Birding Through the Feelings
By Megan Fradley-Smith
One of my earliest childhood memories, one that brings me much joy, is of a moment in kindergarten on a class field trip. I cannot remember where we were, why we were out, or who was there with me, but I can remember looking high up at the sky, and becoming mesmerized by a swirling kettle of Turkey Vultures.
I pointed this out to my teacher, who was stunned that I had noticed something so distant. Her praise made an impression, and I still feel that rush of pride when I manage to observe a soaring raptor, so graceful, so free.
For me, birding has become a lifeline in many ways. During my first pregnancy over a decade ago, a Red-Shouldered Hawk would appear in my backyard, nearly every day, always when I most needed it. To me, it became a symbol of hope, and any time I felt uneasy, I unknowingly turned to the the skies for a Hawk. Usually, I found one.
A few years later, I worked as a mental health therapist in Northern Florida, making a long commute to a rural facility each day. This was a tumultuous time in my life (I was a young mother, the breadwinner, the empath working with extremely high-risk clients). I felt the stress in every fiber of my being. However, now that I am so far removed from those days, what I remember most is seeing Swallow-Tailed Kites gliding above the trees as I drove, their carefree movements never failing to delight me, no matter the stress I carried.
My final months in Florida were rife with hardship, but it is the Kites and Hawks that stay with me, all this time later.
I fully leaned into birding last year, as my casual observations grew into more structured study. However, this ‘leaning in’ was more of a pulling myself out of the depths of postpartum anxiety, as the birth of my third child in early 2019, and the transition that followed, stretched me more than I have words to describe.
One evening, weighed down by a long day of mothering and teaching and cleaning and breastfeeding and not sleeping, I set my children up with toys and stepped outside for 5 minutes alone. That evening air enveloped me, the wind brought the sounds of dozens of backyard birds, and I felt myself let out a breath that I had been holding for days, or weeks. It was then, that evening, that I promised myself 15 minutes of outside exploration every day, no matter what. My children often accompanied me on these outings, playing their games while I stalked Spotted Towhees and House Wrens.
I started photographing my birding exploits, using social media to connect with other birders and learn more about the birds I was seeing. I challenged myself to photograph a bird every day for 100 consecutive days, and felt myself becoming lighter with each picture. We hiked through Mt. Diablo, chased a Red-Footed Booby in San Francisco, and learned to identify more and more birds just by their songs. I realized that having a pack of children was not a hindrance to birding, but rather a help; bringing my kids along with me, rambling down trails and taking in the wild beauty all around us are the kinds of experiences that enrich life beyond measure. Our adventures infused my bedraggled spirit with much needed wonder, and I felt like myself again.
Then everything changed. The world came grinding to halt, suddenly, unexpectedly.
We entered the age of global quarantine. I’m sure I am not alone in my 3 A.M. wakings, gripped with terror about a future that no longer feels safe, secure, or certain. Hours are lost to my phone, and I feel the effects of every minute in each of my tense muscles. It was in a moment like that – drowning in articles about the virus, the lockdowns, the shuttered businesses – that I noticed something: an Anna’s Hummingbird, loudly defending one of my feeders, then victoriously stopping to have a sip. I drank in its shining magenta head, its furiously beating wings, and felt a surge of joy. I put down my phone and followed the whir of Hummingbird wings, as several little hummers began their boisterous battles over the nectar.
I let go of that breath I had been holding.
There is something familiar about this time of confinement: it reminds me of the early postpartum days, home with a vulnerable infant and vulnerable body. It feels eerie to be reunited with that creeping postpartum anxiety, the loss of routine, the isolation. But, this time, I have an ace up my sleeve: birding.
I am blessed with a massive backyard to explore, teeming with Sparrows, Towhees, Wrens, Vultures, Hawks, Robins, Owls, Bushtits, Doves, and Hummingbirds. I have challenged myself to continue with a 365 day photography project, documenting and learning more about the birds that frequent my yard. Every single day, as the anxiety rises in my chest, as more news alerts parade across every available screen, I make a choice to step back outside. I am lucky to have this option, and I do not take it for granted. I watch the tiny Juncos hop and chirp, pick through the grass to find just the right grain to eat. I turn off the spiral of thoughts about the economy, and instead tune into the sounds around me: the wind, the leaves, the ‘oh dear me’ call of the Golden-Crowned Sparrows that crowd my trees. Each day, I do my best to sharpen my sense of awe, for we do live in a wonderful world of endless natural beauty.
This ‘Great Pause’ can be our chance to recalibrate, our chance to take hold of the things that are most important: each other, the land, and the incredible creatures with whom we share it. A silent pandemic rages through our midst, but the birds continue to fill it with song.
Megan Fradley-Smith is a photographer, designer, and mother of three living in Vallejo, California. When not homeschooling her elementary-aged children or making jewelry for her business, she can be found chasing birds in her sprawling backyard wilderness. An avid member of the Feminist Bird Club, she looks forward to more Bay Area birding adventures in the virus-free future. Follow her 365 day bird photography project here.
Have a shelter in place birding story you’d like to share? Email Melissa your 800-1200 word essays at email@example.com. Wishing you joy and peace through birding.