By Geraldine V. Oades-Sese, Ph.D.
As I stepped out of the car at the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, the sweet buzzing of hummingbirds greeted me at the entrance. Visiting from the East Coast, I don"t see them much, so it was an amazing experience. Breathing as quietly as possible, I took mental note of the faint sounds of 3 to 4 hummingbirds busily feeding on feeders, in hopes of never forgetting them. Then, to my surprise, a bright flash of iridescent magenta glistening against the sun froze me in place as one approached! It hovered near my purple silk scarf, curious to see what I had to offer. Time stood still as I imagined its wings flitting a thousand times each second.
Just then, quick-footed Gambel's Quails caught my eye as they scampered in every direction from bush to bush. Their cute hanging plumes atop their heads bobbed as they scattered about the dirt pathway. I quickly tried to capture them with my camera, but they were too quick, as evident in my blurry photos. I don"t know why, but they reminded me of nuns scurrying about in their brown habits. Walking further along, passing unfamiliar trees and foliage, the gorgeous expanse of the preserve took my breath away- ponds against the beautiful backdrop of varying hues of brown, purple, and gray mountains- a truly stunning sight! Filling my lungs with the fresh crisp air, eyes soaking in the wonderous sight, and ears tuning into the melodic birdsongs, nature is so very humbling.
Along the path was a beautiful wooden deck with benches to sit and take in the view. I leaned against the railing to watch and photograph some Northern Shovelers as they fed and napped along the water's edge, noticing their reddish-brown flanks, green heads, and bright yellow eyes among brown-colored females with broad orange bills. Birdwatching is so meditative! Before I knew it, 15 minutes had passed when a tiny bird landed next to me, perching on the wired fencing.
The bird looked like a little ball of soft blue-gray feathers, maybe about 4-5 inches tall, not as skittish as I thought it would be, but I was mindful of my every movement, sound, and breath so as not to frighten the bird away. It turned out later to be a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher! A lifer.
As I walked further down the dusty pathway from pond to pond, soft grass brushing against my jacket, I captured feeding time - Mallards fed with their tails up in the air, and the Northern Shovelers fed in tight circles like synchronized swimmers. Then, further down the trail, I run into my first American Avocet! Another lifer! What a beautiful bird - blue legs with a long, sleek, upturned beak on its rust-colored head. I stood still for a while, admiring one of nature's creations.
The sights, sounds, and touch I have described are part of what we call mindful birding. I believe it is how most birders, bird photographers, ornithologists, and casual viewers naturally experience birding. Without much effort, and quite naturally, they practice mindfulness in everything they do because they are fully immersed in nature. That is why we bird every chance we get because of birding's rewarding after-effects. You feel more relaxed, calm, rejuvenated, and less anxious or depressed time and again. The fields of science, psychology, and medicine are just catching up to the natural healing powers of birding. One of the positive outcomes of quarantining during the pandemic was that it led people back to nature, leaving them with the realization of how vital the natural environment is to our well-being and the well-being of wildlife and vegetation. We are all interconnected with nature. In my personal life, birding helped my husband and I cope with his dialysis and kidney transplant last year amidst the pandemic, with me as his willing donor.
My visit to HBVP was a few years ago, but why do I remember it like it was just yesterday? It is because of the awareness and intentionality of the whole experience. To see, hear, touch, and smell with intent, you discover a million times more than what is in your usual purview. Take, for instance, my hummingbird experience at HBVP. After focusing my attention more, I realized there were different types of hummingbirds. At first, they all looked the same, but I began to notice differences the more I observed. For example, one had a royal purple throat, while the other had an iridescent magenta. Even when the sunlight did not showcase their jeweled colors, the dark-colored feathers on their throat distinguished them from Anna's and Costa"s Hummingbirds.
Identifying birds is not part of mindful birding but, from my experience, an inevitable outcome as an avid birder. In the practice of mindfulness, which takes a lot of practice and training, is "to see beyond labels." As per Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned teacher of mindfulness, a name is merely a conventional designation, it's not the reality in itself. He urges us to train ourselves to look at each other [birds, wildlife, plants] beyond labels to see each other's true nature.
I believe that in the process of increasing my knowledge of birds, their behavior, migration patterns, and their habitat, the practice of mindfulness steps up a notch further. Of course, depending on which came first for you, one can argue the other way. This is the stage of mindfulness that I am currently at. Compare, for instance, my first experience wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, viewing paintings and sculptures from room to room, appreciating their surface beauty and artistry. However, as I learned more about the artists" intentions and the inspiration behind their creations, I had a newfound appreciation and understanding. I no longer walk from room to room admiring the works of art; instead, I sit on the bench in front of the paintings. I take deep breaths, and notice the use of color, light, and brush strokes the artists intended, how they"ve captured the beauty of nature to evoke emotions – truly seeing the same paintings in a new light.
Likewise, when I go birding, I appreciate nature's artistry and the intentionality of the bird"s size, shape, color, sound, and ability. For the hummingbirds, their scale-like feathers shimmer radiantly, changing hues against different angles of the sun's rays, their feathers behaving like prisms. Did you know that Blue Jays are actually not blue? We see blue because their dull feathers deflect all other colors except blue. Not being an ornithologist, I found these new pieces of knowledge to be truly satisfying. Knowing these amazing facts make me appreciate birds even more, bolstering and enhancing my conscious (mindful) experience with the beauty and artistry behind their creation. These feelings of mindfulness substantiate recent scientific research, corroborating what we"ve all known – that being in nature, seeking birds in their natural habitat, and learning new things in the process keeps our bodies and minds strong and healthy, which promotes continuous growth of neural paths in the brain from childhood through our golden years.
Having said all this, one vital part is missing in most of my birding excursions and adventures – children! The primary purpose of bringing children to parks or the National Wildlife Refuge is seemingly more focused on simply being outdoors – akin to our parents telling us to turn off the TV and play outside. Children will be motivated to spend more time outdoors in nature if they are taught how to appreciate birds in their natural environment. They can spot them with binoculars, capture a photo or drawing, listen for and record bird calls, use a guidebook or web search for identification, and, of course, not scare the birds away! Children should regularly be out in nature and encouraged to be fully immersed in the sciences, language, arts, and mathematics – all of which can be fostered by introducing them to birding and learning about nature outside of books or the internet. I was delighted to hear that some children are even attending nature and forest schools. Furthermore, immersing children in our natural environment and its wildlife will promote its preservation through everything they do in life.
As a child psychologist, most of what I teach children in my private practice to improve their mental health is naturally embedded in birding. Mindfulness, grounding techniques, active or passive coping skills, executive functions skills (attention, planning, organizing), social- emotional learning, goal setting, and problem-solving are integrated into birding. Research has documented the physical and mental health benefits of birding, listening to birdsong, and being out in nature. Therefore, my mission is to engage children from diverse backgrounds and abilities to discover the wonderous and salubrious activity of birding. Children will learn these important life skills through birding and become the defenders of birds and the environment. They are our future environmental scientists, conservationists, environmentally-conscious business owners, ornithologists, policymakers, etc. And their first birding experience is just a step away from their door- their backyard, neighborhood, or local park because birds are everywhere!
By having children (and adults) walk away from electronics or homework for at least 20 minutes each day to observe birds, we are investing in (as well as saving) the physical and mental well-being of the next generation. Research has documented that 90% of all diseases and illnesses are due to stress, and birding and nature are the best preventative medicine with no side effects and costly copay.
In my practice and field trips in New Jersey, I have brought children out in the field to experience nature walking and birding. I have my binoculars and camera on hand, should children want to look closer. A smile runs across their faces from the start, and you see the twinkle in their eyes. They immediately explore the environment with a "Beginner's Mind," taking note of the acorns and other seed pods scattered about the unpaved path, the solitary Blue Heron fishing for its meal, a tiny frog hidden between rocks, and a perfectly formed spider web clinging to the edges of wooden railings. One child referred to all the birds he saw that day as "pigeons" since that is what he saw in his neighborhood. I also observed how they took deep breaths, stood still in silence at the duck blind, and looked out the water, taking in the beautiful scenery teamed with wildlife –without any instructions.
Children also enjoyed looking at the photographs they took, pointing out things they could not see with the naked eye, with wonderous joy. After the walk, they sat together in a circle on the soft grass under a canopy of trees to look at some bird identification books I had left for them. At first, they sat silently flipping through the pages, and then a child shared one of the birds she saw and identified it with the others. A conversation ensued among children who had never met before. The joy and curiosity evoked by their mindful experience led to collective awakening.
In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh on truly seeing:
The practice of looking deeply helps us and the people around us to wake up to the fact that we have a beautiful planet that needs our protection. This is why enlightenment, awaking, is very important. If we live mindfully in everyday life, walk mindfully, are full of life and caring, then we create a miracle and transform the world into a wonderful place. Everyone of us has the seed of awakening in us, and that is why we are hopeful. Everything we do should be aimed at bringing about a collective awakening. (p. 110, How to See, 2019)
Hanh, T. N. (2019). How to see. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
Geraldine V. Oades-Sese, Ph.D., is a licensed child psychologist in private practice in New Jersey. She has diagnosed and treated children with anxiety, depression, OCD, ASD, and ADHD, for over 15 years and is an expert at evaluating children for learning differences and giftedness. Prior to clinical practice, she was the Associate Director and Associate Professor at the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. She also held joint appointments at Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology and the Graduate School of Education. In addition, she co-founded the integrated behavioral health program at RWJ Medical Center. Her research focuses on the resilience and social-emotional development of young children. She was the Principal Investigator of a large-scale study demonstrating the effectiveness of childhood resilience initiatives of Sesame Workshop’s Little Children, Big Challenges: General Resilience, Children of Divorce, and Children with an Incarcerated Parent. In addition, she designed and led Project COMBAT, Project Resilience, and Project Social Competence and has conducted multi-year program evaluations for school districts with at-risk children.
Her community work included serving as an advisor to Sesame Workshop, WNET Thirteen/PBS Kids, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 9111 Building Renovation Project, National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, and the Military Child Education Coalition, and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. She was also a facilitator for the “Joining Forces Initiative” Call to Action Warrior-Centric Healthcare Training Interprofessional Education Program at the medical school.
She is also a children’s picture book and comic strip author focusing on birding, diversity, and inclusion. She has written several publications related to building resilience in children, psychological assessment, multicultural and bilingual children, therapeutic interventions, and using video games in therapy. In her spare time, she has been an avid bird photographer for over 45 years, has taken training as a private pilot, and has performed as a professional drummer with her family band for over 30 years.