The dawn light was emerging at a wildlife refuge in the panhandle of Florida.
The air was cool, and alligators lounged in ponds nearby. Jim, my friend and mentor, had invited me to wake early to accompany him. “We may see a vermilion flycatcher,” he said.
An Episcopal priest who visited prisoners on death row, Jim was also a skilled birdwatcher. I was a social worker, not yet a pastor, who borrowed a pair of binoculars for my first birdwatching adventure. As we stepped on the path, Jim stopped, signaling for me to listen.
That directive was the portal to wonder. I heard bird songs rising one by one into a morning symphony. Jim raised his binoculars and pointed without speaking. I followed the gestures, listening, looking. Perched on a bush was the vermilion flycatcher, singing a rolling trill. Jim, grinning broadly, looked at me without speaking.
My face was glowing with the foretaste of heaven. That early morning experience, 40 years ago, was my entrance into the world of birdwatching. I experienced what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins declared: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will shine out like shining from shook foil.” Mid-morning, flush with wonder, Jim and I sat by a pond eating sandwiches with gratitude for all we had seen. Only later did I recognize this as a Eucharistic meal.
Gradually I have come to experience birdwatching as a mindfulness practice, akin to prayer, by which I perceive the beauty of God’s creation and kindle within both wonder and gratitude. The two are similar. Birding as an intentional practice requires you to show up. Because while you can see and hear birds anywhere, the intentional search for birds is different. Patient waiting is necessary. And then slowly you begin to see.
It begins as a voice that summons a curiosity to know, a willingness to pay attention. What I discover when I show up – sometimes early in the morning, but not always – is delight in the search. And that is also the heart of prayer: delight in the presence of the Holy One.
Openness without certainty cultivates within me a gratitude for gifts coming unexpected and out of my control. This is grace. I have walked into the woods with binoculars only to come home having seen nothing. On other occasions, while I stand still and listen, a bird will suddenly appear — perhaps a short-eared owl in the golden light of sunset. My heart still knows the astonishment of hearing a common loon on a Minnesota lake.
Occasionally someone asks me how to pray. After conversation, I offer some reliable guides, and always mention Psalms. Then I say: Pray. Begin where you are. Show up day by day, open-hearted. Listen.
The same is true for the one who asks, “How do I become a birder?”
Get a guide and binoculars. Show up. Look. Listen. The birds are singing.