Most of my birding is not planned. It is ancillary to other activity in which I am engaged. Case in point, this past weekend I was out on NH Rt. 10 picking up litter with a “Green Up Day” crew. As I made my way along, I kept a lookout for birds in the neighborhood at least trying to hear them if not actually making a visual observation. For my two-hour effort I had a total of 13 species that included a singing, male, northern cardinal and a vocalizing pileated woodpecker.
The on-line birding data entry site eBird has a category for this type of birding. It is called “incidental.” That is when in eBird's words, “Birding was not your primary purpose — noting a bird while driving or gardening.” That pretty well describes what most of my birding is about. Yes, I do on occasion head for a particular destination. For example, today I spent time birding the Norwich Ompompanoosuc River “trifecta:” “Pompy Flats,” Kendall Station Road and Campbell Flats Road. But more often than not I engage in the “incidental” birding eBird describes. As a matter of fact, as I write this, I have the doors open and am keeping one ear cocked for bird songs around the nearby feeders, and doubtless I will be compelled to go to the windows to see what else might be transpiring.
“Incidental” birding may be less orderly in design and intent than heading to Kendall Station Road, but it also provides the opportunity, to borrow a phrase from the British author and theologian C. S. Lewis, to be “Surprised by Joy.” That moment is when some completely unexpected birding moment occurs that upends whatever activity one is doing.
For example, yesterday my wife Nancy and I were in the kitchen when I looked out the window and was startled to see an indigo bunting perched on one of the tube feeders. “What a beautiful blue bird!” Nancy exclaimed. Having indigo buntings in the yard is not unusual. They are regular summer visitors. But this appearance was exceptionally early. Going back to 2010, the earliest record for an indigo bunting on the home property was May 28, almost four weeks later than yesterday’s sighting!
My “incidental” birding activity regularly provides such episodes. There was the snowy, winter afternoon when I looked up from my work to see a barred owl sitting above one of the feeders. Then there was the time I looked up from some weed pulling to see seven common ravens flying overhead. In my neck of the woods, ravens usually are seen flying solo.
Such interludes, however, do not fully define what I consider “incidental” birding. It is more when I keep a list of the day’s activities. True, that list might include an “intrusion” such as described above, but more often than not it reflects what I see and hear as I engage in some other activity, which is exactly what I’m doing now. It is a simple pleasure but one that could be scarcely more entertaining or satisfying.