Mountainside

Molly Absolon’s parents, uncle and grandmother enjoying the family’s birding tradition in Mexico in the 1960s.

When I was a kid I used to complain when my parents would slam on the car brakes to check out any bird we happened to see perched on a wire as we drove by.

Our road trips took twice as long as necessary because we had to check out every pond for ducks and every treetop for hawks. I’d roll my eyes, slouch down in the back of the car and read a book while they wandered around, binoculars glued to their faces, trying to identify that little brown bird flitting around the shrubbery.

This past week my parents were in town for my daughter’s graduation. The weather and trail conditions limited our options, and I found myself wondering what we could do to keep them entertained.

After some struggle I realized we could go birding. And so we did. Every day last week. One day we drove to the north end of Grand Teton National Park and walked a half mile to Christian Pond, where we plopped down on the ground, pulled out our binoculars and scanned for birds. Ruddy ducks, American widgeons, cinnamon teals, ring-necked ducks, coots, green-winged and blue-winged teals, gadwalls and a smattering of shorebirds and warblers kept us entertained there for hours.

Another day we headed to Teton Canyon, where we watched an American dipper in the creek and then sat with a glass of wine while flocks of Cassin’s finches and warblers put on a show for us.

One afternoon we drove the Packsaddle Road along the eastern edge of the Big Holes and found a broad-tailed hummingbird that posed for several minutes on a dead branch, giving us plenty of time to check all its identifying marks.

We watched brilliantly colored yellow, orange and black western tanagers and cerulean mountain bluebirds dart along the roadside, and then found a nesting Swainson’s hawk in the cottonwoods.

On Friday we drove north to follow the Idaho Fish and Game Department’s Henrys Lake birding loop, where we added red-necked grebes, a ferruginous hawk, Forster’s terns, Caspian terns, white pelicans and more ducks to our list.

And so, I guess, I’ve become a birder. Because the fact is, I loved it. My parents gloated a bit about my transformation. It took me only 50 years.

What makes birding so great? First, it opens your eyes to the world around you. Suddenly every line of cottonwoods is a potential place to look for nesting raptors, and any open water we saw meant we might find ducks or a phalarope to keep us entertained. I found myself growing more attuned to the habitat variations around me and more aware of how they might be home to a particular species of bird I was looking for. Places I’ve hurried by on my bike became more alive to me as I realized that a whole community of birds could be hidden in the bushes.

I felt like I was on a treasure hunt, eagerly looking for hidden gifts in familiar places — even if those gifts, once found, were nothing more than another bird to add to our list for the day. Still, the excitement of the search and the anticipation of the find was real. Who would have thought it would be so fun to scan a pond looking for a hint of color or movement to set you off on another voyage of discovery?

Birding is something you can do at all ages. Young as my 80-something parents are, the days of clocking long miles on the trail are gone, and so birding became an activity that we could do outside, together. It was a way to explore and show off the beauty of my home with them while also learning and discovering in the process.

It was fun to be able to share an experience without having to worry about physical abilities. The moments of discovery, of seeing something new or identifying a species we’d yet to observe that day, were moments that we all enjoyed equally. It was a team effort, and I was grateful for the camaraderie birding brought us when sometimes it can be hard to figure out common ground.

Another advantage to birding is that it doesn’t take a lot of equipment. An inexpensive pair of binoculars and a bird book are all you need to start. Or better yet, just hang a bird feeder in your yard. This year we’ve had goldfinches, Cassin’s finches, lazuli buntings, yellow warblers and pine siskins, not to mention lots of sparrows and a pigeon, at our feeder. And they’ve been close enough that we didn’t even need binoculars to identify their markings.

You also don’t need to move great distances or perform elaborate feats of physical prowess to bird. You just walk. Or more often you just stand, watching, listening and observing the details of the natural world around you. It’s eye opening to realize just how much detail you miss when you hurry past in pursuit of some physical goal.

Birding has been my parents’ passion for as long as I can remember. It’s taken them all over the world and turned them into dedicated conservationists. They have made friends birding, and kept their minds active and engaged through its pursuit. It’s an activity they share, and it keeps them involved and constantly learning. It gets them out of their house and into the outdoors. It’s allowed them to find adventure and excitement everywhere, from their backyard bird feeder to a pond by the Tetons, an icebreaker in Antarctica, the jungles of Mexico, the tundra of Alaska and countless places in between. I believe it’s kept them young.

I never thought about any of these things as a kid when I was whining about stopping the car. But now, as I grow older, I understand a lot more about the positives of bird-watching and realize it’s something I’d like to add to my list of outdoor pursuits.

I’m not sure my daughter thinks bird-watching is all that thrilling yet, but even she can understand the excitement of seeing a brilliant tanager or statuesque eagle, and I can imagine the day when we, too, will find that birding is an activity we can do together despite our differing physical abilities. The trick to getting her hooked, I think, will be to avoid spending too much time identifying sparrows.

Molly Absolon writes Mountainside every other week. Contact her via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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