There are a lot of side benefits to birding. Those of us who have had our eyes magnetically drawn to all things avian have realized this from time to time, especially if we have spent years squishing through marshes in search of LeConte’s Sparrows, giving blood to bugs in places like Alaska, heavenly scented boreal bogs, and muddy mangroves, and trudging through thin air landscapes to see if we can spot a bird that looks kind of like a chicken.

But, while we are making sacrifices for the avian quest, we also experience side benefits much less trying in nature. Not only did I see that little, straw-colored sparrow that had migrated from the remote wetlands of Ontario, I shared the unique experience with people who would rather explore the real world than say mean things on social media. Mangroves in the Yucatan yielded looks at a creeping Rufous-necked Wood-Rail marveled at with a birding friend long before a lost, curious individual photobombed its way into the modern birding world. While seeing that wild, white, chicken-like bird on the tundra of Rainbow Pass, I witnessed the magic of snow flakes making their silent mark on the high, rocky grounds of the mountains.

Other birding experiences have given me opportunities to meet kind, generous people in Mexico who seemed to belong to another time, to wonder if a nearby foraging bear was too close while doing a point count in Colorado, and to feel the deep territorial growl of a Jaguar in the primeval black of a Peruvian rainforest. In tamer forests right above the falls at Niagara, I once had the benefit of meeting an adult son with his loving mother in the middle of the forest.


It was spring migration and they weren’t birding but he greeted me with open arms and a hug. I was pretty sure that I didn’t know him but his open, loving, trusting greeting made me wonder if I had met him before, maybe in grade school. He asked and I told him my name and that I was watching birds.

He said,”Watching birds Pat? What are you seeing?”

I told him I had seen an Ovenbird. He immediately said, “I was making cookies the other day and they got burned. So, so, you think that Ovenbird had something to do with it Pat?” His mother smiled, I probably did too, and we explained that, “No, this bird just has that name but it doesn’t really get involved with ovens, at least not the ones for cookies”. He said, “I like this forest Pat, I like being in the forest. It’s so beautiful in here, all green and beautiful. Right mom? Let’s stay here for a while and not go back yet, ok?”.

“Sure son but let’s say goodbye to Pat first.”

“Ok mom, bye Pat! Bye, bye, I hope we don’t run into any more Ovenbirds!”

His patient mother with the caring eyes turned her head and mouthed, “Thank you”.

I waved goodbye, Red-eyed Vireos and eye-candy Bay-breasted Warblers sang from the canopy, and I kept birding. Normally, I would have avoided other people to focus on birds, just been polite and walked on. Most of us would because, after all, we have limited time to see the transients that suddenly arrive and leave during the height of May migration and it’s a serious thing. But so is meeting people who show unconditional love. No, he couldn’t take care of himself and conversation edged towards the non-sensical but I am better for that brief meeting in the small patch of rare, mature forest on Goat Island and am grateful for it.

I never again saw the son who was finding solace in a patch of old growth forest, a place where I have also found sanctuary in times of mental duress and when events seemed being control. I wish I could have met him again and shown him some birds, seen if a chickadee would eat from his hand, asked him and his mother how they were doing. I wish I could go there now and walk next to trees that were young when the island part of the Seneca nation but at least there are no shortage of mountains, old forests, and hundreds of birds to look at in Costa Rica. Here, just as elsewhere, the opportunities to take solace, re-focus and energize the mind, and reap the side benefits of birding are numerous. They are also crowned with Emerald Tanagers and Snowcaps.


Written by Patrick O'Donnell
Patrick O'Donnell became a birder at the age of 7 after seeing books about birds in the Niagara Falls, New York public library. Although watching thousands of gulls in the Niagara Gorge was sublime, more bird species (and warmer weather) eventually brought him to Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and other very birdy tropical places. A biologist by training, he has worked on bird-related projects in Colorado, Washington, Peru, and other locales, and has guided birders in Peru, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. These days, he lives in Costa Rica where he juggles guiding, freelance writing, developing bird apps for Costa Rica and Panama, posting on his Costa Rica birding blog, and discussing dinosaurs with his young daughter.