Birding

Why Autism Makes the Outdoors More Beautiful—and Complicated

A naturalist in Texas takes us birding from her point of view.

Pictures and patterns are the language of my mind. When I look at a field, I see each blade of grass, the shape of shadows, and the perfect syntax of branches. Only then do I notice the Ruby-crowned Kinglet glaring back through the hackberry tree.

Like many autistics with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, I’ve gone through my share of hyperfixations. Growing up in Washington state, I had Pileated Woodpeckers drumming in my yard, Tree Swallows nesting in my air ducts, and Bald Eagles perching on the highway lights. Nature’s majesty was commonplace, but I found myself drawn to more reclusive interests: coin-collecting, abnormal psychology, and the Dada art movement. It wasn’t until my 30s, when I moved to Texas, that I noticed how special the avian world is. After getting lost in the sharp, inky details of a Black-crested Titmouse, I started seeking out birds and discovered that brief, 15-minute forays into the outdoors would calm and refresh my brain.

As an intensely visual person, I’m transfixed by the colors, movements, and contrasts of the birds I study. The golden sheen on a Mourning Dove’s neck or the playful shuffle of a feeding Lincoln’s Sparrow thrill me the way sugar fuels a child. Notable encounters, even with common species, are nothing short of rapturous. I can spend hours watching House Finches pick through my window feeders, inspecting their anatomy through the layer of glass between us. By studying the birds close to home, I can detect unlikely visitors by a single field mark or behavior. This winter, for instance, I noticed a wayward Pine Siskin amid the frenzy of House Sparrows and House Finches. I identified it quickly enough to snap photos and celebrate with ample hand-flapping.

My obsession goes beyond listing; a species only counts once it’s documented. So, I bring my camera—and sometimes a monocular—with me everywhere. The community-science platform iNaturalist is my other go-to tool: It gives me access to experts for ID advice and confidence as a birder. What’s more, it helps me organize my sightings and photos by taxonomy and date, which relieves a lot of stress in my day-to-day. Prior to iNaturalist, I would be too overwhelmed to seek out nature-watching opportunities. But now that I have a way to file away what I’ve seen, I have an endless appetite for finding birds and bugs, as if to make up for lost time.

Being a self-taught naturalist, I rely on community scientists to navigate the unique wildlife in and outside of Texas. With their guidance, I’ve been able to log 1,249 insect species, 523 plant species, and 364 bird species on the database since 2015. This combination of learning and exploring is highly motivating; it fuels me to get outdoors as much as possible. Once I’m in the forest, searching for the author of a strange call, or spying on a Great Horned Owl as it, too, spies on prey, I lose all sense of myself. I can hike the west Texas desert for hours with nothing more than a handful of granola bars, a pack of water, and an armory of camera batteries. That stamina is especially handy during the Christmas Bird Count, when I go dawn to dusk, snapping each feathered being to ID it on the spot. My superzoom camera can freeze details my birder companions can’t catch—the head size on a backlit accipiter or the field marks of distant ducks—so we can add unwieldy species to our census.

It may seem as if autism gives me superpowers, but overall it makes life and birding much harder. For every new adventure, I have to research and plan each minute detail. This can be tough, given that birders use word-of-mouth to share tips and news. As a newcomer, I’m not in the networks, which means I have to face a few uncertainties in the field, along with the stress that ensues. For example, the first time I visited Hornsby Bend, a hotspot near Austin, I wasn’t sure if cars were allowed. I drove in anyway, but my anxiety kept me from returning for months, until a group of birding veterans told me that vehicles were fine. Now, I go every chance I get.

A few sticky cases aside, I can’t overstate how valuable birding has been to me. Being autistic is very isolating at times, but I’ve always felt welcome among the binocular-bearing crowd. Hyperfixations often keep autistic folks from finding a community, so I’m lucky to share one that’s so widespread—with admirers who are just as obsessed as I am. In birders I’ve found belonging, and in birds I’ve found a way to express my intricate view of the world.

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