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Why Bird Watching is the Best Activity You Can Take Up as You Grow Older

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I bet you’re surprised to learn that bird watching is the #1 fastest growing outdoor adult activity in the US. In fact, a whopping 45 million of us bird (the verb). Meetup groups alone boast 166,000 members! Why am I telling you this today? Because while birding is an easy and inexpensive way to stay in touch with nature, its rewards are a lot more surprising, and a lot deeper, than that…

Birding can be healing. Last month, I was in the hospital dehydrated from a severe flu. I was told I then had to stay home for at least two weeks. Shoot me. I escaped in five days, but the first three were hell…except for the birds.

I situated my couch in front of a picture window and settled in with my binoculars and my Peterson large-print field guide. The pageant began. Blue jays, cardinals, owls, hawks and the tiny sparrow appeared. I listened to the symphonies. I watched behaviors and colors and experienced poems without words.

I feel sure that if one day I sustain a more major illness, I will turn to the birds for comfort. They provide endless entertainment and the reassuring reminder that the world is enormous even if I am temporarily confined.

Birding can be a travel adventure. I was stunned by my very first encounter with birders. It was at Canopy Tower in Soberania National Park, Panama. This unique venue is a former radar tower turned birding hotel. I highly recommend a visit if you find yourself near Panama City.

The birders there are among the most well-traveled, sophisticated folks I’d ever met. If you are looking for great conversation, hang out with birders. (Not to mention that in khakis and bushman hats, they all looked like models for gorgeous aging.)

One day we stalked the nocturnal, cave dwelling oilbird and spotted one! We were mesmerized by the sight of this bird that comes out at night and uses echolocation—like a bat!—to fly safely. It was a safari, and as memorable as any. I was hooked.

I was again rewarded on a trip to Australia. I visited the Daintree Rainforest in Queensland. There I encountered the elusive southern cassowary, in a parking lot, no less. This is a blue-necked, dinosaur-crested flightless bird that has lethal daggers built into its feet, can run 30 miles an hour, and can weigh 150 pounds and stand five feet tall. If I woke up with a pterodactyl eating from my backyard birdfeeder, I could not have been more astonished.

Birding is great with kids even right at home. You don’t have to travel past your neighborhood to bird with your children and grandchildren. Many Meetup groups welcome children, as do local birding expeditions advertised in the community paper. Or make a maple syrup or pumpkin picking trip a birding exploration, too. Even easier, just buy backyard bird food in the supermarket and have a ball.

Or plan a never-to-be-forgotten trip. One such for me was a trip with my daughter Rose to see the sandhill cranes when she was eight. These are large, buff-to-gray-colored, red-capped birds that somehow blend “sleek” and “awkward” into one beautiful package with their long legs, long necks and long beaks. Every spring, 80% of all the sandhill cranes of the world meet along North America’s Central Flyway. Millions of migrating ducks and geese join them in an aviary parade of feathers and infinite noise. The face of my daughter in genuine wonder at the spectacle was priceless.

Birding can become a new family tradition. If you find some of your holiday celebrations slipping away or getting stale, add something new with a bird count. These counts take place all over the country and many times a year. For example, consider the Christmas Bird Count. The Audubon Society organizes this event throughout the US. The purpose is to chronicle how well or poorly different bird populations are doing. Action is taken if problems are revealed.

One year, my family went to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to participate in the Christmas Count. But we could have instead driven just a few miles from home to do our part in the Count before heading home to open presents.

Birding is a conduit to life-long learning. If scholarship is something you enjoy, especially when it’s paired with great camaraderie, go to All About Birds, a site run by the Cornell Ornithology Lab, to find dozens of birding-related educational festivals and other experiences throughout the country.

If you are interested in international trips with accompanying lectures, the Road Scholar program offers all this (as well as many domestic excursions). Of course, the Audubon Society, the granddaddy of all birding organizations, offers education and how-to courses through hundreds of state and local programs around the country.

Through programs like those above, I’ve had the honor of meeting wonderful fellow enthusiasts as well as some of the big names in writing birding field guides—and so can you. Everyone you engage with will add to your education and deepen the pleasure of learning about and observing birds.

Birding brings something romantic to long-time relationships. Couples birding helps you see your significant other or old friend in a wholly new light. In Perthshire, Scotland at the Argaty Red Kites, my husband and I watched in silence for two hours as these strikingly graceful and once-endangered birds of prey, from the same family as eagles, repeatedly bested each other in snagging food from a kill. These birds must have read The Art of War—they are fascinating in their ability to create diversions and then swoop in at high speeds to be the next at the food. I admit that we anthropomorphized a bit, especially when we saw, or at least thought we saw, some amorous behavior in among the grabbing for meat. It seemed that he who gets the food also gets the admiration.

Sitting as a couple out in nature, hidden from all others, you deeply feel the value of the unspoken companionship you have developed through the years. Here you are, alone but together. Time melts away in absorption.

And sometimes you get a nice surprise, like when my husband rescued our boat in Alaska’s Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. He was the group’s hero. Yes, you can learn something new about even your oldest friend when the two of you step together into a new environment.

Birding doesn’t get old even if you do. Writer Nicholas Lund, in a marvelous little piece called “How to Begin Birding,” clearly understands the appeal of birding to folks of a certain age: “While aching knees or backs will eventually force your peers to hang up their skis or mountain bikes, birders can bird for as long as they can walk, roll, or look out a window (I’m genuinely excited to impress my peers at whatever nursing home I eventually get put into).”

If you want to know what it takes to start birding at any age, the answer is not much. Get any binoculars you can find and a field guide that relates to your part of the world. Put on quiet shoes and take a walk (or roll). Use your inside voice even though you are outside. Let fellow birders know about your experiences by sharing on ebird. Enjoy!

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