An older man with short grey hair, a white and black plaid shirt and brown pants smiles at the camera. He is a power wheelchair user and has adaptable binoculars and a camera attached to the armrest of his chair. His wheelchair features off-terrain wheels. He is on grass and a tree is behind him.

From Bird Watching to Bird Loving – A Reflection on My Conversation with Paul Miller

This week, I had the opportunity to talk with Paul Miller, a disabled birder in the Birdability community. For the past two years, he has been leading accessible bird-watching tours in the Sacramento area and creating custom adaptive birding equipment for folks with physical disabilities. 

During our conversation, I could see Paul light up as he talked about how he got into bird watching and what the activity means to him. When asked what advice Paul had for new birders, he said the following, which has stuck with me ever since. 

“If you see a bird, it’s a pretty bird.”

Though a seemingly simple statement, its meaning can go much deeper than it might seem at first glance. I understood Paul’s statement to mean that you don’t need to be a bird expert to enjoy the art of bird watching. You don’t need to know how to ID a bird by sight nor recognize the bird by its song to fully enjoy the experience of seeing a new bird. While knowing bird identification interests many folks, it should not be a barrier to entering the birding community.

Paul went on to explain that to him, birding is about the experience of being in the present moment. As a new birder especially, looking through a 300-page birding guide until you find the bird you saw or pulling out your phone to ID the bird can sometimes take away from experience. What if you look back up and the bird is already gone? For some, IDing a bird is crucial to their birding experience; for some, it’s not. There is no right way to bird watch, but truly consider what is right for you.

An older man with short grey hair, a white and black plaid shirt and brown pants smiles at the camera. He is a power wheelchair user and has adaptable binoculars and a camera attached to the armrest of his chair. His wheelchair features off-terrain wheels. He is on grass and a tree is behind him.
FSHD Birder. https://www.fshdbirder.org/. Accessed 26 Apr. 2024

As someone who will lead bird-watching tours for the first time, Paul’s advice and perspective gave me a lot of comfort. No matter how long I study a birding guide or look up the type of birds I am most expected to see as I lead the birding tour, I will need help to correctly identify every single bird we come across. But this doesn’t mean I am not equipped to lead a meaningful and engaging event for Migratory Bird Day. As Paul said, leading a bird tour is about creating an experience. I can lean on my interests and strengths in conservation and ecology to help build a unique visitor experience. Instead of asking, “Can you name the bird you see?” Paul suggested I ask, “How do you feel about the bird you see?” 

Two weeks after our bird tour, many visitors may not be able to recall every bird species they saw, but they will remember the emotions that seeing birds on our tour evoked. It may be awe, curiosity, comfort, or connection. As Paul put it, maybe instead of calling it “bird watching” we should call it “bird loving.” Isn’t that what we were truly there to do? 

Paul’s website can be found here: https://www.fshdbirder.org. It includes information about his story, the accessible birding equipment he creates, his bird photos, his contact information and much more. 

Talk soon,

Mo

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