© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

"Mindful Birding" uses less serious approach to birding to build community

Ways To Subscribe
A Baltimore oriole perches high in a tree during the 16th Annual Fargo Birding Festival at Forest River Nature Park.
Rick Gion
A Baltimore oriole perches high in a tree during the 16th Annual Fargo Birding Festival at Forest River Nature Park.

Birding sounds like a nice, enjoyable hobby, right?

But for newcomers, the competition amongst serious birders can be intimidating. And sometimes those serious birders take it even a little too seriously so that it becomes a stressful hobby. Today we go mindful birding with Amanda Booher of Audubon Great Plains.

And for Mental Health Awareness Month, Ashley Thornberg shows us how taking a less serious approach to birding can bring more joy.


When you think competition, you probably think sports.

And the Blue Jays are World Series Champions

or maybe academics.

from Jeopardy: Did he come up with Atticus Finch? Yes. All right. You're going to add some more money. You have just set a one day record again.

But competition has a way of showing up wherever competitive people gather, even here. I'm at the 16th Annual Fargo Birding Festival.

Amanda Booher

Birding is serious business, let me tell you. It just gets to be very competitive.

It's the kind of event that attracts people who know the difference between a gullbill tern, a Caspian tern, a black tern, a white wing tern, should I keep going, a whiskered tern, a roseate tern, a common tern, an arctic tern, a Forester's tern, an elegant tern, a sandwich tern, and a royal tern? I'm out of breath.

Amanda Booher
Being able to really pinpoint which species it is, is kind of a bragging right.

That's Amanda Boer with Audubon Great Plains. She's one of those competitive people. So competitive, even hobbies.

I love going to breweries, I love biking.

Got stressful.

As my chiropractor has told me, I shouldn't play kickball anymore probably, because last year I got hurt too many times and couldn't walk. I'm very competitive, and that's the thing, if I were actually good at birding, I would be that person who would get an ego when I would identify a bird before anyone else. I'd be like, heck yeah, suckers.

Wait, did this representative of a birding conservation organization just say

If I were actually good at birding?

Yeah, she sure did. Sounds kind of funny given her work, but she's their communications manager. Her specialty is engaging with people.

And I like to make my team laugh because I'll be like, that's a cotton-headed ninny muggins, because I really don't know a lot of birds that they would know. 

Is that a real bird name? Nope.

That's from the movie Elf.

But that combination of being very engaging and frankly quite competitive did leave her a little bit stressed. She ended up switching gears with her hobbies.

I really enjoy going to yoga. Being able to work and connecting my body with my breath has been really helpful for me.

That led Amanda to study the benefits of mindfulness. The idea that being present in what we're doing prevents us from being reactive and overwhelmed.

We have a lot of intrusive thoughts. If you take a moment and when these intrusive thoughts come in, recognize them, acknowledge them, and be the determining factor of letting them go. 

Can you give me an example of an intrusive thought?

Oh my gosh. Well, today is the Fargo Birding Festival and an intrusive thought that came into my head at 3.30 in the morning was my brain was telling me that I was going to forget something really important and that nobody was going to come and our bird guides were going to come. Did I actually email the bird guides and remind them to come?

Did I not remind the bird guides?

She took an online course on mindfulness.

Okay, so you're flipping through a journal right now.


There are little leaves in there. That's a, yeah, I took, this is from my first mindfulness activity. We were allowed to pick some sage.

I put it in my little book.

So that just kind of brings you back to that moment.

And Amanda brought a lesson back to Audubon Great Plains. Something she learned at a leadership conference offering a class on mindful birding.

Regular birding, I guess I should say, just birding is walking around with your binoculars kind of ready to go at any moment and looking up in the trees, you know what to look for.

You know, those walks where people know a loggerhead shrike from a northern shrike. It is not that.

So mindful birding is less about looking for those things and more about just connecting with nature and not just looking at the cattails for a potential red-winged blackbird, but also just looking at the whole wetland in general and a layered approach of observation.

How often do you go out birding?

Mindful birding participant:

We mostly just bird from our yard. 

She took about a dozen non-competitive birders.

We have the blue jay, what else, nutcrackers, I mean, nuthatches. Nutcrackers. We have plenty of nutcrackers.

And walked them through the process.

I could not look at many birds and tell you what it is, but I can tell you the shape, the size, the color, and where I saw it. Did I see it on the ground? Did I see it in the sky?

And that is what mindful birding is all about.

They start with a quick breathing exercise to calm any nerves.

So if you breathe in with your nose and count to three with me, hold it for three, and exhale for three, two, one.

And then the work. Step one, notice.

To get ready for today, I took my son out on Wednesday and we identified seven species just by sound. So we talked about what we saw in nature, what we heard, the different trills, the chickadee sound, which is common and easy to recognize when you're five years old because it's chickadee. My five-year-old can make that call as well.

So it's something that I really find enjoyable that I can take my son out and connect with nature with him at a young age.

Step two, get curious.

I observed three birds, two that are closer together. I wonder if that third bird feels left out. He probably does.

I wonder if I'm anthropomorphizing.

And remember not to take yourself or this hobby too seriously.

I like to do what I call like Amanda birding and I'll identify it as like, oh, that's a white saurus. It's white and it's soaring. I identify it.  I make them up. 

I learned that one was called the yellow rumped warbler.

Its nickname is the Butterbutt.

Oh, I wish I'd known about that. That would make a great poem.

Katie Bruckbauer knows a thing or two about bird-inspired poetry.

Katie Bruckbauer:

Do Orioles eat Oreos, single stuffed or double? Do Orioles chew Orbit gum or opt for ones that bubble? Do Orioles order out for Prego or Ragu over Orochetti pasta or organic orzo stew?

Or what about a ride of taters, hash browned or French fried? An omelet with oregano or eggs cooked sunny side? Oh my goodness.

No, no, no. An Oriole would never overdose on Orville Redenbacher's popcorn ever, but an Oriole will orient round oranges or grape jelly. Ordinarily, that's what he chews to fill his belly.

She's one of the creative forces behind Word Dances.

Katie Bruckbauer:

I'm a dancer. My whole life I've taught dance and performed and modern dance. And so I feel like poetry is a dance with words.

So a lot of the poems are about birds and how they relate to life and the human condition and going through the ups and downs and the joys and the grief and sorrows of life and through the birds are kind of guides, I guess.

And she's doing step three of mindful birding, build community. As kids, she was always with her cousin Mary Jo Savageau. They grew up and as often happens, grew apart.

They reconnected when Katie wanted to put her bird poems into book form and needed someone with a totally different kind of brain.

Mary Jo Savageau:

So I pull up the spreadsheets and say, okay, we need to update the inventory on this.

Ashley Thornberg:

Do you have a multi-columnar spreadsheet?.

Mary Jo Savageau:

Oh yes. Lots of formulas that bring in totals. 

Who just so happens to be rather artistic herself. Mary Jo illustrated time to soar, word dances and bird song for every season. They spent three years on this labor of love, labor being the operative word.

Mary Jo Savageau:

iWe both might suffer from depression on the same day and we can lift each other up.

Wanting to feel less alone, something all of us can relate to.

Ashley Thornberg:

I just opened up arbitrarily to a page here and yeah, there is a body of water and there is on the foreground, you know, the meadow or the grass and then even the tree trunk and those are all, they're not quite grayscale, but they're a little bit washed out. But then the leaves and the birds, they pop.

Yes. And I want to be here in this picture so bad.

Mary Jo Sauvageau:

Oh good, good. This is where we brought all the birds together. It's like bringing in all of the elements that struggle within you or personalities or is it part of it was through the pandemic and some of this strife that was going on in the world and people at odds with each other.

And you know, it just all brings it together and hopefully you can find some, some hope and peace and some, you know, look toward the future.

Katie Bruckbauer:

Encouragement to like, like we have to accept people. There's a duck on the dock who's odd as odd can be and a peacock who's proud and a crow who's too loud. And an eagle looks down from his tree, you know, can we, can we live together and accept everybody and, you know, welcome everyone into our nest.


Katie and Mary Jo of Word Dances have an upcoming reading and dance performance from their book June 18th at 7 p.m. at the Russell Reed Auditorium at the Heritage Center in Bismarck.