Come for the Birds, Stay for the Chocolate

By Ryan Nakano

Lately, I’ve been wondering what I enjoy most about birding. As a novice, it’s hard to say that it has anything to do with generating a long list, chasing after a rare bird, or even really identifying different bird species by sight or sound. I think what I’m starting to realize is, I, myself am changing, am slowing down, allowing my senses to be open to the world in a way they weren’t before I started, and this ability to concentrate and focus my attention on one particular thing and be satisfied has brought me immense joy. 

Before I joined Golden Gate Bird Alliance, I knew very little about birds, and if we’re being honest, I still have so much to learn. What I did know however, was that during my day-to-day I was slipping into a terrifying habit of curating my senses to a digital world. For example; anytime I would go out for a run, I would immediately cue up a playlist from Spotify and throw my bluetooth earbuds in before leaving my apartment. I never heard the dogs barking, cars passing, House Finches chirping from above, Mourning Doves singing in their low hum. When dishes piled up in the sink, my attention sought an endless Youtube algorithm as my hands tried to busy themselves with plates and soap. 

At some point in time I had bought into the “attention economy” as it is referred to in the book How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, leaving me with a feeling of unresolved longing. I felt that somehow by maximizing stimuli I was maximizing my time, therefore living the fullest and most efficient life possible. In reality, I was disappearing “life” altogether.

So what does this personal epiphany have to do with birds and chocolate, the focus of this article as the title suggests?

Photo of chocolate tasting provided by Cacao Case

Striking up a conversation with one of our newest board members Sharol Nelson-Embry about her unique contribution to the 2022 Birdathon Auction (yes, this is indeed a long sales pitch), I was reminded of the personal change that happens when we slow down and learn to sharpen our senses to the unabridged version of the world. 

Happening sometime in the fall/winter, a small group, led by Sharol will spend an hour or so observing shorebirds and terns along Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary in Alameda before heading over to a beautiful Victorian home to enjoy a bird-friendly chocolate tasting. 

If you ask Sharol how these two activities originally paired together in her mind, she’ll tell you about how she came across the Zorzal Bird Reserve in the Dominican Republic via Dandelion Chocolate. How the cacao harvested from the reserve makes delicious chocolate and how it’s made even sweeter by the reserve’s conservation efforts to protect species like the Bicknell’s Thrush.

However, the more Sharol shared about her passion for single origin chocolate and birding, as the owner of chocolate company, Cacoa Case, and the former Supervising Naturalist at Crab Cove Visitor Center, the more it became clear that even without this crossover of cacao production and bird conservation, there is a shared experience between birding and chocolate tasting.  

Both of these practices heighten our general awareness as humans. They ask us to open our senses, thereby noticing subtle differences in the things we can often take for granted. Sharol explained that with single origin chocolates, the cacao beans are sourced from one specific region. When she hosts her tastings as part of Cacao Case, she invites participants to see if they can taste the flavor notes attributed to these specific places. This level of identification of course, much like birding, takes time to develop, it takes slowing down, bringing our awareness to our senses and taking those senses to their limits. 

“It’s almost a meditative kind of thing when you really get into it,” Sharol shared. “Plus, we always have a lot of fun and it’s a great way to get friends together to enjoy the outdoors and of course chocolate.”

This “meditative” quality that Sharol refers to, I believe is where I find the most joy. Now when I step outside of my apartment, even when I’m not birding, I’m made aware of every call and song echoing through the neighborhood. When I eat, I find myself savoring each bite (in fact, when I eat chocolate, I have always gnawed for the sake of making it last that much longer) and when the dishes pile up I focus on the sound of running water along ceramics and metal and how it feels against my hands. 

Photo of me at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden

I do not mean to imply that birding to me, is not about the birds. It is about the birds, and also it’s about how we choose to experience life. It’s like when you get a new car (or in the more environmentally conscious analogy, bike) and all the sudden, you start seeing that same car on the road everywhere you go. It’s not that more people have since started to drive that same car after your purchase, but rather that you have formed a deeper relationship/connection to the car and thus begin to notice it more often and remember that it exists. 

In these times of uncertainty and in this, quite honestly, dismal socio-political environment, these moments where we are able to move slowly and develop deep relationships are important, especially where joy is present. Sitting here, writing with my mask on, quarantined in my bedroom for possible exposure to Covid, I close my eyes and imagine the taste of dark chocolate. For now, the thought remains sweet. I am waiting for notes of creme brulee, fudge and toast with jam from wildberry. 

I am waiting to run the garden again, stopping every so often to chat with the Black Phoebe, the American Robin, and of course, to smell the roses.

Interested in the other Auction items this year…

Bid now: The auction closes this Friday, May 27, at 7 p.m. Click here for details about these and other prizes, including an Alcatraz waterfowl walk, a tasting of bird-friendly chocolates combined with an Alameda bird walk, a Sandhill Crane evening viewing and tailgate party, and more. Your auction bids will help Golden Gate Bird Alliance continue our important conservation and educational work!

Ryan Nakano is the Communications Associate for Golden Gate Bird Alliance. He also happens to be a poet, with a chapbook slated for publication in February 2023 with Nomadic Press.