Starting any new thing can be an intimidating task, and dipping one's toe into the world of bird watching is no different. With over 2,000 bird species in North America and nearly 18,000 bird species in the world, birding can definitely seem like an overwhelming hobby to start. I found myself in that camp nearly a year ago when I was in the middle of the Okavango Delta studying for an exam that included being able to recognize 40 different bird species both by sight and by sound. Prior to my preparation for the trip, I had heard of maybe three of the bird species that we had to recognize -- not very many at all. I spent the first week trying to figure out how the heck I was going to learn the names, appearances and calls of all these birds while simultaneously learning the material from fourteen other modules in a month's time. I considered using Quizlet but felt like it would take away from the whole unplugged, middle-of-the-bush vibe. After toying with some ideas, I finally landed on a method that was incredibly successful for me and my learning style. I'll be sharing it with you, as I've gone on to apply it even back home as a growing birder.
After I made my first list I immediately made another list, trying to recall the different patterns that I'd recognized. I remembered more birds but still had to call upon the aid of my master list. And then I did it again and again and again and again, literally filling pages and pages of my notebook with a repeating list of 40 prominent birds of Northern Botswana. As the days went on and I continued making lists, it became easier and easier to recall the birds. *Side note: I'm a HUGE proponent of writing things down instead of typing them — a quick Google search of 'writing vs typing memory' will result in numerous scholarly articles highlighting the benefits of handwriting when concerning memory.* Even upon returning to the States, I wrote the list over and over again on anything — napkins, Band-Aid wrappers, planner margins, notebooks, scrap paper, etc. — in order to remember the names of these birds (and I still do).
So how do you apply this practically? Wherever you live, Google common birds in your region. For me, I Googled 'common birds of North Carolina' and developed a list of 40+ birds. Write the list down by hand (40 really isn't too scary of a number, I promise). Study it. Read it. See what birds you might already know and what birds you're completely unfamiliar with. Find patterns in your list. How many raptors/owls/wrens/water birds/etc. are there? Do any birds have a color in their name? Are there any birds with similar names? Ask questions. Find silly patterns that help the names stick and solidify in your mind. And then write the list down again. And again. And again. Do it once during breakfast, maybe again at lunch, take a brain break from your primary occupation to jot down the list again, think about the list on your way to/from work, etc. Anytime you feel like it, try to recall the list. The more often you do it, the quicker you'll get it down.
Once you start paying more attention to birds, the easier it becomes. You start to notice differences in body types even if you see two birds of a similar color. Take note of sexual dimorphism, that is, the differences in appearance between males and females of the same species, such as in color, shape, size, and structure, that are caused by the inheritance of one or the other sexual pattern in the genetic material. For example, male cardinals are characteristically a brilliant red whereas females are a light brown with only tinges of red. In other species, such as the Florida scrub jay, both male and female morphs appear the same. There can also be differences when it comes to juveniles and adult size and plumage but, again, the more you bird, the more you'll become familiar with these differences.
Note that this step doesn’t necessarily have to come after you've FINALLY memorized your list of birds. You can begin associating names with pictures, as it may be helpful while you're trying to memorize your list. The biggest point of getting a memorized list going is just to help you not jump into birding blindly.
Associate each one with its proper call.
Ahh, now to bird calls. I'm not going to lie, this is the most difficult part of the learning process for me, especially if I'm trying to learn the calls on my own. I'm a huge proponent of letting others help you, particularly when it comes to identifying bird calls. Personally, I have a fear that if I'm studying calls on my own I'll incorrectly learn and identify a call, which would eventually result in me having to unlearn the incorrect call and relearn the proper one (that's part of the reason I started the Charlotte Nature Journal Club, so that people can meet and learn about different aspects of nature together). Anyways, back to bird calls. In Botswana I learned that there is a German word — eselsbrücke — that literally translates into "donkey bridge" and refers to any mnemonic device or phrase that is used to remember facts or information. A very common example in English is "PEMDAS" (Parentheses, Exponents, Multiply, Divide, Addition, Subtraction). Applying this to birding, you hear the call and try to see if it reminds you of anything. Taking a Senegal coucal, the donkey bridge used to remember its call is that it sounds like a happy little ghost laughing. It's silly, but I haven't forgotten the call of this bird. And in the States, a tufted titmouse, for example, sounds like it's whistle-ly saying "Peter-Peter" over and over again. Whatever donkey bridge works for you works for you, and you should share yours with other birders because it may help them remember that call too. If you're trying to learn these bird calls with a group of people, circle up and have a bird call brainstorming session: play different the bird calls and try to come up with a donkey bridge for each of them. Do be sure to note that some birds have multiple calls that you may want to learn too.
The best way to get better at something is to start doing it, and this is how I got my foot in the door to birding. There are many more aspects to birding, such as learning behavior and identifying birds in the field, but both of those will come as you begin reading more about birds and spending more time with them. Allow yourself to be curious and ask questions. Do research. When you're in the field, take note of observations you see and questions that arise. Talk to others about what you saw, as they may be able to help further develop your understanding of what was observed. For both of these tasks, I find the Audubon Bird Guide App to be incredibly helpful. Each bird species is fairly thoroughly profiled in description, songs and calls, range, migration, conservation status, discussion, habitat, feeding behavior, diet, nesting and eggs. Intentionally reading through birds' profiles will help you learn more about them. You may also want to consider a field guide to the behavior of birds in your region. I don't have any recommendations for a specific guide, but a quick Google search will bring up a few options.
When you're trying to identify birds in the field, use GISS (General Impression of Shape and Size) as a general rule of thumb for noting different characteristics:
There's a feature on the Audubon Bird Guide App that walks you through each of these steps as you're trying to ID a bird, but I think they are important for you to know for yourself if you're away from your phone or if you have to make note of a bird very quickly. While it may seem like a lot to note, it definitely becomes more natural the more you do it.
Just like any new thing, birding takes practice. Get out there and walk around. Use your list to start learning and identifying birds in your area. As you get out more, you'll find more birds that you haven't seen before or aren't familiar with. As you begin to identify those, they'll stick in your mind too! Learning is a very fluid process that looks different for a lot of people, so there is no "right way" to start birding. I just found this method to be incredibly successful for me in deterring the feeling of being overwhelmed. Now get out there and start birding!
As always, let me know if this was helpful for you or if you have any recommendations of your own!
Today my spirit has been heavy, harrowed with sorrow. Over the last couple weeks I have experienced the steadily increasing weight of the world’s burdens, but today it reached its tipping point. This morning as I distractedly completed my last final of the semester, I was overwhelmed with emotion and sadness for the family of Ahmaud Arbery, who, as I’m sure many of you know by now, was followed and fatally shot as he was jogging through a neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia. I could hardly react, hardly process what happened (over two months ago, I might add). And yet, I experienced an irrepressible ache not only for the racial injustices and corrupt systems that plague the world but also for the injustices committed against the innocent on a daily basis. The part that saddens me the most is that WE are inflicting this pain upon each other and upon our planet.
I look at nature, at animals, and I see innocence. I see creatures trying to survive. I see them dying at our hands, hit by our cars, driven out by our expansion, hunted for our pleasure. I see our planet being leeched of its resources. Our planet — and the animals that inhabit it — are desperately trying to adapt and survive to the changes we are so rapidly imposing upon them. It shatters my heart and brings me to tears that millions of animals are dying by our hands. But many people perceive nature and animals as cruel. They see a vulture scavenging a car-struck deer on the side of the road and don’t think for a second that it’s worth saving. They see a lioness kill a newborn zebra and a sympathy is evoked.
But the seeming cruelty of nature — which is survival based — pales in comparison to the evil and cruelty that we are able to conjure in our hearts, lives and societies.
Humanity has become so comfortable in its own sin that when people see something as fundamental as survival in the wild they call it ‘cruel’ whilst simultaneously overlooking the far more horrid injustices we commit to our brothers and sisters. We have convinced ourselves that we are good enough on our own.
When I look at humanity, I see our desperate need for a Savior. It’s obvious that we aren’t able to fix the problem ourselves or we would’ve figured out a way to do so by now. We have forgotten our humanness, our brokenness, our innately evil tendencies.
We have forgotten how badly we need someone to save us.
I called my mentor crying, asking him how he deals with the weight of all the evil in the world. And he reminded me that it serves as a reminder of our desperate need to be saved. It unmasks our humanity, showing us the reality of the human condition, and it makes room for Jesus to come in and heal our hearts, our lives and our societies if we let Him. The hope we get to cling to is named Jesus — He will come and rule the world one day with truth and justice. Until then, we get to cling to the promise that He will do so.
I did a lot of wrestling today. A lot of contemplation with the Lord. A lot of allowing myself to feel everything. I felt physically heavy, a tangible weight pressing on my shoulders. I cried at the world’s brokenness. I cried at the fact that we live in a world in which people are more appalled at the seeming cruelty of nature than they are at mankind’s ability to hate and steal and murder. I cried at the fact that some people will never get to taste the assurance of the hope named Jesus. I cried to the Lord. Then I thanked the Lord for His promise of hope. I thanked the Lord that one day He will rule with truth and justice on the earth. I thanked the Lord that one day we and all creation will be free from the bondage we have made ourselves slaves to.
I encourage whoever is reading this to feel everything you are feeling. Feel the anger, the brokenness, the sadness, the pain, the confusion and anything else. Cry. Lament. Talk to God. Allow yourself to be vulnerable with Him. Ask Him to bring up new things and comfort you in new ways. Allow Him to do so. Commit your hope to the coming of Jesus.
If you’ve never experienced Jesus in this way before, if you have any questions or if you need to just talk, please reach out to me. I’d love to chat with you.
I spent most of today toying with the idea of taking our kayak out to the Manatee River, factoring in how I was feeling, what things graced my to-do list, and how many of the next few days were projected to have good weather. Eventually I decided I needed to clear my head and go out for a few hours. An old family friend’s story lingered in my memory, though, as it always does when I contemplate kayaking: several years ago a very large alligator, which was as long as his 11-foot-long kayak, swam next to him as he was on the water. No harm was done, but this story serves as a sobering reality of an alligator’s potential size, which pictures often don’t do justice. However, as a Florida native, my own experience and knowledge of alligator behavior pushed the story and the concern it evoked to the back of my mind.
Putting into the water, I was excited for the opportunity to explore the river whose banks so remind me of “Old Florida,” an untouched tropical wilderness marked by high-reaching palms, thick underbrush and serene choruses of birds. Navigating different side streams, I much enjoyed my time cruising through what seemed to be a different world, a world in which animals experience relief from the ever-growing threats of habitat destruction and human-wildlife conflict. A large venue of vultures decorated a tree, squirrels and lizards rustled about the bank’s grassy undergrowth, and water birds stood wondrously still and well-camouflaged amongst the reeds.
For me, it’s one of a few places in this world that seems so familiar yet leaves so much to be discovered.
I eventually just sat, allowing my kayak to drift in the slow-flowing water. As my body was refreshed in the cool shade of overhanging trees, I sat chatting with God, speaking Biblical truths in the face of my worry and allowing my soul to be refreshed as well. How thankful am I that I serve a God — a good Father — who cares about the things we care about, who knows the depths of our hearts and the joys we gain from this world.
My brief retreat into the wilderness did have to come to an end, though. I paddled back at a consistent pace in hopes of returning in time to prepare for a 7-o’clock Bible study with a former teacher and some high school students.
The boat dock came into sight as I rounded the bend and drifted closer to shore than I realized. It was in that moment that some big animal — unnoticed by me — and I gave each other quite a fright: in an instant the water EXPLODED around me in a big, loud, frantic manner, immediately sending waves of water spraying into my face. My head snapped to the right, from whence the initial burst came, as I tried to make out what was going. Eerily, I saw nothing but brown foaming, circulating water and undulating waves in the spot where the animal had disappeared. Holy crap, I thought, trying to process what was happening. My kayak rocked with the powerful, thrashing swells from the animal’s tail, and I knew I had startled a large alligator. As I felt it move through the water and under my kayak, there was naught I could do but stare at the bulging waves around me, watch water pour into the hull, hold my paddles still in my lap, pray I didn’t tip over, and ride out the surge, hoping that I wouldn’t see the gator resurface on my left.
As soon as the water calmed in the slightest and as soon as I realized my periphery lacked the image of an alligator, I glanced over my left shoulder trying to catch a fuller glimpse of the animal. I didn’t see it, but I didn’t need to after what had just happened. Sparing time for one more double-take, I started beelining towards the dock. After only a few strokes, I slowed my pace, my hands shaking in disbelief of what had just happened. Adrenaline coursed though my body, having prepared me for fight or flight, but neither were necessary. The alligator wasn’t after me. It wasn’t chasing me. It was trying to get out of the situation just like I was. Though the ordeal took less than ten seconds, I will admit that there are only a few other notable times in which I have felt as vulnerable and helpless as I did in those seconds.
It was the inability to do anything for that brief moment that invoked within me the greatest fear. Regaining my composure, I paddled up to the dock, tossing my waterlogged camera onto dry land, dragging the kayak up the ramp, and doubling-over in awe of what had just happened. Though my body instinctively shook, it wasn’t long before I was smiling at the insanity and wildness of what took place in the water just a few hundred meters away.
The alligator and I startled each other probably the same amount. Reflecting on the whole thing, it’s obvious that the alligator wasn’t out to attack me by any means, and I would never say that it was. It was trying to get to a safer place, and I just happened to find myself between the animal and its safety, which is likely why I had that encounter at all. I would guarantee that there were plenty of gators (that I didn’t see, by the way) around during the two hours I was on the water, but I just happened to accidentally come between this one and its safe place.
My dad was sure to bring to my attention, however, that it is alligator mating season. Mating takes place in early April, and nesting occurs from May to June. During this period, as occurs often in the animal kingdom, alligators may experience heightened levels of aggression. It’s a good reminder to carry with me in the back of my mind, especially if I go back out in the next few days. There is also a reality, though, that I was out on the water for about two hours and never once saw an alligator. And honestly, if I hadn’t been so close to shore and startled that alligator, I likely wouldn’t have known it was there either.
This alligator's instinct was to flee, as is the initial reaction of many surprised animals. Most of the time when people become involved it’s because they stand in the path leading to the animal’s safety. When encountering wild animals, make sure they have an available escape route, for their sake and yours.
No, not the Firefly Music Festival; Congaree National Park's Firefly Festival.
"Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies..."
- Robert Frost, "Fireflies in the Garden"
In the South, a key indication that summer is starting is the presence of fireflies. This year, I've seen them as I'm driving down highways, as I'm walking my dogs in the evening or as I'm closing up my pool for the night. They're everywhere, and I love seeing their blinking glow rise as the sun sets.
Congaree National Park in Columbia, South Carolina is a treasure chest for those who enjoy discovering nature's hidden gemstones. Here are three reasons why you should check out this National Park's Firefly Festival, which occurs in any given two-week period between late May and early June.
1. Congaree is one of a few places in the world where you can experience a natural wonder up-close and personally.
The Firefly Festival at this National Park exists to bring awareness to a seldom-known natural event: synchronous firefly flashing. This event, which can be found only in a few places worldwide, occurs when fireflies gather to mate with one another. Research continues to be done in hopes of determining the reasons for and mechanisms of the synchronous flashing, but it's currently suggested that the flashing is a form of male-male competition for females. While there are over 2,000 species of firefly found worldwide, only 3 species of synchronously flashing flies can be found in the U.S., one of them being right at Congaree!
2. You can walk amidst the magic of synchronously flashing fireflies.
After arriving at the park during this two-week period, you will find that workers at Congaree have extensively and adequately prepared for this event. Stepping into the encompassing glow of red lights, you find yourself transported into a seemingly new world. As your eyes adjust to the contrast between the red light and pitch blackness of the night, you find yourself walking through Congaree National Park underneath a deep red hue, which is a unique experience in itself. Soon you are directed to a trailhead on which you hike through a 0.8-mile trail that highlights the fireflies. As you walk, you're surrounded by forest and fireflies (and other visitors, of course). Almost immediately you will find yourself mesmerized by the synchronous flashing of the fireflies: all at once you'll see fireflies flashing in large groups, as if they are clusters of twinkling lights in the Milky Way. Everywhere you turn you are surrounded by these shining diamonds, and you're walking literally among and between them.
3. You can learn a lot, all while checking another National Park off your list!
The park rangers and volunteers at the event were not only incredibly helpful but also incredibly knowledgable. They were able to tell us a lot about Congaree National Park in general and about the synchronous fireflies themselves. In addition, they opened the nature center for the evenings that we were there. In the nature center, you can learn many interesting things, including the history of how Congaree came to be coined a National Park, different species of animal that one would expect to find in the swampy park, and various books and maps about an assortment of subjects. In addition to learning all about the park, you can also check another National Park off of your list — and who doesn't love that?
Happy Earth Day!
This year, there’s a popular saying, of sorts, that “Every day should be Earth Day.” While I am grateful for the awareness that this celebratory day brings to important issues such as climate change, pollution, wildlife conservation and the preservation of our planet as a whole, I do agree that the topic is a very demanding one that needs daily focus and attention. Making necessary changes to our lifestyles, businesses and society is the only way that we will begin to start the journey of repairing the damage we have done to our planet.
It’s easy to become discouraged when considering the ways that we’ve affected our planet. Often I envy the people of the past who were surrounded and living in the raw, wild beauty of nature, unaffected by mankind. I am very deeply sorrowed at the fact that I will never in my lifetime see Earth in that state, one in which wild animals that are presently facing extinction roam the earth freely. Never will I, nor anyone, see the vast populations of trees and wildlife that once inhabited the lands of fallen rainforests and crowded cities. We are racing more and more quickly to a polluted ocean decorated by the skeletons of once-flourishing coral reefs. Nothing will be able to restore our earth to its young, natural state, and nothing will be able to reverse the damage that is being done now and that will continue to be forced upon our planet.
It’s easy for outlooks to be depressed by this mindset. I once had no hope, as all I could do was yearn for the things of the far past, for things that will never return.
But my hope has been placed in something else, something greater than myself.
One day the Lord directed me to Isaiah 65. Verses 17-25 stood out to me, shaking my world and completely reshaping my vision of the future:
It is within these verses that a beautiful picture is painted of the New Heavens and New Earth that we get to live in, that the Lord will create for us to enjoy. This New Earth will be so much more beautiful than what we experience now that we won't even want to remember the things of old, the things right now (v 17). That blows my mind.
My soul now longs for the things that the Lord promises to give us, and I turn to this passage in times of desperation and sorrow when I think about our dying planet. I’m incredibly thankful that the Lord has promised this New Earth to us, along with the animals that will inhabit it. My favorite verse in this passage is verse 25 — guys, there will be animals (even snakes!!!) in heaven that we will get to live with and among. I’m SO EXCITED. I consider this my new hope, my greater hope for a future that is natural and beautiful and raw and untouched and wild, perfectly and intentionally designed by God.
1 Thess. 2:2
"...but with the help of our God we dared to tell His gospel in the face of strong opposition."