Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Birding When You Are Old

            One sign that you are getting old is that you realize that pretty soon you will be getting old. For birders this is a discouraging prospect: watching your former birding buddies driving off to the woods or wetland for the day while you make your way to McDonald’s for senior coffee.
            As a birder in my 70s whose physical and mental limitations are becoming hard to ignore, I have assembled a list of suggestions for how to continue birding.

·      Do your difficult birding trips while you can. Alaska? Costa Rica? Antarctica? Better do it soon. Screw your kids’ inheritance! An added benefit: Going on those difficult trips now might keep you young enough for more.
·      Hire (or marry) a Sherpa to haul your stuff. This is especially important if you are a bird photographer, an occupation that requires a long and heavy lens. My wife still carries her 500mm lens despite (surprise!) chronic back pain. I was her Sherpa for a while, until a) I became hooked on bird photography myself, and b) she realized that she needed her camera RIGHT NOW because the bird is flying into the perfect light and I’m 20 feet away trying to use iBird on my phone. Still, this may work for you if your spouse or grandson is not into birding but is into you.
·      Hire (or marry) your disability compensation, as I have done for my cooking. We took a birding trip to the Gaspe’ Peninsula in eastern Canada, where an experienced birder we met through BirdingPal took a small group of us to the local hotspots. He was an older guy (my age, I think), an expert birder, but he was losing his hearing. As a compensation he had his wife go with us to do his listening for him, especially at higher frequencies. She used her hands to tell him what she heard.
·      Research the cool stuff that people are making to help with various disabilities. A friend described someone who bought “a crazy-looking device—a microphone he wears on his baseball cap—that lowers high pitches. With it, he can even hear Blackburnian Warblers!” Someone else with bad knees “bought something like a cross between a bulldozer and a wheelchair. He takes it into the swamp for bird photography.” You need not be so extreme. Get some better binoculars. Get a monopod that you can use as a hiking pole to help with your balance.
·       Travel light. Give up that heavy lens for something lighter that may lessen the quality of your images a tad but will not prevent your getting out to bird.
·      Bird in a group. It might help if this group goes out on a regular basis, for that will encourage you to get off your butt and go out with them. The group is good for emotional and physical support. If you have trouble driving, be sure to bring food for the person driving you, and offer to pay for gas. (If you are the kind of person who reads BWD, you already know this.)
·      Carry a cell phone. One sign that you are getting old is that you don’t have a cell phone. Get one. How else are you going to call 911? They have apps that help you find your car, though I have yet to figure out how to use that app.
·      Bird with kids. It can be a real kick to introduce young people to birding. “Giving back” is good for your physical and spiritual health, and besides, kids will hear and see birds you’d miss on your own. And hanging with kids helps you feel young. Besides, they can help you with your cell phone.
·      Research your birding destinations to learn about the difficulty and accessibility of trails. If you aren’t comfortable on the computer, call somebody up at a nearby Visitor’s Center or Audubon group. With your cell phone.
·      Write stuff down. How else will you remember what you see? An alternative: we take photographs so we can remember and identify our sightings when we get home.
·      Keep a blog. We have blogged our birding trips, with photos, so we can remember stuff when we are sitting in the nursing home. We also plan to count it as “birding” when we look over our photos and try to identify those elusive warblers and plovers.
·      If you can’t go to the birds, have the birds come to you. Construct a feeding area that you know you can get to. Spend a little time and money to provide water, food, and perches in a place that’s convenient for you. Our current downsizing plan will have a small house in the woods, overlooking a pond or marsh, with a blind that is accessible from the house.
·      Dress defensively. As an older person you have already started to become a comic version of your younger self, so you have nothing to lose. Wear that ugly hat to protect you from sun damage. Wear your dad’s old fishing vest with all the pockets. Tuck your pants into your socks if you bird where there are chiggers. Forego the coordinated “outfits” that you see in catalogues—you no longer dress to be attractive. Get good shoes, no matter how they look, for your feet may be your weakest link.
·      Exercise. I know that birding itself involves exercise, but it also involves some standing around while developing “warbler’s neck.” Walk daily without camera or binoculars to slow you down (walking to the refrigerator does not count), and do some stretching so you will be able to tie your own shoes in the field.
·      Floss.
·      Set goals. These might be new species goals, or overnight trips per month goals. Something to get you out when you might not feel like it. Competition works for some people. Compete with someone at about your level. You can ignore goals you set for yourself, but you can’t let your buddy beat you!
·      Read. When you can’t get out and about, you can explore books and magazines about birds, starting, of course, with BWD. Your lifelist might not get longer, but it will get deeper. In addition to the many field guides, here are a few suggested titles:
o   What the Robin Knows by John Young
o   The Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich
o   Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kauffman
o   Good Birders Don’t Wear White edited by Lisa White
o   Bird Brains by Budd Titlow
o   The Bedside Book of Birds by Graeme Gibson
I’m sure you have more titles to suggest, because if you’ve read this far, you are a reader. Suggest your favorites in letters to BWD.

            There is more to birding than seeing, hearing and identifying unusual birds. Sometimes it’s just appreciating the Blue Jay’s color and attitude. Sometimes it’s just being outside on a nice day, surrounded by the colors, sounds and smells of nature, accompanied by friends united by their love of birds and birding.

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