One of the things I miss most right now is traveling to do research for my writing projects. To compensate, I’m exploring my own environs—spending more time in the garden, taking walks in the open space near my home and doing regular meditation with the help of some feathered shelter-mates through regular “bird sits.”
A bird sit is a dedicated time when you sit quietly for 10-20 minutes in nature and focus on the birds around you. The goal is to make general observations about the birds’ appearance, their location, behavior and calls—but not to get bogged down in detailed identification.
Molly Tsongas of the California Audubon Society gives suggestions for how to do a bird sit. These include finding a consistent, comfortable seat and engaging your senses before tuning into the birds’ behavior and vocalizations. She recommends wrapping up with some self-assessment to see what feelings your bird sit brings up in you.
These tips are not only good advice for meditation, but also for improving my writing practice. Stepping away from my computer to pay attention to nature is both restful and informative. Engaging my senses helps me incorporate more sensorial detail in my writing. And describing feelings? Well, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing on the page, so it’s good to identify my own.
As a historical fiction writer, I’ve also found my bird sits to be a great way to time travel. When I watch the hummingbirds, juncos and warblers gather at the little fountain in my front yard, I wonder if these same bird species flitted around the creeks and ponds of the people who inspired my characters. Did the chartreuse bellies of the goldfinches lift their spirits? Did the spiky crowns of the jays remind them of royalty? Or the iridescent ruby throats of the hummingbirds cause them to conjure their own magic?
Surely, people in the past were even more attuned to the behaviors and sounds of birds. Without the competition from mechanical and electronic devices, they could hear a bird call and know whether it was chastising, chatting or calling for a mate. Their world would have been richer for knowing the birds that flew through their skies—as would mine.
Paying attention to the birds around me also has me thinking about the landscape and what it might have been like fifty years ago before my housing development was built or five hundred years ago when Europeans first explored California. Did the ancestors of the red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures that soar over my hilltop home greet Sir Francis Drake when he arrived in the Bay Area in 1579? Did the barn owls’ forbearers warn the Ohlone people that their world was about to change forever with his arrival?
I’ve come to consider my time sitting with birds as a high-flying-while-seated part of my writing practice.
If you, too, would like to sit with birds, I’d suggest layers of clothing and a sunhat to ensure your comfort. It’s also helpful to have a bird field guide or two. I’ve found Sibley’s Birding Basics insightful as well as several guidebooks specific to my area. I also use the iBird Pro Guide to Birds app to identify birds from photos. And though I’m no John James Audubon, sketching a bird helps me remember details for future reference.
Nevertheless, birds are more likely to come to you if you don’t fuss with notes or sketches or apps until after your bird sit is over. Just sit still and enjoy this new opportunity to explore nature afforded by the return of spring as we shelter-in-place.
The California Audubon Society is sponsoring a 30-Day Sit Spot Challenge starting on Earth Day, April 22. For more details and to register for related workshops go to ca.audubon.org.
Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.