It’s easier than ever to find out a little bit about a lot of things. Anything you want to know is available with a couple of click of a keyboard. Why doesn’t my lily bloom anymore? Is basil bad for dogs? Do moose live in Europe? Is moose the plural of moose? As nice as that is, it’s really cool to know a lot about one thing. To be an expert. And that, my friends, is our next challenge: Become an Expert at Something.
This seems like a big ask. People work their whole lives to become experts in their fields. I’m going with the being-an-expert-is-all-relative take. Really what we are trying to do is learn a lot about one thing. And, if you choose correctly, it won’t feel like work because it’s something you are really interested in, anyway. Kids become experts naturally in the things they are into. Not long after moving to Australia, we went to Questacon, the National Science and Technolgy Centre in Canberra. We sat with other families, listening to a dinosaur expert tell us about dinosaurs. At the end of the session, she asked questions and Andrew, five years old, raised his hand and answered every one of them. Correctly. Like many five-year-olds he was supremely interested in dinosaurs and, although he couldn’t yet read about them himself, he immersed himself the in land before time and emerged an expert.
So, what do I want to learn more about? I didn’t have to think too long to decide it was birds. I’ve been a casual bird fan for awhile. We’ve been fortunate to have been stationed in many different areas and exposed to a lot of different birds: Roadrunners in the high desert of California; Woodpeckers at Camp Lejeune, NC; the Bald Eagles of Virginia, Brown Pelicans in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But, when it comes to birds, Australia, has no match. You could argue that it’s because they are on the other side of the world, with species different than what I’m use to and you’d be right. I’m not here to argue with you. I’m just saying that the birds there were fabulous.
The white Cockatoos filling the trees of Canberra, the Black Swans gliding across Lake Burley Griffin, the parade of Little Penguins at Phillip Island, and the swooping Magpies we were warned about, all served as ready reminders that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. I’m sad that I failed to take the time to learn more about those wonderful birds while I was there. Second chances, I’ve had a few, and for this one I’ll be learning about birds. So, I’m off to Australia for a second chance to study birds! I wish. No, I’ll be doing my studying right here in northern Virginia and, although I won’t see any Cockatoos in my trees, I’m excited.
My favorite bird fan is my brother, Daryle, and he was kind enough to spend some time with me recently talking about birds. He wanted a disclaimer that he is not a bird expert but he’s the kind of expert I wanted to talk to. Someone who’s general interest in nature and birds caused him to pay attention to birds and nature–a home grown expert– just like I want to be. As with many of these challenges, I was mostly unsure of where to start. There are a lot of birds out there, and many of them seem to be brown.
Daryle enjoys watching the birds in his suburban Oklahoma City backyard, right down the street from Lake Overholser, a great spot for birding and enjoying nature. From the White Pelicans to the trees filled with Cormorants wintering in the balmy breezes of Oklahoma, he doesn’t need to go far from home to see some amazing birds. When he does venture out further he likes to visit the Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern OK. One of Daryle’s favorite bird memories occurred when he encountered a massive flock of Snow Geese filling the skies over York, NE.
Although he has many books on birds, at various levels, he says a basic pocket field guide and a book that divides birds by color, as opposed to category, can be very handy. Additionally, bird books written for kids are great because they provide basic information without going into too much detail.
Sidebar: I am a firm believer that kids nonfiction books are often the best access point to information on a given subject whether you are an adult or a child. More pictures, basic facts, fewer pages. Perfect recipe.
A couple of things I learned:
- Start with color and shape
- Check your guide- does that bird live in your area?
- Narrow down by looking at feet, feathers, and beak
- Keep binoculars handy
- Oh, and don’t worry about the brown ones!
Armed with some great advice, my laminated folding pocket guide to Virginia birds, a kid’s first field guide to birds from the library, and maximum motivation I was off and ready to become an expert. We put up a feeder on a whim a couple of months ago and attracted a lot of small brown birds, that all looked the same to me. Occasionally, we’d see pair of Cardinals. With my Virginia pocket guide and my field guide, I’ve been slowly identifying our regular visitors: Mourning Doves, Carolina Wrens, House Sparrows, and my favorite of the brown birds, the House Finch, which has red feathers on the head, throat, and breast. It was like putting on on glasses and realizing that treetops are actually made up of individual leaves! Each bird, even the brown ones, are so unique and beautiful in their own right.
We are also fortunate to live near a body of water, so Lee and I bundled up on a cold January afternoon and walked down our street to the local park, pocket guide and cameras in tow, to see if we could find and identify any of the birds that frequent the local pond.
We weren’t the only ones interested in the birds on that cold day. In fact, we weren’t the only people interested in birds with cameras either. People who take their bird photos seriously have seriously large lenses! We now have lens envy. The good news is that people with giant bird-photo-taking lenses on their cameras don’t hang around to shoot pictures of birds that aren’t there. We had a lot of waterfowl to look at!
Daryle had mentioned that he liked Buffleheads, and we saw a pair, who dove so quickly under the water that it was difficult to get a good picture!
A Double-crested Cormorant rested among the gulls. Pairs of Mallards and flocks of Canadian Geese, stayed near the shoreline to shelter from the cold breeze. Among the geese was a male Hooded Merganser! We walk our dogs through that park every day and now, instead of just admiring these wonderful creatures, I actually know what some of them are!
Sidebar: On today’s walk, we saw a duck we’ve never seen before. At first glance it looked like a female Mallard but it had a white ring around each eye and a patch of dark blue feathers on the wings. We didn’t have our phones or cameras with us, so we old-school kept that image in our heads, until we got home. Lee was motivated to find this new water bird, and he did! Starting with color, and location, he narrowed it with the distinctive eyes and dark blue feathers. A female Wood Duck!
My time to learn more about birds is just beginning. But, what about you? This post was all about birds but the actual topic is learning. Becoming an expert at something. It’s your turn. What are you interested in, curious about? Grab a partner and learn something new. I’d love to hear what you are “experting” in. Lee has long amazed me for his insatiable curiosity and willingness to actively engage in new interests: pasta making, growing micro-greens, data analytics, worm farming, and now…bird watching?
Before you go…it’s kind of a bummer that so many of the female birds are boring and brown. I know it’s to help them blend in more when in the nest, and that the show-off males use their bright colors to draw female attention, but still. They often didn’t even make it into my guidebook or field guide. I recommend using All About Birds to help with identification. It’s where I discovered that the brown duck we saw with the Hooded Merganser was not the female but a “non-breeding” male. Father-son day at the pond, I guess.
If you are curious, the reason my lily wasn’t blooming is that she prefers distilled water to tap water; basil is not bad for dogs in small doses and can actually help soothe an upset stomach, the plural of moose is moose and, yes, they live in Europe; and bird names are capitalized. Whew, those birds are something. Next week: Make a Bird Feeder.
- As a kid, lived in North Bend, NE
- Enjoyed playing outside, riding bikes
Currently preoccupied with hockey and finding new hobbies