An Urban Birder

By Sam Fried

I’d never been to a birding festival before when I was invited to give a keynote talk about my book, The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature at the Space Coast Birding Festival in Florida last week. The festival, in Titusville, Florida, is an extraordinary gathering of birding and photographic talent – Pete Dunne, Bill Thompson III, Kevin Karlson, Arthur Morris and many more–and a devoted population of bird-seeking, nature loving, binocular-toting attendees.

I’ve got a terrible sense of direction so I requested a car with a GPS to get me from the Orlando airport to Titusville, right near the Kennedy Space Center. Disgracefully, I was given a free upgrade to the only car with a GPS – a Lincoln Town Car. Is there anything more humiliating than talking about the environment and then getting into a car larger than the one used by Obama at the inauguration? But as I reminded myself, and anyone who cared, I live in Manhattan and own no car at all, so my carbon footprint is, in that regard, relatively small. Still I was a mobile illustration of the choices we make – and don’t make – for the environment. The great naturalist John Burroughs railed against the automobile until he was sent one by Henry Ford in 1912, whereupon he discovered, despite advanced age, the pleasures of zipping through the Hudson valley.

It’s one of the paradoxes of birding that people travel by car and airplane and use a mediating piece of technology – binoculars – to feel closer to the wild world. Since we are half-wild and half-urban ourselves, perhaps there is a certain inevitability to this. Neta Harris, who runs the festival, dubbed me the “urban birder” and my talk, “An Urban Birder’s Journey of Discovery.” But we are all urban birders now, and all make our journey of reclamation and discovery in a world of limited resources. Even Audubon lived (and died) in Manhattan, dreaming of his trip up the Missouri and his time in wild Kentucky.

I was invited down to the Space Coast festival because Keith Winston, who runs the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida, heard me on NPR talking about The Life of the Skies. We’d known each other 25 years ago in college and, as Keith told me over dinner, in those days he’d have voted me least likely to ever become a bird watcher. But that’s what birds do; they find the nature-blind and the bookish and lead them out farther and farther into the natural world that produced them but from which they were somehow cut off. We think we are naming them but they are redefining us in the process.

Since this is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species I also gave a seminar on “Birding in a Post-Darwinian World.” In certain ways, I think bird watching makes us all 19th century naturalists again and brings us back to that time when notions of professional and amateur, science and theology, were all tangled together. One of the heroes of my book is Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, who spent years looking for the elusive Bird of Paradise in the Malay Archipelago – as if he wanted to find a creature whose very name brought back the Eden that his theory overthrew. Why do people love calling the possibly extinct Ivory-billed woodpecker “The Lord God Bird”? And why do so many of us feel an imperative to preserve the environment – is it mere self-interest, because we need biodiversity to survive? Or is it because we are biblical stewards of the earth, even after Darwin? There are no final answers, but I believe it’s important to think about some of these questions, and the group I spoke to offered a beautiful diversity of answers.

But the pleasures of a birding festival are earthy, even if you spend a lot of time looking up. Like eating at Dixie Crossroads, owned by the family of Laurilee Thompson, a former fishing boat captain and organizer of the first Space Coast Birding Festival 12 years ago, who is still one of the green engines of the festival.

And then of course there are the birds –Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge’s Black Point drive is thick with tricolored heron and white ibis and little blue heron. Trekking around the Viera Wetlands treatment center – nothing better than a water “reuse” facility to remind you of the splendid overlap between human habitation and birdlife that is still possible – there are anhinga aplenty, limpkin, crested caracara overhead and even a bittern if you walk slowly and stare into the reeds. I was designated a “field leader” in Viera though the heavy lifting was done by Ralph Bird – there is always an avian name -- and by the Minnesota birder and blogger Sharon Stiteler, a.k.a “Birdchick” who was busy digiscoping the birds she found for her blog and who dialed up a least bittern for us courtesy of Clay Taylor, a naturalist and photographer who works for Swarovski.

Elsewhere, in the company of personnel from the Brevard Zoo, I encountered a small population of Florida scrub jays, birds found only in Florida and so a big deal for birders; all the birds were tagged for study and in the manner of jays mobbed us as they ate. The picture above was snapped by Sam Fried, a terrific photographer who gave several lectures at the festival and who also leads trips through his company Flights of Fancy Adventures.

Showing my daughter the picture of myself with a jay on my head -- like a light bulb going off in a cartoon except this light bulb was alive, and an idea for which I cannot take credit -- I thought about one of the workshops given by Bill Thompson III, editor of Birdwatcher’s Digest, called “No Child Left Inside.” And I thought about my wish that my children take a shorter road than I took back into the natural world. That night I helped my nine year old with her literacy homework – she is writing a small book about birds and their nicknames and is particularly amused that turkey vultures are called T.V.s. Not for nothing is hope the thing with feathers.

Audubon printed an excerpt from The Life of the Skies in its March-April 2008 issue. You can read it here.