troubles, dire as they might be.

As 2020 winds down, I find myself returning with binoculars to our little patch even as other parks and trails have reopened. The juncos and kinglets have reappeared in the valley after a summer spent elsewhere, and I’m cultivating a new appreciation for sparrows. As I type this, my year list stands at 114 species. (The latest addition: a single young Greater White-fronted Goose hanging out with Snow Geese at the local reservoir.) I’m content with that number. And come January 1, we’ll start over once again.