On a spring morning in December I trekked out to Prospect Park in Brooklyn to find the painted bunting. Never ever would I have been able to espy this bird on my own, but with the assistance of my birder buddy, and many others curious about the unusual and rare presence of this Florida-based bird in the New York metropolitan area, we located its general whereabouts. It was hanging in a brown patch of weeds by the skating rink, not waiting for its close-up. Rather it was being coy, hiding itself deep within the withered branches and brambles of a roped off fen. But birders are expansive people, they want you to share in the joy of a sighting. The guy crouching next to me with his super telephoto camera lens patiently explained that I needed to find the stump, look halfway up just below the white flowers at 2:00 and I would see a patch of blue. I followed his directions and voila there it was. So satisfying! Then it was time for the next activity, brunch and a well-earned Bloody Mary.
Another Monday morning and I’m hungover. Again.
Not from alcohol. From trying to outrun Father Time while cavorting with Mother Nature.
For over three decades, I would rise for breakfast, and rush for a train to take me to an office. About two-thirds of the way through those three decades, my husband and I moved to the suburbs, so that one train became two trains, and the longer commute meant I often had to rise before dawn.
That ended about two years ago.
I am lucky to have a job at my age. It was much harder for an unemployed someone, age 50 and older, to find a job during the recession. And it’s not much easier now, when things are allegedly improving. But I made friends along the way, and one of them found me my current job, for which I work from home.
When I had become a serious birder, I had wished I had more time out in the field – time that was spent working or commuting. But a funny thing happened now that I am home, with a commute measured in minutes rather than hours. I find I still don’t have enough time.
I used to get by on six to seven hours of sleep. Now, like a newborn baby, I crave eight to nine. It is a struggle some days, particularly Mondays, to rise from bed. I hear this year’s house wren busily singing his territorial song at the nestbox every dawn. Part of me wants to rise and see what else is out there. Usually, I go back to sleep.
Except on the weekends. After five days spent mainly in my house, I must get out. I must fit seven days of life into two: see my friends, work in my garden, walk in the woods, drive to another part of the state (with or without MH), and look for birds.
I rise early and walk and drive for miles. I climb. I pull weeds in the garden, and lift heavy pots. The hours fly by. I forget about things like age, and how I’m going to pay the bills.
Then, usually around 8 p.m. on Sunday, I pass out in my chair, spent. Somehow I get to bed. Suddenly, it’s Monday morning. Fifty-plus-year-old knees and back hurt. I’m exhausted, and I’m depressed – hungover yet again.
I don’t know if I am unusual. I see women older than I am walking every day on my street, no matter the weather. Most days I do take a pre-work walk and run short errands during my lunch break.
It’s just Mondays, when I am depressed, that I find that even though I work from home, I still don’t have the time to do what I want. Because this job is a contract position – the new reality for some of us in journalism – I get no paid holidays or personal days. No work, no pay. And so I must use the weekends to the fullest.
Welcome to the “golden years.”
I have always been pulled between being a loner and longing to be part of the crowd. As a child, I kept to myself. As I got older, I made friends along the way. One became my husband (MH). He, too, is a loner, but is not much troubled by that fact. Watching birds is an ideal activity for a loner, although it is often done in a group. I find groups have a tendency to rush along and talk, and I would rather go at my own pace and listen to the singing. Even with MH, I find I bird differently than when alone.
It is when birding the loner and the longer come together.
The other day, at a pond in the middle of a suburban NJ office park, a Pacific loon was discovered. It was publicized on the NJ bird list, which I read. The office park is on the outskirts of my town, which made it imperative for MH and me to see it as soon as we could.
What was it doing there? I don’t know, but weather conditions have been pretty strange this year. This loon is an unusual visitor east of the Continental Divide, but they’ve been reported before. The office park pond, which was not frozen, must have been an appealing sight.
Except in winter, loons are found on lakes and ponds. In winter, when those ponds freeze, they are usually found along the coast. The common loon and its smaller relative, the red-breasted loon, are the Eastern loons you’re likely to see at Barnegat Lighthouse, along the Jersey Shore, for instance.
In winter, they are all black and white and gray. What gave this one away were the shadings of gray and the bill – not as stout as the common loon; not as thin and upturned as the red-throated.
When we got there, we found ourselves in a crowd, but smaller than expected. We were all friendly, talking shop, field marks, or other birds recently seen in the state. As usual, for a while there, I felt I belonged.
And yet, when they started talking about people whose names I don’t know, but they see all the time in their travels, I knew I was not part of this group. I won’t be going south to Florida to see the birds heading north with them, or trekking to Belize or Mexico.
As this point I usually wonder, when does enjoyment of the birds become an obsession? If you spend your life doing nothing but running around to find and tick off birds every time one is reported, is it much of a life?
I admit, I daydream of dropping everything and doing nothing but bird. But bills have to be paid. The loner wins.