The Washington Post

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."



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Don’t be ‘that’ sports parent | On Parenting
Miss Manners: The technology's changed, but the rules are the same
A flood of refugees from Syria but only a trickle to America
Play Videos
John Lewis, 'Marv the Barb' and the politics of barber shops
Kids share best advice from mom
Using Fitbit to help kids lose weight
Play Videos
This man's job is binge-watching for Netflix
Transgender swimmer now on Harvard men's team
Portland's most important meal of the day
Play Videos
5 ways to raise girls to be leaders
How much can one woman eat?
The signature drink of New Orleans
Next Story
Joel Achenbach · April 30, 2013

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.