Slow, Mindful Birding with Red Rock Audubon Society

 By Morrigan DeVito

On October 2, Red Rock Audubon Society (RRAS) hosted a mindful birding event at the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve. This was just one of their monthly recurring mindful birding outings, but mindful birding is still a new concept for many people. Let’s explore it together, and see how the restorative benefits of mindful birding can help us connect with birds and the desert as a whole.

It’s no secret to birders that spending time in nature feels good. Why else would we get up before sunrise to celebrate the return of migratory birds like the Yellow-rumped Warbler? But for many, Yellow-rumped Warblers may lose their “newness” after they’ve settled in for the winter. Suddenly, they’re passed by or listed without much thought in favor of finding rarer warblers and other birds. Perhaps they even become a nuisance, “yet another” Yellow-rumped Warbler of hundreds.

Rather than passing by the Yellow-rumped Warbler, mindful birding asks us to slow down, engage our senses, and savor what nature gives us without judgment. Inspired by the work of the Mindful Birding Network and Ornitherapy, RRAS Mindful Birding events use the therapeutic practice of mindfulness to enjoy birds. As a tool, mindfulness means bringing focus to the present moment and all its sensations, both internal and external, without attachment or judging your feelings. In birding, judgment can come in the form of being hard on yourself for not being able to identify a bird. But instead of ID’ing as many species as possible, chasing rare birds, or getting caught up in naming species, mindful birding invites you to be present and open-minded. A name need not be attached to the bird in order to enjoy it.

With common residents and migratory birds, mindfulness can help you notice new things that you may not have noticed about the bird. Imagine a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Can you recall what it looks like in exact detail? Every feather? Every movement? If, like most people, you can’t, perhaps it’s time to slow down the next time you see one and note at least one new thing you have never noticed about this species. Each bird is an individual, so there is always more to discover. You can practice this with any bird species, no matter how common.

Mindful attention to nature in all its forms has noted therapeutic benefits like decreasing stress and releasing serotonin. For first-timer Fiona Madsen, the benefits were felt beyond the couple hours spent with RRAS on October 2. She states, “I felt really relaxed both during and after the event and far, far more in tune with nature. I definitely found the event to broaden my perspective on how sensory birding can be, and found myself paying attention to all parts of the landscape.”

The Mojave Desert invites us to pay attention to all its parts in order to see past its extremes. Practicing mindful birding is a gateway to learning more about the whole ecosystem, as moving slower helps us notice new things. It’s one thing to ID a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers, but spending time with them becomes a whole story. Perhaps you watch them hop around in the zig-zagging canopy of a catclaw acacia, and suddenly the acacia’s long thorns draw your attention. Maybe you notice ants crawling along the bark, or the way light filters through branches. These tiny moments of awe bring attention to the present moment and are a reminder that nothing exists in isolation.

At a mindful birding event, participants may spend fifteen or more minutes by one plant to observe the life that comes in and out of it, from migrants to residents, birds to insects. Besides organisms, time is spent noting colors, sounds, patterns, and textures. For participant Andrew Johnson, this practice made him feel “taken aback by the charm of mother nature coupled with the beauty of the Las Vegas landscape.”

Even for experienced birders, mindful birding has much to offer. One question that Alex Harper, RRAS Education and Outreach Chair, poses is to imagine that this is the last time you were looking at a particular bird species. What would you notice? What would you remember?

He explains, “Looking at something as if somehow you know it will be the last time you will see it is a really perspective-changing exercise. I find that I savor moments that I might have found mundane by doing this. It helps me to maintain or refind the present, and reminds me of my finite time on Earth. This approach transcends beyond the birding; I find more reasons to be grateful throughout my day, and don’t feel the impulse to seek something novel as often as I used to. With this, I feel more content, and with contentment, more moments of happiness.”

For many, finding those moments of contentment with others is rewarding. After joining a Mindful Birding event, RRAS secretary Melissa Gonzalez says, 

“I was very excited that I made time for myself out in nature [...] it feels like a supportive energy that is welcoming. This inspires me to be more present in nature. Also, the conversations about humanness and the need to connect with nature felt soul nurturing for me.”

To connect with nature and a supportive community, check the RRAS calendar for the next Mindful Birding event. All are welcome at RRAS mindful birding events. There is something for everyone, whether you’re new to birding, new to mindfulness or both. And of course, there will be birds.

As Harper reflects, “There will be the last time that I see a Yellow-rumped Warbler, but I can"t know when in the future I will see my last one.”

    Mindful birding makes every moment special.

Photo Credit: Alex Harper