The world is on fire, and all I want to do is sit on a log and look at birds

With everything around me spiraling, somehow these little singing dinosaurs bring me peace.

Illustration by Peter Gamlen
Do Look Up

Typically, when I download an app, I'm tip hunting from Bon Appétit on how best to blacken catfish or how to master chicken roasting. But a month ago, I was out sitting on Galveston Island, an hour south of Houston in the Gulf of Mexico, downloading something called eBird. And then I was downloading its companion app, Merlin. eBird tracks your bird watching route, where you check off what you’ve seen, and Merlin helps identify what’s local to your area. Apparently, I’m more dedicated to finding where the white ibis nests than I am to embracing a stranger I met off Hinge.

This wasn’t always the case. But at my house I have a hummingbird feeder, and I love to watch them dip their long beaks into the sugary nectar substitute hanging off the ledge near the kitchen table window. When one approaches, it’s a silent meditation, watching their wings move at Mach 5 while they take a sip. I started sitting in my backyard, leaving my phone in the house, just watching the grackles on the power lines, chattering away in their particular language. There are also roadrunners cruising around town, and every once in a while, you’ll see one dart across the neighborhood. Say what you want about birds, but no one can deny roadrunners are so cool they modeled a car and an iconic cartoon character after them. Can’t say the same about Wile E. Coyote.

When everything was locked down, I started walking the Brushy Creek Trail in Austin. It’s six miles along a sliver of water, where green anoles, gulf coast toads, rat snakes, and rattlesnakes hide in the foliage along the water’s edge. Plenty of people come and go, so the slithery and slimy critters keep to themselves. But up in the trees, there are red-bellied woodpeckers, mourning doves, and turkey vultures if anyone in the fauna kingdom has bit the dust. Eventually, I stopped using my AirPods, turning off The Clash and listening instead to the birds on the trail. And then I started stopping along my walks, looking up, and trying to snap photos with my iPhone of what was hidden in the branches above.

I don't know if it’s a mid-life crisis thing or what, but the world has beaten me down. During the pandemic I went through a divorce, my papers sitting in limbo for eight months, and I was laid off and then approved to buy a house with no money before the Austin housing market went insane. I needed a break. So instead of downloading apps to “meet hot singles in my area,” I set out on a quest to learn how to birdwatch. I needed something to calm my mind. I fell in love with the idea of stopping for a moment and listening to the sound of birds, to watch them with intent, and to document what I saw for no one but myself.

A Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus).

Photo by: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Which brings me back to Galveston. Galveston is a working-class beach town; all along SeaWall Boulevard, people walk the surf, or day-drink at one of the beachside dives. I’m in town regularly, probably every other month, except my trips usually involve blacking out at O’Malley’s or Old Cellar bar, pumping the jukebox full of Rolling Stones or Rocket From the Crypt, then sopping it all up the next morning at Henry’s Mexican off Broadway Avenue with pupusas or maybe the “Surprise Burrito,” an island favorite stuffed with eggs, beans, potatoes, bacon, and cheese.

But this trip was different. I never in a million years thought I’d get into birding. I’m 6-feet-4-inches, 260 pounds, and covered in tattoos. I blast rock n’ roll and wear all black every day. I usually have my AirPods firmly in place during a walk. Friendly trail master, I am not.

And yet, I found myself driving almost to the island’s end, to the Dos Vacas Muertas bird sanctuary — six acres of salt cedar, trees, and a freshwater pond. Stepping out into the bird-watching area, I was struck by how alone I was. The only sounds were some hammering off in the distance; a construction crew was building another multi-level beach monstrosity, surely for the ultra-rich to rent out for weekend getaways on Airbnb. But standing in the sanctuary marshlands, I could tune out the sound of housing instability and instead listen to the tide from the beach, the wind skipping through the tall grasses, and a slight murmur of hidden birds.

I don’t own binoculars, and I can barely navigate these birding apps. I had to switch from sorting the app by the scientific names of birds to the common names because with everything in Latin, I lose the plot real quick with trying to figure out what kind of woodpecker I’m looking at. (For the record: the Pileated woodpecker is the most common in Austin, and its scientific name is Dryocopus pileatus.) But out in Dos Vacas Muertas, armed with only my trusty reporter’s notepad, I hoped for the best.

Letting go, giving myself over to the serenity of doing nothing but staring at little feathered weirdos, was enough to put gas in the emotional tank.

Typically, Galveston is overflowing with birds like the Belted Kingfisher, our friend the American Coot, and even, and I’m not kidding, the Baltimore Oriole. There are Barn Swallows and Black Skimmers, too. The day I went to the sanctuary though, there was basically nothing. I walked the paths, looking and listening for a gray catbird or a purple martin. But there was only that hammer hitting nails in a steady beat. I walked farther, toward the back of the preserve, my Vans covered in silty mud. Eventually, I couldn’t hear the hammering any longer.

Earlier in the day, I did scope out the lazy pelicans sitting at the water’s edge near the shrimp boats. You don’t realize how weird pelicans are till you get close to them. In Galveston, there are two kinds: brown and white. Neither love people who aren’t armed with fish as token gifts. Watch your fingers.

Despite not seeing much, I felt fulfilled. We see those gross memes with the whole “my cup is full” mantra written in some terrible font, which belongs next to “Live, Laugh, Love” in terms of its basicness. But letting go, giving myself over to the serenity of doing nothing but staring at little feathered weirdos, was enough to put gas in the emotional tank — while making me consider going to the sporting goods store and finally buying binoculars.

According to what Google tells me, “birding” and birdwatching are not the same, and die-hard birders do not like the two to be lumped together. Whatever I’m doing is probably neither. I don't know the politics of looking for birds, but I do know it’s a salve that costs a lot less than therapy. These literal dinosaurs holler with their throat songs, their rainbow colors, each singing something unique. They launch themselves from one continent to another, light as the feathers on their bodies.

Out in the preserve, I wasn’t thinking about Vladimir Putin being a complete psycho. I wasn’t thinking about the ups and downs of my bank account. I wasn’t dwelling on what the pandemic did to my life, or how I’m now priced out of the town I’ve lived in for almost a decade. My mind wasn’t dwelling on parking tickets, taxes, or friends committing suicide. It wasn't on women, rock and roll, or even my kids. Out there, in the distance, I saw a blue heron. It was like a statue. I waited. The heron snapped a fish out of the shallow pond. It peered into the distance, and then it took off. I was alone again. I got into my car and headed east, back toward downtown. Both the heron and I went off in search of unknown horizons. I have a feeling hers will be less complicated.