In our culture, doing things by yourself is often viewed as odd, or suspicious, or sad. Even something that doesn’t require the presence of anyone else, like going to the movies, can result in weird looks if you go alone. (You’re sitting in a dark room staring straight ahead and not talking! Why do you need other people with you?) Interpersonal relationships are critical to a happy life, of course, but being alone isn’t the same as being lonely, and there’s nothing wrong with spending time by yourself. Especially in nature.
My first job after college was working for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in the state forests inside the rural triangle loosely defined by the cities of Syracuse, Utica, and Binghamton. DEC was looking for someone to photograph each of the forests, do some quick research into the history of the place, and put text and images together for welcome kiosks. I somehow managed to talk my way into the job (despite accidentally showing up a day early for my interview) and it was a dream. Each day I’d chug a big old state-issued Ford F150 along back roads to a different forest and spend the whole day bushwhacking through it alone, without any purpose other than to see what I could see.
And I saw amazing things. I spooked a black bear in Broome County and then carried a stick for the rest of the day, “for protection.” I almost stepped on a decaying porcupine carcass. I stumbled into a clearing to find a massive Barred Owl, surrounded by whirling, scolding birds, staring right at me. I watched a fawn drink from a rocky brook. I saw and heard a ton of birds. Not once during the entire summer did I see another human being in the woods.
My time alone in the woods that summer offered me something I can’t find anywhere else: privacy without confinement. It was the kind of education that birders cannot get on a bird walk, say, or a guided trip, where every species is pointed out and identified for you. I was operating without a syllabus, which is an inefficient way to learn, maybe even indulgent, but much more fun. When you’re alone you may not see as much or understand what you’re looking at, but each discovery is that much more meaningful because you made it yourself.
Being alone in the woods can also be frightening. I’ve felt the ground shake underneath me after startling moose in northern Maine, and hoped their crashing lopes took them away from me instead of towards me. I was certain that the bears (and the giant owl!) in New York would attack me. It’s a sensation rooted in our distant ancestry, I’m sure, but sensationalized and monetized by the companies like the Discovery Channel, which broadcasts countless “reality” shows telling you that nature is something to be afraid of and survived.
Is it safe to bird alone? I’m not really sure. Like traveling anywhere, much of how safe you feel depends on where you are and the precautions you take while you’re out. But all of my frightening experiences left me feeling connected and appreciative rather than deterred. Vulnerability is a constant in nature—at any moment there’s a Sharp-shinned Hawk coming for a songbird, or a Great Blue Heron coming for a fish. Really, humans only convince ourselves it’s any different for us in our daily lives, but to be reminded of that animal vulnerability again can be invigorating.
(I need to acknowledge, of course, the privilege that I am afforded when it comes to being out alone in the woods. I recognize that others—women, in particular—must deal with a whole host of worries about being alone in the outdoors. I do hope, though, that fear won’t preclude these kinds of experiences, and that there might be safer ways to go.)
You’ll be in good company. Many of the most famous naturalists spent significant time alone in nature. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden; or, Life in the Woods, that he “never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” John Muir read Walden on his long solo walks through the Yosemite backcountry. John James Audubon himself did much of his exploration and collection on his own, and, look, all these years later he’s got this website named after him.
Next time you go birding, go by yourself. Don’t go to a bird walk, don’t go to where you’ll see many other people. Find a place and just explore it, letting your senses and your instinct be your guide. Trust me, you’ll see things and hear things you wouldn’t have if you were with others. Maybe you’ll see something you’ll never forget! Maybe you’ll find something you like even more than birds! Just let it happen. And whatever you do, don’t worry about being lonely. You’ll have plenty of new stories to tell your friends when you get back.