I bird attentively in Arizona, not only keeping a backyard bird list, but planning magazine stories to promote the hobby and vacationing in places birders enjoy, whether those visits become magazine stories or not.
None of which explains how I found myself birding or, more accurately, wishing desperately for a field guide and binoculars last month. I wasn’t anywhere near close to home. I was in London’s St. James’s Park, near Buckingham Palace.
In warm fall weather, this most civilized of parks was dressed in autumn finery, but the tourist hordes were blissfully absent. There was just me, and a couple pushing a pram, and one or two men in sharp suits striding purposefully toward Whitehall.
And there were birds. Small songbirds flitted through the foliage, and ducks of at least seven different species paddled the pond’s peaceful waters. Everything looked almost familiar yet not quite: ducks I could identify as dabblers but not by species, singers I could guess to be nuthatches or warblers by their behavior, yet not identify conclusively.
Surrounded by this fine city with all its entertainments and distractions, I had eyes only for the unfamiliar ducks, and ears tuned to hear the strange songs coming from the bushes. So many wishes had come true just to get me to London in the first place, yet now I had one more wish: for binoculars, a field guide, a friendly birder to explain what I was seeing.
I love London for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s enough like America to be accessible yet different enough from home to be exciting. Its residents speak the same language I hear at home every day, yet the words are pronounced differently enough to remind me I truly am in a foreign country.
It was the same with the birds of St. James’s Park: They looked like those I see at home, yet closer inspection revealed that none were exactly the species with which I’m familiar.
And just as I wanted to stay longer in London and keep exploring its lively streets, I wanted to linger in that lovely park and get to know those birds.
Once a birder, always a birder.