Monday, April 24, 2017

10 Similarities Between Birding and Writing

Birding and writing have a lot of similarities. Say what? Read on.

I'iwi
As part of our Hawaiian vacation, Jan and I joined a birding tour of the islands. It was a great vacation and I did very little writing while we were gone, but I did think about writing. Here are ten ways birding and writing are similar.

1. In birding and writing, no matter how good you are, someone is better than you, at least in some aspects.

No additional commentary needed on this one.

2. Birding and writing can both be solo activities.

Much of my writing time is spent by myself, often in the early hours of the morning before others have risen. One of my favorite times to bird is soon after sunrise before heat sears the day. The birds are frequently most active then (they’re hungry) and, even in suburbs and cities, human activity is mostly quiet. The commitment and effort for each activity can be individual and requires very little more than directed effort: paper and pen or computer for writing, alert eyes and ears (binoculars help) for birding.

Red-tailed Tropicbirds
3. It’s often more fun when you bird or write with a group.

I do love being out in the woods or fields by myself (or joined by a faithful hound), but birding with a group has some real advantages. Multiple sets of eyes spot more birds. Group expertise aids any identification problems, and I gain insights from other group members. Lastly, there is the comradery of a shared passion.

So, too, with writing. Many of us benefit from critique groups, writing retreats (even when they are virtual), and the comradery of a shared passion.

4. Sometimes the fastest way to a desired result in birding and writing is to pay for expertise.

I dislike paying other people to do things I can do myself. However, I’ve learned there are times and places where paying for expertise provides a superior result. In writing, a professional developmental edit not only saves me the time of countless rewrites I would have to suffer through to make a story as strong as I would like it, but a professional spots issues I would never see for myself.

Young Laysan Albatross waiting for parents to return with food (this was in someone's front yard!)

In birding, I could bumble around trying to find the right places to see a particular bird and then struggle to identify it when similar species are also around. Paid experts who have scouted the area can significantly increase my odds of seeing more and different birds than I could do on my own.

In an expert’s hands, arcane becomes accessible. For example, when asked how you can tell a yellow-billed cuckoo from a black-billed cuckoo, a novice takes the name clue and concentrates on the bill. Someone who knows those two species can tell them apart in a flash by looking at the tail. Now you know, too.

5. Sometimes in birding and writing one significant detail paints a memorable picture.

In Hawai’i, there are no woodpeckers. The pound-on-a-tree-to-get-food niche was taken by the Akiapolaau, which over generations shortened and strengthened its lower mandible into a strong stub it uses for pounding holes into the tree. The top mandible curved into a specialized instrument to pry food from the hole. One look at its bill, and I can remember that bird forever. There is nothing like it.

Akiapolaau

Nor can one forget a character described as, "He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth — tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola."

6. In birding and writing, little details often make a big difference.

LBJs: Little brown jobbies, are the bane of birders everywhere. Yet, if you focus on the correct detail, you can differentiate between one confusing fall warbler and another, a male versus a female. The differences can be subtle: white wingbars versus pale yellow, a full eye-stripe versus a partial, winter coloring versus mating plumage. These differences give clues to birders about species or subspecies, age, and sex -- useful when birding and important when we write about a specific time or space.

Pacific Golden Plover in winter and summer plumage

Consider these Pacific Golden Plovers in winter and mating plumage and think about how impoverished a paragraph would be that only mentioned their name without any sense of which set of clothes the bird was wearing.

Forest devastation
7. You never know what else you’ll learn while you’re birding or writing.

Keeping an open mind while writing or birding often leads to interesting insights. Sometimes I am drawn to write about something as a way of exploring a topic that perhaps I didn’t realize I needed to understand. When birding, I often discover something I had not understood. I knew before my trip to Hawai’i that the islands had suffered significant avian species losses since Captain Cook “discovered” the island chain.

While in Hawaii, I “discovered” that the remaining endemic bird species are being ravaged by a combination of avian diseases new to the islands and decreasing habitat caused by new microbes and viruses recently introduced into Hawaii. The death of forests inevitably leads to the death of birds, especially those specialized to only one or two plants.

8. Setting the scene is equally important in birding and writing.

Common Myna with attitude

In good writing, a character acts within a setting, and the setting brings out certain character elements. Eliminate setting cues and the writer must rely on talking heads or internal dialog. Setting is a major clue birders use in their attempt to identify an unknown bird. Some birds are ground dwellers, others prefer the tops of trees. Some like forest, others prefer open space or ocean.

Marsh Sandpiper, taken through a fence at a LONG distance
And yet the biggest surprises are when a character or bird are found out of their natural habitat. How did they get there? How do they adjust? We want to know what will happen. On our last official birding day in Hawai’i, we visited sewage treatment settling ponds and spotted a Marsh Sandpiper. This species breeds in Central Europe and Central Asia and normally winters in Africa, the Persian Gulf, India, or Australia—and yet this wanderer found its way to the big island of Hawai’i. Anthropomorphize for a moment: what stories it can tell after it returns home to its flock.


9. A picture can be worth 1,000 words.


My memory is triggered by pictures. I could journal a thousand words to describe the power of waves lashing the shore created from lava flows centuries ago in an effort to remember the experience, or I can take a single picture and use it to trigger a remembrance of the day, including the wind whipping the tops of waves, the scent of the sea. I use those same picture-triggers to inform my writing when I am describing a scene, for instance standing on a Hawaiian cliff, watching Red-footed Boobies flying by.

Red-footed Booby

10. Paying it forward works equally well in birding and writing.

I could spend an entire blog’s worth of words simply listing names of writers who have befriended me without recompense. I like to think I would appear on others’ lists as well. Similarly, I can think of birders who have gone out of their way to help me become a better birder, for example differentiating between Greater and Lesser Scaup. I always offer my telescope to others to see birds in a way their eyes or binoculars will never allow them to see, like seeing a Black-crowned night heron “up close.”

Black-crowned Night Heron

I either convinced you or not about the similarities between birding and writing. What I’m curious about is which picture you like best and why.

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared 23 April 2017 on Writers Who Kill

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