Can’t stop birding!

Woke with a start this morning to realize that I’d missed my May 1 birdwalk. I’m not one to let the calendar push me around — “Says who?” I snap when the kids whine that it’s “Christmas” or somesuch nonsense based on who-knows-what pagan ritual and calendrical adjustment by Pope So-and-So — but I know that when May 1 arrives it is time to do some serious birding.

It’s all about the songbird migration. I haven’t checked the radar. The flyway seems strangely quiet to me this year. It could be my hearing. It could be the pillow clamped over the head to keep out all sound of the waking, pulsing, demanding world. I’m not sure I’m awake even now! But in any case, May 1 showed up, yesterday, right on schedule, and where was I? Distracted, detained, deranged. I wasn’t sharp and wasn’t paying attention and I didn’t get my birding in.

Thus it was that today, still with no May birding achieved, that  I find myself with the familiar gnawing feeling of being behind. People say to me, friendly-like, “How ya doin?” and I have to answer truthfully: “I’m behind.” I’ve been behind since 1993, roughly. What eats me to scraps is that I’m behind not just on my work, which is normal for most people, but I’m also behind on my hobbies. Birding being just one of the many.

In a good year, when I’m on top of my game, I’m out there on May 1, crack of dawn, in some remote woodland, or along a lazy river, and my head will be craned toward the canopy, eyes desperately scanning the pullulating vegetation for some sign of a bird or a birdlike entity or anything at all, really, that might justify the decision to get up at that insane hour rather than going back to sleep. Over the years I’ve seen many of our region’s most prized migratory birds: the crested nuff, Millard’s warbler, the lesser neeb, the gray spackle, the red-knobbed grout. Pardon me if it sounds like I’m bragging.

Mostly what I see when I go birding are gnats. Talk about a let down!

Like so many of my hobbies, birding has become another thing that I’m not very good at. A couple of years ago I got so discouraged that I considered switching to squirreling. I even had a life list going. The American red, the Eastern gray, the fox, the Western gray. There’s a lot to like about the Sciuridae. But again, I was always conscious that there were so many squirrelers who were really good at it, and I was a rank amateur. Why pick up a new hobby if it’s just going to make you feel like a loser?

Gardening vexes me more than anything. This is supposed to be a relaxing, gentle, earthy hobby, one that lets us connect with nature and discover the thrills of turning little seeds into giant vegetables and flowers and whatnot. And for a few weeks in spring it is easy to feel in control of the whole process, and to be botanically aspirational. But then other agents get involved — the bugs, the fungi, and most of all the weeds, which are famously the plants that grow better than the ones you like. I’ve been to the homes of serious gardeners and stand in awe of what they can do with their elevated beds, trellises, stone pathways — the way they can garden as if there’s a magazine photographer coming over any minute. Their fat tomatoes. They always have some kind of secret trick for growing a good tomato plant, like putting shampoo in the hole with the manure. They’ll bend your ear about their compost, until you want to throw up your hands and say, “I surrender! Your decaying organic matter is much better than mine!”

Because it’s still early May, I maintain an aspirational attitude toward my summer garden, but get back to me in about six weeks and don’t be shocked if I’ve ripped out everything and started a small hog farm. Let the swine take over, turn the whole place into muck — that might be more up my alley. Animal husbandry. I like the sound of that.

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · April 30, 2013