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2022: My Unplanned Big Year
Reflections through birds from a mostly unplanned year full of them
It’s been a while, but here I am back in time for the year to end! The best laid plans of publishing a weekly newsletter often go awry, and mine were derailed by my wedding (yay!) and some feelings I’ve been struggling through around why I do anything—writing a mostly unread newsletter among those things. The end of the year always comes with reflection on its events, and with that, a mix of disappointment and gratitude. It was a big year for me—both by the birding definition (a personal challenge to identify as many species of birds as possible by sight or sound) and in the number of major life events—and while some parts like the wedding were meticulously planned, much of my birding and travel as well as the break from work that allowed those things was not. Before getting into it, a disclaimer that, while initially intended to be a “highlights post,” this ends up straying quite a bit away from birds, but there are still some in here if you want to scroll through and see. But first, because it’s easiest, let’s start with my stats. Clearly, I have just started using eBird, AND I had a significant increase in sightings.
Serious birders often plan out their Big Years: pick their geographic area, make their target lists, and budget / book the right travel. Mine came about after a major decision to quit my job in an attempt to find peace after a couple tumultuous years. In very brief terms, my mom’s breast cancer had a third recurrence and rapid spread to her brain, leaving her unable to stand or move much at all, perform basic tasks, or remember important things. As an only child of a single mom, I became sole caretaker. At the same time, I reached an executive-level role at work and faced many new professional challenges. This was a point in my career I wanted to get to and worked hard for, and in some ways, was what my mom herself worked hard for—the American dream, as it were.
As anyone who has had to be a caretaker knows, it’s a difficult full-time job. In between back-to-back meetings, I would have to make my mom meals and carry her to the bathroom. And because this happened during COVID, for safety reasons, no one could really come over to help. We broke those rules with family sometimes because I started reaching my own breaking point, but I remember that time mostly in isolation. Certainly, when the time came to decide to take her off life support and when she passed, I had to make the decision alone and sat in a hospital room with her by myself for perhaps an hour when she did pass—but at least they let me stay in the hospital, a bittersweet “blessing” many were deprived of with their loved ones during COVID.
That was the beginning of 2021, and I quit my job in April of this year. Quitting felt like failure especially after attaining something I had worked for and, importantly after her death, which my mom wanted very much for me. Quitting also felt like a level of privilege I could not afford, and it felt terribly trendy as “quiet quitting” emerged as a buzzword. I resented the idea of being in the same bucket as people feeling “the general ennui of life” and who lacked the resilience to deal with not being able to work extra hours or do superficial things like go to bars. After months of agonizing, one day I woke up and it just felt like the day to quit, so I did—and yes, that is an incredibly privileged position particularly in these times. I harbored many fantasies of finding peace by watching birds and painting birds in the rest of the year ahead.
Ultimately, I wanted my break to fix things—six to nine months to work out my feelings in gouache, regain control over my life by keeping checklists of birds, and then move on. This is not how it worked out because wherever you go, unfortunately, you are still there. There may be Western Grebes dancing across a lake and California Condors soaring overhead, but you are still there with all your grief, regrets, and unresolved problems. Other anxieties started creeping in—Why bother painting or taking pictures of or writing about birds? You’ll never be as good as the professionals or do anything other than try to get likes on instagram and Substack (which, by the way, you are not getting). Traveling was fun and you saw a TON of amazing birds, but you are more than halfway through your life based on your mom’s age at her death. You are running out of time, and you will never be able to come back for those birds or experiences you missed. There is no control, there is no fix, and ultimately, there is no point.
I saw California Condors at Pinnacles National Park in February of this year. They are spectacular birds, casting shadows like an airplane’s when they fly over you, and they are an inspiring comeback story. In 1987, they were brought to near extinction with only a few left in the wild. Now there are more than 200 in the wild, and, while still critically endangered they can be seen. Our first two came as a surprise. We turned a corner before the highest peaks on the High Peaks trail and saw two tagged and perched on a lower peak nearby. I gasped and cried. We saw a total of six that day, and we can even know them by name. One (“Little Stinker”) later landed right above us, and took time to look around before deciding to fly off to another nearby tree.
The California Condor is a bird out of its time, hailing from the Pleistocene, when it could feast on the carcasses of megafauna that roamed the earth. Learning about them and the struggles they have continued to face, I wondered if they are supposed to exist anymore as thrilling as it is to see them. The world has significantly changed around them, and maybe their fate is really to be the same as the giant sloth.
Migratory birds and their incredible journeys prompt the same awe, question, and worry. My travel this year, again somewhat unintentionally, has led me throughout the Pacific flyway, following the path of some migratory birds like Western Tanagers and Red-eyed Vireos. I’m also more aware of the migratory birds in my local area like the Surf Scooter at the top of the post and the tiny Sanderlings that enjoy wintering at Pt. Reyes with them. Author, naturalist, and wilderness writer Peter Matthiessen wrote this of the tiny sanderling and their journey:
We stand there heedless of an extraordinary accomplishment: the diminutive creature making way for us along the beaches of July may be returning from an annual spring voyage which took it from central Chile to nesting grounds in northeast Greenland, a distance of 8,000 miles. One has only to consider the life force packed tight into that puff of feathers to lay the mind wide open to the mysteries—the order of things, the why and the beginning. As we contemplate that sanderling, there by the shining sea, one question leads inevitably to another, and all questions come full circle to the questioner, paused momentarily in his own journey under the sun and sky.
The long journeys these small creatures take require great endurance, are beset with danger, and are increasingly threatened by a myriad of challenges including climate change and habitat loss. Many don’t make it, and the numbers that do decrease significantly year over year, with many species “at the brink” now. To curb the challenges a single migratory species like the red-necked stint could face at its various “stopover sites” along their journey requires not just awareness of these journeys (which I would say most people don’t have), desire to protect, and action to actually do so across multiple countries around the world. Is that possible? Is it too late for many of them? Is the extinction of one (or likely multiple) bird species the sacrifice we have to make for human “progress”? In her book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell describes similar worry she had while visiting Elkhorn Slough, saying:
That’s why, when I worry about the estuary’s diversity, I am also worrying about my own diversity—about having the best, most alive parts of myself paved over by a ruthless logic of use. When I worry about the birds, I am also worrying about watching all my possible selves go extinct. And when I worry that no one will see the value of these murky waters, it is also a worry that I will be stripped of my own unusable party, my own mysteries, and my own depths.
My own trip to Elkhorn Slough was my first solo trip of the year dedicated to birding, but it was pupping season for sea otters and seals and they became the real highlight. I saw many sea otter moms floating on their back with pups on their front, grooming them or just sleeping. I was also amazed and slightly worried to see otter moms leave their pups floating alone on the water to dive down for food. What if she didn’t make it back? What would the pup do?
It was a big year and a full one. I was lucky enough to go many places, see many birds including very rare ones, and marry the person I love in front of friends and family, some I had not seen for many years. It should be called a triumph. Perhaps, then, my expectations for the year and what it (and assorted bird-related interests) could do for me were too high, and that’s my learning to carry into next year. I’m not sure where this project will go next year, as I’m not sure where I’ll go next year. There are many many more birds to see, though.
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