Being Patient With Beginners: A Birding Story

Every birder has to start somewhere. I was lucky enough to learn from the bird-loving employees at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. While it would seem like their expertise would be the most important quality those early instructors of mine had, it was in fact their patience with my ignorance that made them such phenomenal teachers.

At the time, I was a computer programmer. I’d always loved wildlife and nature, but I didn’t know any more about birds than the average kid raised in the suburbs. I could identify a robin and a duck (and, I must admit, a roseate spoonbill), but I certainly didn’t know the difference between a sparrow and a finch. (To be fair, I’m still learning this one.)

Turkey Vulture (Photo by Kurt Fristrup)

My best chance to learn new bird species came at the Natural Sound Recording Workshop held in the Sierra Nevadas. I was there to teach sound analysis, but I was also a student, learning how to record natural sounds and trying to identify birds for the first time.

Being out west, I expected to see hawks and eagles, so every time I saw a big bird overhead, I’d ask an instructor to identify it.

A typical day went like this:

Me (pointing at the bird wheeling above us): What’s that?

Incredibly Patient Ornithologist: It’s a Turkey Vulture…

10 minutes later

Me: Wow! That’s huge! Is it an eagle?

IPO: Nope. TV.

25 minutes later

Me: What kind of hawk is that?

IPO: Not a hawk. TV.

35 minutes later

Me: Hey! Is that a —

IPO: TV.

Another Turkey Vulture (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

I never stopped asking, and the big birds I saw circling overhead never stopped being Turkey Vultures. I started to get a little embarrassed that I was unintentionally asking about the same bird all the time, but the instructors always identified the vultures without getting shirty about it. Their patience was a gift to me, giving me the space and time I needed to be a beginner. If they hadn’t been so patient, I might not be a birder today.

Not a vulture. I’m positive! (Red-tailed hawk, photo by Kit Dunsmore)

Today, I can tell a vulture from a hawk from an eagle. I’ve learned what to look for, like wing shape, how far the head projects, the size and shape of the tail, and how the bird holds its wings as it soars. It’s taken lots of practice to get to know those details, and I’ve had to be patient with myself. Often, I will think I’ve got a new bird only to discover it’s something I’ve seen before that I just didn’t recognize at first.

I’ve been birding long enough that I now get questions from family and friends, emails with photos attached, asking me “What is this?”

Sometimes, I have to get out a field guide to help them figure out just what kind of flycatcher they have. Other times, I can tell at a glance that their mystery bird is the common House Finch.

House Finches are one of the most common birds at our feeder. Photo by Kurt Fristrup

Either way, I do my best to remember the most important lesson I learned from my early birding teachers: be patient. Everyone was a beginner once, and it takes a lot of practice to learn new things.

Are you grateful for a patient teacher?

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