I rolled out of bed before dawn this morning – on my day off - and had walked a few kilometers carrying some good weight before a lot of folks’ alarms even went off. Am I an exercise fanatic? A health nut? Not even close. I’m a birder.
I suppose I should explain. I don’t like to exercise for the sake of exercising. Some people can go to the gym or do some spinning with PT Mollie and feel energized because they’re doing something good for their bodies. I envy those people, but it doesn’t work that way for me, and I’ve tried all the tricks. If you tell me it’s time to get out of bed and hit the treadmill or jog for an hour, I’m staying in bed.
That’s where the birds come in. If you tell me last night’s southerly winds brought flocks of new migrants into my county, then I’m eating a healthy breakfast an hour before sunrise and out the door all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to tackle whatever trail lies before me. I’m a birder. That’s what we do, and we, for the most part, tend to be healthy people because of it.
I’ve paddled a kayak in the North Atlantic, paddled a canoe against 20 knot headwinds, hiked rocky trails up steep slopes, and traversed enough sand dunes to make Lawrence of Arabia cry. And I do most of it carrying a camera, binoculars, spotting scope, and a field guide. All because there may be a bird I haven’t seen just around any corner. The quest for those “lifers” and the thrill of finding one is a high as great as a runner feels when finishing up that 26th mile – or at least I think it is, since I’ve never quite had what it takes to run a marathon.
Since taking up birding as a serious hobby, both my wife and I have realized some much needed weight loss and become healthier people. We’ve always been nature lovers, but enjoying nature in general is something you can do anytime on your own terms. When you’re counting birds, you need to be where they are and you need to be there when they’re there. I’m here on the west side of the pond, but I know this blog has a lot of readers from Great Britain where birding is serious business. The spirit of competition to see who has tallied the most species can be fierce and that makes for an energetic hobby. Birding may be a little more laid back in America, but there’s still plenty to motivate me. I record all of my bird sightings with eBird (www.eBird.org) where the data are used by ornithologists to track migration and abundance of birds. Being a part of that citizen science project is as satisfying to me as ticking off more species than Carl from the birding club for the month of April. (Although Carl can get pretty smug and I wouldn’t mind showing him up for a change.)
Birding is one of those hobbies, unlike golf, where you can get started and enjoy it for merely a pittance. The only pieces of equipment you truly need are eyes and ears, which most of us are fortunate to have been born with. Binoculars to help with those shy birds that won’t get too close and a field guide to help identify them once you spot them are additional basic equipment you’re going to want, but once you spend the £50 to £60 for those items, you’re officially a birder. Sure, there’s more and better optical equipment to be had, and sooner or later you’ll want it. But you don’t need any of that to get started. And once you start, you’ll be putting more kilometers on your shoes than you ever imagined.
So you want to exercise body and mind? Good! Give PT Mollie a call. But you may want to also look out the window and see what nature has to offer. Watching birds, collecting insects, hunting for orchids…it doesn’t matter what you choose to do. Nature provides the goal, the gym, and the reward. You just have to walk out your front door and claim it.
Kirby Adams is a freelance writer specializing in birding and natural history. He lives with his wife and their three pet tortoises in Michigan. You can read his blog at www.sharptern.com.