Lost birds and the people who watch them

Lost birds and the people who watch them

Birding saved one man’s life. Maybe it can save the rest of us from climate change?


I

t was a beach date that would transform Chris Michaud, though the memorable parts were neither the beach nor the date but what he saw that day. Both in their early 30s, summer of 2017, Chris had met Gemma recently, swiping on Bumble. They decided to head to the New Hampshire coast, not far from where they both lived in Portsmouth. Before arriving at the beach, Gemma suggested they do a little birding.

In a marsh, they spotted egrets, a glossy ibis, and “some other cool stuff.” Later, they went to the beach, as promised, but Chris just kept thinking about the birds. This moment, in birding lingo, is called the “spark,” when a person sees something that inspires them to be a birder for life. (Nearly everyone I talked to for this story had a spark and volunteered their story whether I asked for it or not.)

Since then, Chris has been an avid birder and, like many avid birders, is a frequent user of an app called eBird. Naturally, bird watching today involves going out into the world, encountering something wonderful, strange, perhaps even profound or moving, and then logging it on your phone.

Along with Merlin, which helps people identify species of birds, eBird lets people keep track of the ones they’ve seen and, in doing so, become part of a crowdsourced, citizen-science mission. Whether users care or not, the millions of birds being observed tell scientists about huge patterns in climate change.

For Chris, though, using eBird is about the thrill of adding every new species he encounters. When we first speak, he immediately summons the exact number of different birds he’d seen: “315 species — pretty cool, right?”

Though Gemma was studying birds professionally as an ornithologist, it was Chris who became the bigger birding hobbyist. When they went together, Chris would be quick to suggest a bird was rare. Gemma tended to make safer guesses, to assume what was more likely. Chris understood — but what if? It was the personality divide you might expect between a woman of science and a man who works in marketing.

The reality, for Chris, was that getting into birds was a confluence of many things. There was the budding relationship, the struggle to get sober, that relationship fracturing, and, then, the cancer.

Alcoholism, breakups, even lymphoma — sad as they are, these are things that happen to lots of people. But not everyone got to see what Chris did because, eventually, he bore witness to a rare bird — an appearance so exceptional that everyone I asked would agree that, if you were very lucky, it was something you got to witness once in a lifetime. A once-in-a-lifetime bird!

For Chris, birding was existential, maybe even lifesaving. And it could be for the rest of us too, whether we know it or not. Anomalous, unusual sightings are thrilling to birders, but it’s the sum of all their everyday, boring observations that tell us the most about the world we live in, and how we might save it.


T

o experience nature is to delight in it. To reckon with nature is to understand that we’re dealing with an unfathomable amount of loss.

A 2019 study published in Science discovered that in North America, nearly 3 billion birds have vanished. The staggering decline of bird populations over the past 50 years is the result of “human-altered landscapes” and “an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.” You know, climate change.

The data that eBird collects is obviously useful in the field of ornithology. But its more urgent application, according to Chris Wood, director of eBird, is comprehending our dying planet. “Birds as indicators of natural systems overall,” he explains. Any data that is spatial and temporal is useful for climate scientists. But birds especially, because of their susceptibility to minor temperature fluctuations, can be more reliable signals of change. He apologizes for the cliché, then evokes the notion of a canary in a coal mine. To me, the metaphor says less about birds but more powerfully suggests that we all live in a coal mine.

When I speak with Wood, who is also the managing director for the Center for Avian Population Studies, he has recently absconded to Tampa for the winter. He’s been working on eBird ever since it started as an informal grant from the National Science Foundation. This month marks 20 years since eBird launched originally as a website. As a tool of mass data collection, the two decades of eBird development have paralleled the tech sector’s shift from statistical analysis to artificial intelligence. (You can chart that change in buzz words — from “AI” to ”big data” to “machine learning” and back to “AI.”)

Climate change is a systems problem, and the prevailing attitude among scientists is that understanding those many ecological apparatuses and how they interact with each other is our best shot at modeling what will happen and how fucked or not fucked we might be. Birds may make up just one of those many systems, but eBird offers one of the few global data sets that can be measured across an annual cycle.

Still, eBird’s value follows a familiar tactic from large advertising platforms like Google and Facebook: lots and lots of signals generated by users of a free app. Which means a wealth of messy data points. The best way to overcome unreliable data? Get more of it at scale. When it comes to gathering information, there’s no such thing as excess.

Several people I spoke to compared the app to Pokémon, in the sense that they were motivated “to catch them all.” But in many ways, eBird is the flipside. Where Pokémon Go, the popular mobile iteration of the game, takes all of its massive stores of player geolocation data and sells it to — who else? — advertisers, the data collected by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is made publicly available and used for scientific research. In contrast to surveillance capitalism, this is, perhaps, surveillance naturalism.


I

t’s hard to know how much drinking will kill a person until it does.

In the early ’00s, Chris was in Maine’s music industry. He was the baritone sax player for a screamo band called Animal Suit Driveby, later rebranded The Killing Moon after the label asked for a more serious name. But more importantly, he was part of the scene. “We were raging, we were rampaging, having a good time,” he recalls. Reviewing our interview transcript later, I realize, for how often we’re talking about drinking, Chris tends to avoid the word itself.

That life — raging, rampaging, having a good time — extended into his 30s, even long after his moment in music passed.

Gemma had her concerns. Before he went out, she’d ask him tough questions that were, in hindsight, easy questions: Could he go out to dinner and not have six drinks alone? Could he resist going to a bar after that? Was it even possible to imagine limiting himself to just one drink?

So he got sober. It was hard for all the obvious reasons; it was also difficult because sobriety was so boring.

“When you’re in your 30s, that’s all you’ve done in your formative adult years. You have no actual hobbies, and all you are is that party person, and all your friends are those party people,” he says. Pulling out cold turkey — which, for most people, is the only way to do it — left him with existential questions: Who am I? What am I doing? What is interesting to me? What do I care about?

Chris goes birding for three, maybe four hours at a time. His favorite spot is near a waste-water treatment plant in Rochester, New Hampshire. Chris prefers the solitude of birding alone. He considers himself an introvert, at least ever since he stopped drinking. “I like to be able to pick up and go wherever, switch directions and drive somewhere else, and not have to worry about anyone else,” he says, which is good because he was by himself now anyway.

Two and a half years into their relationship, Gemma was offered a three-year contract at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which in addition to making eBird, is widely considered the best avian studies program in the world. The job was six hours west in upstate New York. Chris offered to pack up his life and move to Ithaca with her. Gemma said she was going alone.

Two weeks after Gemma left, Chris was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that attacks white blood cells. Weirdly, he was good news / bad news about the whole thing. “First up, Hodgkin’s is a great cancer,” he says, citing its treatability, “but stage 4 is never a great stage to be in.” 

More ups and downs: because the chemo jacked Chris’ body full of steroids, it actually made him feel pretty terrific for a day or two afterward — the perfect opportunity to get outside. No hikes, of course, but little drives to the beach to hobble around and observe some birds. Then, after the steroids wore off, Chris would spend the next week and a half feeling like absolute death.

He was stuck in this loop for six months straight: the brief high of treatment, followed by the drawn-out agony, all in the pursuit of staying alive long enough for the cancer to be exorcised from his body.

Even while he was being treated, getting pumped with four types of chemo, he was texting Gemma. They’d remained friends and talked every day. “A lot of times, it was like, ‘Check out this picture of this bird,’ that sort of thing, while I’m sitting, literally cooking from the inside,” he says, describing himself further as “a boiling, toxic mess.”

“I don’t think there’s ever a time when I go out that I don’t think of the genesis of this entire hobby and who brought it into my life,” he says.

The nice thing about getting outside and birding is that it reminded him of Gemma — but also, it reminded him of Gemma.


A

t its heart, eBird is a social network. It connects people to each other and also with birds.

But any social network must have social network problems, right? I ask Jenna Curtis, an eBird project leader who works on engagement and outreach. But first, she tells me about her “spark” — her first bird — and also her thousandth, memorable both because it was a Buller’s shearwater and because she saw it while at sea and seasick. “I was cheering my thousandth bird over the railing of a boat.”

I mentioned that a friend of mine in Brooklyn, a casual birder, is a huge eBird fan. But he told me that if you see an owl, it is bad etiquette to log it. In New York in particular, listing snowy owls in Central Park tended to activate waves of birders — too many, a number that would disturb the owl. Comedian Steve Martin had posted about the celebrity bird on Facebook; recently, the death of local hero Barry the Owl was reported out like it was a true-crime podcast (she was poisoned… before being hit by a truck!). Curtis says this can be the case with owls — they are “a charismatic bird” — and some other species, particularly endangered ones. Diplomatically, Wood told me he never wants to be quoted about “anything related to owls.”

But eBird also keeps an index of “sensitive species” for this reason, meaning that when a user observes one, it will be kept in their personal log but obscured from public view. No alerts will go out for sensitive birds. Falcons, often caught and traded to raptor trainers, are usually hidden from eBird for their own protection. (Even a social network about birds has harassment issues, though this one is concerned about the safety of the birds.)

Somewhat ironically, a number of experts attributed the growing popularity of birding as a reaction to people’s growing dependence on screen time. Anecdotally, there are those who pick up birding because they wish to look at their phones less. But common trends in technology have also bolstered the hobby. There is eBird, of course, which capitalizes on our habit of posting things in an app. But there is also the proliferation of cheaper, better cameras — digital SLRs are available, and nearly everyone walks around with a powerful lens on their phone. The community of amateur photographers tends to organize in Facebook groups. An even broader community exists on Twitter, where birding evangelists help newbies identify species from grainy photos. #CrowOrNo is, self-explanatorily, a constant quiz of whether something is a crow or not.

But you can chart birding’s growing popularity through eBird’s user numbers, which have nearly doubled over the pandemic to more than a quarter-million people. (One person I talked to said, “Are you really a birder if you don’t use eBird?”) Last year, the app logged its billionth bird observation. Maybe we can spot birds faster than we lose them.


T

he academic world is cruel and a bit petty. “There’s the ‘publish or die’ concept, and you’re always comparing yourself to other people,” Gemma Clucas says. She spends a lot of her time writing things for journals that no one ever reads.

At Oxford, she researched the connectivity of penguin colonies in Antarctica. In Portsmouth, she studied Atlantic cod for her postdoc. Now, in Ithaca, one of her big projects is about seabird diets. “I’m just doing some fecal DNA analysis or whatever,” she says. The whatever, it turns out, involves going to common and roseate tern colonies in the Gulf of Maine, covering herself in plastic, getting pooped on, and collecting the samples. “And that tells me what they’re eating.”

I have about 400 questions. Like, is there a special poop-collecting jacket? There is not, she says — just the old clothes you don’t mind getting shit on.

So they poop on you, and you’re scraping off your shirt and…

“Yeah.”

She’ll take a couple weeks in the summer to visit the colony each day while they’re breeding. She’ll collect two to three hundred samples.

(It occurs to me that Gemma’s work has less to do with acquiring feces and more what she does with it after. This doesn’t change my line of questioning.)

Is there a thing you do to encourage them to poop?

“As soon as you come close to their nest, pooping on you is their defense mechanism.”

Before she got the offer from Cornell, Gemma was in the midst of a crisis of competence. For the last decade, academic jobs have become underfunded and underpaid, and that’s only made them more competitive. “I found it really hard to write the application,” she says. “I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I’m not good enough.’” Her acceptance at Cornell felt like a reversal of fortune. She had to take it.

When she told Chris about the job, that she was leaving, he had a panic attack. Gemma took him to the hospital. They would try to be friends.

Two months later, Gemma was back in the UK, visiting home, when Chris called to tell her about the cancer. She considered taking a break from Cornell to take care of him, worried about his health and also that he might relapse. “I wished we were still together because I would’ve dropped everything to go support him if I could,” she says. “But that wasn’t an option. That’s not what he wanted.”

They texted every day. Gemma went to visit. Chris was the kind of person resistant to getting support or, perhaps, admitting that he needed it. She tried to get him outside. “I think that helped,” Gemma says. “I like to think it helped.”


F

or a brief moment, the most famous birder was Christian Cooper. He was looking for songbirds in Central Park when he was accosted by a white woman named Amy Cooper, who threatened to call the police on Christian for being, in her eyes, a large and threatening Black man, even though he had a pair of dorky binoculars dangling from his neck.

It was a viral moment on Twitter before it reached other social platforms and then, inevitably, the cable news cycle. Lost in much of the conversation about anti-Blackness, white privilege, and policing was the fact that Christian Cooper was birding. It’s how their confrontation started: Christian asking Amy to put her dog on a leash since they scare away birds. But it seemed to her that the image of Christian was too incongruous, which is an insidious form of racism: when a person cannot reconcile what they perceive as an identity with what is actually in front of them. The usual reaction to that is defensiveness or fear or, in Amy’s case, indignation.

Nearly every person I talked to for this story at some point brought up the fact that birding is, historically, very white and often very male and usually made up of older people. But that’s not entirely the case.

Sheridan Alford is an environmental educator and also an advocate for younger, more diverse birders.

Binoculars, she says, are more conspicuous than I’d realized, especially if you’re birding somewhere that’s not a park. She has other tips for Black birders: go during the daytime, and if you have to go at night — for nocturnal birds, like owls — go in large groups; take along a dog or a white person; carry a field guide, less for what it says about nature but as proof that you’re birding, in case someone doubts you; and lastly, when birding takes you to private property, she “would not be caught dead on the other side of someone’s fence.”

If Twitter offers a hint of a community’s cross section, Alford sees more diversity than Black and white. She cites the South Americans being active on birding hashtags, “which makes sense because they have all the birds,” she says, admitting a little jealousy. She also sees Asians, who tend to be obsessed with the photography aspect of birding. (I concede to her that I have a Vietnamese uncle who does exactly this.)

Alford was one of the organizers of Black Birders Week, an online campaign to get people — newbies and veterans alike — out of their homes and into nature during the pandemic. The idea came from a group text called Black in STEM AF, after a conversation about Christian Cooper’s experience. Organized in a group chat and then spread across Instagram and Twitter, suddenly it was a national campaign and, since then, repeated annually. This month, National Geographic announced a TV series with Christian Cooper.

Before we get off the phone, Alford leaves me with one last piece of wisdom.

“You can always get started by just walking outside. You don’t have to get super expensive binoculars,” she says. “To see a bird is to bird. That’s all!”


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y the end of 2020, Chris had moved back to rural Maine. His marketing job at Planet Fitness was mostly Zoom meetings anyway, so it hardly mattered where he was living. Why not save some money and get out of the city?

The cancer was in remission. He was still recovering from what the chemo did to his body. His eyebrows grew back. But after a year inside, the pandemic arrived and extended his lockdown.

Chris’ parents had a place in a tiny, remote town called Steuben. Now, between conference calls and emails, Chris could look out the window and glimpse a stoat, maybe a fox. One day, above the marsh, he caught sight of a small bird perched atop a scraggly, dead tree. At first, he thought it was a shrike — affectionately nicknamed a “butcherbird” for the way it murders field mice. But Chris looked closer and realized it was… a weird robin?

Initially, he assumed it was a juvenile robin. Young birds looked, to Chris, “disheveled and gross… the wrong color and speckle-y.” Ugly but unremarkable. He returned to his conference call. Yet something in the back of Chris’ mind screamed, This is not right. So he took his camera out and, from his desk, snapped a few photos of the bird.

The pictures were not great. They were pixelated, out of focus, foggy. (“It’s a shitty camera.”) He put the seven photos in a folder named “weird robin.” He sent it to Gemma.


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emma was skeptical, knowing how excitable Chris could be. She tends to be more cautious since, in her field, there’s a stigma around getting things wrong. As an amateur, the stakes for Chris were a bit lower, which meant he could be more hopeful, more wishful, though that may have actually made the stakes higher.

Still, Gemma showed her co-workers at the Cornell Lab the photos of Chris’ “weird robin.”

Chris, proving that excitability, recounted that moment: “She started sending texts back from them. They’re like, ‘Holy shit, this is a redwing!’”

As a non-birder, this means nothing to me, so Chris explains: this bird is not an uncommon one. The redwing can be found easily in Sweden, Iceland, and in the UK when they migrate in the winter. But to see one thousands of miles away — across the Atlantic Ocean, no less — that was unbelievable. The enthusiasm around this bird was not what it was but where.

There’s a term for this observation: an ABA rarity, short for American Birding Association, which is responsible for, among other things, sending out an email of notable sightings.

Because of the reach of eBird’s “rare bird alert,” users like Chris feel some responsibility about what they report. Birders are known to descend on rare bird sightings in droves, sometimes in the hundreds, hoping to catch a glimpse. They’ll drive for hours; some might even hop on cross-country flights. This phenomenon is called “twitching.”

It’s not just owls. In the fall of 2020, a European cuckoo had twitchers swarming Providence, Rhode Island. (You can guess what the headlines were.)

Chris understands this impulse because he, too, is an “unapologetic twitcher.”

How far do you go when you’re twitching?

“Not that long. Probably, like, two hours maybe.”

That’s pretty far.

“Like I said, people will drive, like, 15 hours.”

Chris was new to the area. He’d been there four months and had yet to meet his neighbors. He worried that setting off a chain of events that would result in droves of strangers showing up suddenly and with binoculars might piss off long-time Steuben residents. After all, you don’t live in a thousand-person town in rural Maine because you like company.

“It was like Chris’ dream come true but at the absolute worst time when he couldn’t have hundreds of birders flocking to see his bird,” Gemma says. “That was the really bittersweet thing about it.” (The redwing was not particularly special to her personally, having seen them often growing up in the UK.)

Chris’ other worry was that he looked like a bit of “a flatlander.”

“Flatlander” — is that a Maine thing or a birding thing?

“That’s a Maine thing.” He clarifies: if you’re “from away,” you’re a flatlander. “I’m a new guy in town. I’m a flatlander with New Hampshire plates.”

So Chris made a choice. He didn’t log it in eBird, worried that it might set off the ABA rarity email. Instead, he emailed the Audubon Society. He was connected with the staff naturalist, who then hit up someone at the Maine Bird Records Committee.

Etiquette aside, Chris still had his concerns about triggering a twitching. “I was like, ‘You can come to my parents’ house, but you can’t tell anyone.’ They were like, ‘Oh my god, yes.’”

It would have to be a secret but not a total secret. You know, for science. In the case of rare bird sightings, you bring in the authorities to verify it. Also, these guys really wanted to see this bird.


O

ne of those guys, Louis Bevier, harbors some skepticism of eBird. His concerns come from 50 years of experience. In the ’70s, he was part of a movement that established record committees that encouraged people to write good descriptions, take clear photos, and capture audio recordings whenever they could — which would then be independently verified. He’s done bird work in California, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and, finally, Maine, where he has been involved with the Maine Bird Records Committee for the past 17 years.

After proudly telling me he was not on any “of the social medias,” Bevier said he recognizes the power of what eBird collects. But he has some worries about the quality of the information. “When I review things, I’ll see people put in photographs of common birds, and they’re the wrong species,” he says.

All data sets are imperfect, but there are better ways to gauge error rates than what eBird is currently doing, Bevier says. To his knowledge, no one’s done a study on eBird’s accuracy. 

A research associate at Cornell Labs, Frank La Sorte, pushed back on these criticisms of the information quality, arguing that sampling errors are a part of any data set. There are robust tools that account for these issues. On top of that, anomalies are manually verified by a team of volunteer eBird moderators.

But to Bevier, eBird is a new entrant that relies on amateurs rather than ones that are, to him, more rigorously vetted by experts. “In my years of reviewing records, I’ve seen the whole breadth of human behavior,” he says.

There are the embellishers; then, there are the straight-up liars, committing what I would describe as “bird fraud.” Sometimes it involves a bad Photoshop job. One guy took a picture of a common tern and put a different, larger head on it to make it appear to be a royal tern. The hope was his fake rare bird sighting might direct people to his photography business. Bevier also tells me about someone that lied about spotting a rare seabird from the Antarctic and made up some convoluted story about seeing it while on a boat in Monterey, California. His motives, to this day, are still unknown.

Most errors, of course, are honest ones. “People are just not being careful,” he says.

If it is human to err, maybe it comes from a place of optimism. The rigor of science and research will help us understand what’s wrong with the planet; but hope — even in the face of devastation — keeps people alive.

When Bevier heard about the redwing spotted in Steuben, he was suspicious, too. But it wasn’t entirely unexpected. BirdCast, another Cornell Labs product, uses eBird data to predict migration and weather patterns. Recently, it revealed that birds flying between Greenland, Iceland, and other parts of Europe had made appearances in the area. Even Bevier, with half a century of birding under his belt, had to be excited by the prospect of a redwing. 

“Well, that would be the first record for Maine!”


D

oug Hitchcox, the staff naturalist at Maine Audubon, gets dozens of emails a day asking him to identify birds: What’s this bird? Can you tell me what this is?

“And they’re robins. They’re almost all robins,” he says.

Hitchcox started as a volunteer for the Audubon. A decade later, now in his early 30s, he is a fixture of the Maine birding scene. Throughout our conversation, he alludes vaguely to the community, where certain figures will keep rare bird sightings to themselves, and how he’s had to overcome that “elitism.”

Hitchcox was visiting his family in Massachusetts for Christmas when he received Chris’ email with the redwing. Hitchcox turned to his loved ones and told them he had to go. He understands himself, you see: “If there’s a rare bird in Maine and I’m not looking at it, I’m just miserable until then,” he tells me.

The ABA has a numbered coding system for bird rarity. The highest is a five. Chris’ redwing clocked in at a four, which, Hitchcox says, “you maybe have a once-in-a-lifetime chance of seeing.” A code four happens in Maine maybe once every half-decade. A redwing may never appear in the state again. Christmas, by contrast, happens every year.

Three days later, Hitchcox woke up at 3AM. He picked up Louis Bevier in his Prius, and they drove up Route 1A toward the coast, admiring the ascending sun peeking over Acadia National Park. Bevier observed a thin crescent moon, rising as well, as they made their way to Steuben.

Chris greeted the duo at his house at 7AM, pleasant and slightly begrudging that it was the earliest he’d woken up during the pandemic. Despite his high spirits, he was nervous about bothering the locals. So they treaded lightly, so as to not upset Chris’ neighbors before he’d even met them. “We were three dudes walking around where there’s not usually three dudes walking around,” Chris says.

He showed them the perch where the bird sat when he’d snapped the original photos. Perhaps it might return to that spot. Then they wandered all over, hopeful.

By the end of the day, Hitchcox knew the names of all of Chris’ neighbors. “We talked about the bird, and it would turn into Chris just introducing himself, talking about how his family bought the house,” Hitchcox recounts. But after five hours of seeking out the rare bird, it never materialized. No redwing anywhere. Chris kept apologizing — “God, guys, I’m so sorry. I just feel terrible.”

I asked Hitchcox if he felt disappointed that day, and his response led me to believe that he had been nothing short of devastated: “There was my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity… gone.”

Bevier, who has been birding now for 50 years, was less disheartened: “I’m used to it, at this point. I don’t get dejected,” Bevier says. “That’s the breaks.”

Days later, a redwing did appear just 180 miles southwest in Portland, Maine. It was a much better, safer location for visiting birders — a public park instead of someone’s backyard. The ABA email announced it. The thrush stuck around the city for two weeks, where Hitchcox estimated a few hundred people turned up to witness it.

Hitchcox says the tone of our conversation would have been very different if the redwing hadn’t shown up in Portland. “I would not be laughing.”

After comparing his photos to what the ABA released, Chris is personally convinced that the redwing that appeared in Portland is a different one, based on the breast streaking. It wasn’t his redwing.

When the news of the rare bird in Portland emerged, Chris took pride in knowing he’d been the first person to sight one in Maine — and, later, quietly logged it in his phone.


M

any rare birds are just lost. In 2018, a great black hawk — usually native to Central and South America — was spotted in Texas for the first time. A few months later, the same neotropical bird was found in Biddeford, Maine, then later in Portland. It was briefly the state’s celebrity bird before the hawk — a Mexican bird in Maine winter — suffered injuries from exposure and was euthanized. A statue of the bird exists now, monument to the stray raptor.

We know now what threw Chris’ redwing off course, turning it from a common European bird to a once-in-a-lifetime one in America. The catalyst: a low-pressure system, turning counterclockwise, scooped the redwing up and hurled it across the Atlantic. A 2018 study by Cornell Labs indicates these increasingly common wind changes are caused by climate change. What once was rare may become less so as our weather systems collapse.

I have a hard time reconciling it: that thousands of people will come to gawk at something because it is out of place. Or the irony of the massive carbon footprint created by people who want to appreciate something in nature.

“Birdwatchers love these unusual sightings,” Frank La Sorte says after I tell him about Chris’ redwing. But this isn’t what scientists are interested in. They want to study patterns, not exceptions. “We want people to go out there and find the birds. We don’t want to discourage them. But as scientists, the outliers are statistically problematic.”

The things we see every day are valuable. The once-in-a-lifetime experience that was so meaningful to Chris is the kind of data point that scientists tend to discard.

La Sorte sends me some of his research, gathered from eBird data, which has been published in scientific journals: migratory birds at higher risks because of climate change, something about anomalies in the mid-latitudes. I find even the summaries dense, so much so that he has to walk me through them.

With eBird, Cornell Labs has an extremely accessible way to get the average person to understand their surroundings. But that gets transformed into material published in fairly inaccessible journals.

“As a scientist, you’re focused on doing really rigorous science that often can be quite abstract,” La Sorte says. “Now I’m realizing that there’s importance in communicating this to a broader audience.” He’s working on publishing something that “synthesizes the material” and is written “in a more layman set of terms.”

eBird managing director Chris Wood has a simpler, more ambitious goal in mind. To him, the planet’s greatest threat is people that “have no connection with the natural world and don’t care.” Birders may be overeager, but in many ways, they overcome the biggest obstacle to a sustainable future: apathy.


I

t’s not until another 451 days that I talk to Chris Michaud again. The week before, he’d gotten checked out, and the cancer was still in remission. His eBird life list has risen to 342. According to an oddly specific app called Sober Time, he hasn’t had a drink in 1518.53 days.

More importantly, Chris is in a much better place now — emotionally, physically, and geographically (he’d moved back to Portsmouth). He’s still single, but he and Gemma talk, as friends, just as often as before. The new thing is that he’s into Zen Buddhist meditation, which he does daily. And, of course, there is still the birding. After our call, he says he’ll go out and enjoy it in the 70-degree weather.

The life-changing thing about Chris’ redwing wasn’t its appearance. It’s what he learned when it was over: that the rare bird event was another way to not think about what was really haunting his mind. “Seeing the redwing was a massive bright spot,” he says, “but I was in the deepest, darkest hole.” The truth was that the winter of 2020, which he spent isolated in a pastoral cabin, had put him in deep depression. “Woof,” Chris says, giving me the gritty details of his headspace.

With hindsight, he had a revelation: that a once-in-a-lifetime event is easier to conceive of because the things that happen every day are more painful. That to never have a drink again, he would have to wake up each morning and think about all the things he needed to do — exercise, bird, meditate — to move forward, to keep on living.

Do you think most about the past, present, or future?

“All the strategy in the world doesn’t actually solve anything whatsoever,” Chris says. “But yeah, it’s always the future.”

Do we have a future on this planet? I don’t know. Even the climate scientists, observing day by day the slow collapse of systems, aren’t sure. But maybe I was overthinking it. We could, like Chris, just take each day as it arrives. I returned to some advice I’d once been given: 

To see a bird is to bird. That’s all!

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