Beginner Mind Birding

Beginner Mind Birding

Wayne Mones
Published: 05/06/2008

Beginner Mind

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.
 -- Roshi Shunryo Suzuki

I have a reputation as a good birder. I am not. Some refer to me as an expert. I am not. I don't want to be an "expert."  In fact I strive to always be a beginner. To never lose the sense of wonder at some bit of fluff which weighs about the same as a nickel and flies to Central Park from somewhere in the Caribbean. I have had the good fortune to have birded with some of the best. Roger Tory Peterson. Pete Dunn. Kenn Kaufman. Steve Kress. Frank Gill. Ian Saville. The pleasure of birding with each of these men is not in the association with well- known experts. The pleasure has been in sharing their palpable sense of radical amazement – their childish wonder at looking even at common birds. The pleasure is being around people who have been doing something beautiful for a long time and have managed to keep their beginner mind. Kenn Kaufman once remarked that whenever he lowers his binoculars, the people with him have long since finished looking at the bird. Kenn has seen it all, but he is amazed that other people don't want to spend more time looking at something fantastic because they are already familiar with it.

Several years ago I encountered an ABA group at Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad.  As the group passed, I pointed out a Motmot, but nobody in the group even bothered to raise a glass.  One said, "oh, we have seen that already."  I remember wondering if those people even liked birds. I prefer the company of beginners.

This morning I had the pleasure of leading a group, composed mostly of beginners, on a bird walk in Central Park. There was one person in our group who had never birded before. Today was her very first time. It was one of those magical mornings. We had very good looks at fourteen warblers. A Scarlet Tanager performed for us for about twenty minutes. A Downy Woodpecker took a chunk of my Cliff Bar from my hand. Considering how difficult it can be for beginners to find warblers in their binoculars, it is amazing that everyone got to see everything.  Birding is rarely this good and this easy.  Sharing the morning with a bunch of beginners made it extra special. 

Their bubbling conversation and overflowing joy reminded me of the joy of being a beginner. They reminded me of the mystical hold that birds have over people.

Our little group treated me like a rock star and thanked me profusely for something over which I had no control. But I am the one who owes the biggest debt of gratitude.  I got the best of the morning because I got to see the world through their eyes.