Meet the pandemic birders

We talked to three of the many people around the world who began bird watching as a much-needed release when the globe turned inward.

May 17 2023 Jillian Anthony

When the pandemic hit, we were all forced inside—which made some of us desperate to spend time outside. Many people turned to the refuge of their local green spaces to safely breathe fresh air and escape the confines of small living spaces. (While visitors to US National Parks took a big dip in 2020 when parks were sometimes closed, visitors surged to the parks in 2021, breaking records in popular spots like Yellowstone.) Some who couldn’t safely (or legally) leave their homes sought refuge in the one place they could: the view from their windows. There, they made friends with the birds who visited, making note of the seasonal changes of species coming and going, and turning to apps like Merlin to learn more about these free-flying creatures. Three people tell us about why they took up birding in 2020—in California, Florida and the Netherlands—and how they found themselves with an uplifting new hobby that changed their lives.

Ariana Remmel, 30, freelance science journalist

Located in Little Rock, Arkansas

Ariana RemmelI was in Santa Cruz, California going to grad school doing a journalism program, and everything was shut down. I started seeking out specific kinds of birds using eBird and Merlin to try to key in on which areas were good for what kinds of birds. I graduated from my program and I didn’t want to pay California rent to live in a place where I was constantly needing to have a go-bag for wildfires, so I moved back to Arkansas, which is my home state. 

For the last 10 years, I’ve lived on the Pacific Flyway. But now on the Mississippi Flyway, I get an entirely different set of birds. Every single day, eBird sends me an update for my county and for the state of Arkansas about where people have seen a bird that I have not seen before. I got my state Roseate Spoonbill a couple weekends ago that I was very excited about. I got my Purple Gallinule, which is like a rainbow swamp chicken. It is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in my life, and it is incredible. 

I do have a local [eBird] nemesis. He’s a lovely, very nice guy who I have met, but every time I see his name on the leaderboard in that first place, I’m like, I’m coming for you. One of these days. 

My big project right now is doing native plant gardening. I am completely redoing my yard for native plants to help those migrating birds. We’ve got a lot of birds that are going to fly straight across the Gulf of Mexico, and I want to make sure that they can stop and refuel here, in my line of sight, before they make the rest of that journey. 

Birding is an activity that requires all of your senses. When I am birding, I am completely engrossed in the activity because I’m listening for the different songs or calls, and breathing in the smell of different flowers and berries and using my nose to kind of guide me towards either the kind of swampy, marshy stuff that’s going to have bugs and mosquitoes that one set of birds likes, or moving toward something that’s more dry and crisp and piney, where I’m more likely to find Pine Warblers. There’s something about birding that, for me, feels like I am reteaching myself how to see. I’m really aware that I see things differently now, which is lovely, and makes me wonder what else I could see if I took the time to learn to see it.

This love of birds has been that gateway for me to learn about my native plants, but it’s also been a gateway for me to learn about how particulate matter moving from wildfires in California might affect the birds in my area. And it’s helped me realize more about how our ozone regulations are going to change the behavior of animals in my area. It’s no longer just me in my little house, trying to see the birds at my feeder; it’s me participating and witnessing a global system of migration of these animals. And it makes my little house—which I am confined to for my work and most of my life—feel maybe not so small and certainly not so insignificant. 

Adam Thomas, 39, writer

Located in Maastricht, the Netherlands

Adam ThomasThe situation in the Netherlands got pretty bad pretty quickly. We had a curfew that we weren’t allowed out after nine o’clock at night or before five o’clock in the morning, so you felt like you had to take every opportunity to leave the house when you could. Every day my wife and I would go out for a walk, and we started to notice a lot more about the seasons, and of course the nature around us. The Netherlands is located between Scandinavia and Africa, so you get a lot of migratory birds, and it also has huge wetlands. We’d always been keen on hiking, and we’d always kept an eye out for birds, but as the year came on, we really started wanting to know what these birds were. 

We’re really lucky here and have a small balcony at the back of the house. There’s trees in the back of the garden, and in the summer, when the windows are open, you start to hear [the birds]. There’s a next level of birding when you start to recognize sounds and really identify them. Just having the birds is that moment of mindfulness just outside the door, that you can step away from the screen and the confines of the room and just have a reason to be outside but not checking your phone or trying to do anything or checking off the to do list. Maybe the Swifts have arrived, which usually means it’s the beginning of summer, or are the Redstarts going to be back this year? We had Redstarts nesting just outside the window. They had loads of little babies, and they were teaching them to fly off our roof. And these tiny little details were probably there my entire life—I just never really took notice of them. 

The first [app] I started to use was Merlin. It helps with identifying, but it also tells you what is a likely bird to see at this time of year in that location. And then I started to use eBird to collect the lists. And more recently I started using BirdNET, which is a piece of machine learning software that can identify bird calls just from a recording. It’s a fun process starting to decode the environment around you. I saw 80 different species last year. And this year, I’m up to 67, which is pretty good.

The Golden Oriole is a bird that spends most of its time in Africa, but then comes here in the summer. It’s not super rare in Europe, but it doesn’t look like any other bird we have. It’s bright yellow—I’ve called it the flying banana. We were walking, and two of them flew straight across our path. And I just started jumping up and down with joy, like, “Oh my god! I saw the birds!”

Jenn Hayes, 33, marketing manager

Located in Schenectady, New York

Jenn HayesI lived in Gainesville, Florida at the [start of the pandemic]. I was actually someone that didn’t like birds that much, for years, but then being stuck inside all day working from home and seeing all these birds from my window made me really wonder about what they were.

A friend would post on Facebook a lot about this thing he was doing, which I now know is called a Big Year. He’s super into it with spreadsheets each month with what he has seen and details about the rare birds. And then he added me to this Alachua County birding Facebook group, and that was what kept me interested. 

I had just moved to Gainesville a year before the pandemic, and I hadn’t had a ton of time to get acquainted with the area. And this gave me a way to connect to Gainesville, the land and the people. It’s such an interesting and dynamic group of people. It felt like they found ways to stay connected. People would post pictures of a type of bird that was rare that they saw at a certain location, and I’d be like, Oh, I should go see that.

I’m still definitely an amature when it comes to identification. There are a lot of subtleties to identification that people in the group will dissect. Like, you can tell that this is a Red-shouldered Hawk because of this pattern on its wings. When I would see a bird that they had discussed in the group, it would help me distinguish it, or know what to look for. 

There’s a lot of really good birding spots in Gainesville. One of the best is Sweetwater Wetlands Park. There’s also Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park—I like going there because there’s bison. I have eBird. I’ve not started keeping checklists because I’m embarrassed sometimes of how few birds I will recognize compared to some other people. But I do use the Merlin, and I have been using their new feature a lot, basically the Shazam of birds. It gives me more motivation to look visually for the birds that I know are probably there. I do wonder how people in the birding community feel about whether or not using the sound thing is cheating. 

I really like the Sandhill Cranes—they all come in pretty much at once and then they all leave at once. I was at home working one day at the time that the Sandhill Cranes sort of migrate, and there were so many of them flying over my house. I immediately recognized the sound that they make. I went outside and saw them all overhead and went and got my binoculars. It was one of the standout moments in my stupid work-from-home days. 

The way that migration marks the passing of time and just how in tune birders are with that—it’s like, this bird is two weeks late. I think that’s a really cool way of being in tune with the world around you. Unfortunately, Schenectady is [nothing like the birding in] Gainesville. It’s hard to compete. But my neighbor Joe builds birdhouses, so I’m hoping that in my time here, I’m going to convince Joe to build me a birdhouse and put it outside our kitchen window.