Is Nocturnal Birding for You?
Practising Mindfulness while Birding on Skis

By Rob Wilson

I am, these days, contemplating “mindfulness” – a term defined as “giving thought or heed to”.  It calls for one to be “present” or to live, “in the moment”.  Extolled as state of mind that is advantageous to one’s health and to a general sense of well- being, I embrace the concept.  I believe mindfulness to be a desirable state that, when achieved, functions to assist with good psychological health.  I also believe that bird watching , bird-experiencing or “birding”, specifically nocturnal birding, to be a helpful avenue to travel when attempting to place one’s brain in a state of mindfulness. 

My nocturnal birding occurs in tandem with my love of cross-country skiing at night. 

Since western culture is described as a culture that places a high value on visual perception, let us begin by considering what one might see while gliding at night along a forested trail.  The bird most likely to be encountered would be a grouse (either a Ruffed or a Sharp-tailed) – more about this below.  You may also encounter one of a number of species of owls.  A friend tells a “hair-raising” story of a Great Horned Owl attempting to tear a muskrat hat off her father’s head – more about owls in a moment.  If the trails that you ski have a warm-up shelter complete with a bird feeder (many ski clubs provide free lunches for winter birds) you may, if you check quietly, be rewarded as I was the other night, by a Flying Squirrel methodically transferring black oil sunflower seeds from our club’s feeder to its cheek pouches. Since these night squirrels do a kind of flying, I think that it is legitimate to consider them to be a “sighting”. (If you ask, “What’s flying around?”, it qualifies).  I want to warn ((while freely conceding that this can in no way be considered to be an avian sighting) that one could also spot a moose on a darkened and elongated downhill glide. (There is a small danger that you might collide with it before actually “seeing” it as moose eyes and black hair are notoriously difficult to see in the dark.  It is also difficult to stop those damned skis once they commit themselves to a downhill slope.) 

Let’s consider a second sense – hearing.  Achieving a state of mindfulness requires concentration.  One must be focused and alert to separate rustlings of “things that go bump in the night” from the rhythmic and gentle scrapings of one’s ski wax against the snow.  You may note calling owls – Great Horned, Barred for certain and possibly a Great Grey.  In early fall and spring you may hear the echoing cries of migrating geese.  You are certain to hear the yipping of coyotes and if lucky, the howling of Timber Wolves. (Again, these are not TECHNICALLY birds however they may cause YOU to take flight so, to my mind, it is legitimate to “mention” these canines.) 

An activity to really get you “into the moment”, while skiing, is to practice bird calls. 

You can try the Great Horned Owl (“who …  who …  who who who”),  the Barred Owl (“who … who … who cooks for you?”.  An alternative attempt to mimic the Barred Owl may surreptitiously arise if you suddenly and unexpectedly encounter a fellow skier in the dark.  You might consider blurting “Wh … Wh .... Who are you?”  I advise that you work diligently to remove panic and fear from your phraseology as any nearby owl may detect those nuances and fail to respond to you.  I also advise you to omit blurting “Who the hell are you?” as your call will no longer onomatopoeically resemble the questioning of a Barred Owl. 

Another spontaneous opportunity may arise if you become separated from your ski companions in the dark.  Remembering or struggling to control potential panic and fear inclinations, you might attempt to contact your friends (and that near-by pack of coyotes) by calling   “Wh …  wh …. Where RUUUUUUUUU???” (I realize that this is not really a bird call but your mind is certain to be “full” as you try to reunite with your birder friends). 

Permit me, as I conclude, kind reader, to attempt to more tightly fuse nocturnal birding with your efforts to achieve mindfulness .  Try focusing for the moment upon how you feel –  you may for example, if the temperature is below minus 24 degrees Celsius, feel cold (pay special attention to your thumbs, fingers, nose and toes).  Take a moment to check your consciousness to determine if you are experiencing wonderment.  If the coyotes or wolves are vocalizing at the moment, you might ask “I wonder if I will make it back to the truck?” 

You may experience stimuli, which can have the effect of rushing your brain into mindfulness, which are actually explosive.  An example would be unexpected and unforeseen slapping or scratching of your face as you fly past that over-reaching branch.  This can really get your attention!  Even more exciting is the bursting from beneath the snow and between your skis, of a Ruffed or Sharp-tailed Grouse accompanied by a surreal whirring of wings in the dark.  You might find that you spontaneously utter a call -  “Aiiiiiiiiiiii!” (I have not been able to locate, to this point, any bird vocalizations that resemble this call which leads me to conclude that it is likely to be a primordial utterance).  A grouse-between-the-skis-in-the-dark-while-skiing-downhill encounter could provide an unexpected and unplanned opportunity to practice wonderment. (I wonder which tree it flew into as it blasted into the forest?).  Such an incident may also provide insight. (Once your heart and blood pressure “stats” subside, you realize that you are “just as chicken” as the escaping fowl). 

I invite you, intrigued reader, to share any nocturnal birding stories that you possess.  I have not been able to adapt my skis to spring and summer conditions and do not, therefore , have stories from those seasons   I also harbour a chronic fear of bears which exerts a restraining  influence on nocturnal wanderings at these times.  With your kind assistance, together we may be able to encompass and expand the joys of nocturnal birding to all of the seasons.

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