Stars and Birds

Stargazers and birders have a lot in common. We use similar (sometimes identical) equipment. And even more important, we share a lot of skills and attitudes.

The analogy helps me put stargazing into perspective. I really work at celestial observing, trying to find the similarities and differences between objects, comparing my observations to other people's notes, and generally trying to improve my skill. But my attitude toward birds is quite casual. Every now and then I become intrigued by a particular bird, and try to find out its name and habits. But I've never approached birding systematically — and it shows!

I can identify a few dozen species that are particularly common or prominent, but I don't have the patience and persistence to sort through all the different kinds of ducks, swallows, or sparrows — let alone the 24 "confusing fall warblers" listed in Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds. And I frequently see birds that I can't pin down by family, much less by species.

But that's fine by me. Life is short and the body of human knowledge is immense; there's only time to do so much. The important thing (in my book) is to keep an open mind, to be on the lookout for new things, alive to the world around, not going through life with blinders on.

The American Kestrel, Falco sparverius, is also known as the Sparrow Hawk.
David Menke, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
About a month ago, while walking across Danehy Park to the local shopping center, I was thrilled to see a small hawk atop a sapling right next to the path. I'd seen this bird, or another much like it, intermittently over several years, but I'd never been able to identify it for sure. This time, it was sitting quite still just twenty feet from me, and I could study it at my leisure. The unmistakable black marking on its face allowed me to identify it with 100% certainty as an American Kestrel when I got back to the office and could Google to my heart's content.

Judging by the descriptions of how these birds fly in Peterson's, I'm actually pretty sure I've seen two different small hawks in Danehy — both Kestrels and Sharp-Shinned Hawks — but that's a whole 'nother story. I'll just have to keep my eyes peeled and hope for a moment when a Sharp-Shinned poses as obligingly as this Kestrel did.

It was a raw day, in the middle of working hours, and there weren't many people around. But eventually I saw another guy walking briskly along the path, his nose to the ground. I wondered if he'd noticed me staring at the top of a tree, and thought I was some kind of nut case. But if he'd looked, surely he would have seen the hawk, and nobody could fail to be fascinated by it — could they? I almost stopped him to call his attention to what was, to me, a thing of beauty and wonder, a minor miracle. I've done things like that before, and by and large people have been grateful. But this time I let him walk by unmolested. What would you have done?

8 thoughts on “Stars and Birds

  1. mtc

    I come at this from the other side, I’m a much better birder than astronomer (or celestial observer). Like you said, there’s so much out there, and so little time to fully understand and appreciate everything. There are trees, butterflies, mammals (e.g. while visiting Yellowstone), canyons, mountains, birds, stars, planets, galaxies, nebulae, molecules, sub-atomic particles….

    I would have let him walk by. If there’s an acknowledgment, then I would likely whisper and point, “Kestrel in the tree”.

  2. Nathaniel Shippen

    I have similar interests although I’m probably more casual about both than you. Living in Hawaii the weather for both bird/butterfly watching and stargazing is generally pleasant year-round. Sadly most of the birds and butterflies in my area (near Honolulu) are non-native and the skies are pretty bright, but occasionally I get a chance to go to less-developed areas.

  3. Torn

    I have become a pretty intense observer of bird behavior and enjoyed your comments. I know time and pressure can tend to narrow interests but my Astronomy has always been wrapped in the natural world here on Earth. My renewed interest in nature photography has brought many amazing behaviors in the bird world into focus. Even within the mundane backyard, I captured numerous frames of Mourning Doves battling it out for food during an intense cold spell this winter. It appears very peaceful from our isolated position of comfort but for them, it’s war.

  4. Darian Rachal

    Yesterday, while walking around my apartment complex for exercise, I spotted this large bird that I initially thought was a hawk. Then I thought it looked like a seagull, but I’m 150 from a coast. It circled around slowly and quite low. I was amazed at it’s size and the shape of it’s tail.

    I did a Search and finally found it. They appear to be rare here in Louisiana, but quite prominent in S. America. It was quite a treat. I’m hoping to see it again.

  5. Tony Harvey

    In response to Mr. Flanders question, unless the person looked like they had just robbed a bank I would pointed out the hawk. Sometimes people need to stop and enjoy whats around them. Especially something as rare as spotting a Kestrel like this. It just takes that one time to peak the interest of someone that might carry on later on another day.

    Thanks for the stories both of them. I’m both a avid ornithologists and amateur astronomer, have been for many decades now.

  6. Soumyo Mitra

    It is surprising to see the number of people who watch birds as well as stars, and I’m glad someone has pointed this out in public. I never thought I’d ever come across another person following these two favourite hobbies of mine, but I’ve already come across many! People just don’t believe me when I tell them about how many people share these hobbies! And I still don’t understand why, except for the fact that binoculars are used for both. But is that all? Or is it that both skygazers and birders just love to enjoy and appreciate god’s creation?

    Soumyo Mitra

    ———————–

    Tony responds: It seems perfectly natural to me that birders and astronomers overlap. First of all, they’re both aspects of nature study. But they also share the unusual fact that you can’t get up close and personal with your subject.

    That’s a classic paradox about astronomy. Although it’s the oldest of all the sciences, it defies the traditional scientific paradigm, where you’re supposed to make hypotheses and then perform experiments to confirm them. Boy, would astronomers love to do that! “Gosh, I wonder what would happen if I blew this star up?” Sorry, that’s not one of your options!

    So both astronomers and birders are forced to examine their subjects from a distance — for very different reasons, of course. That makes them very different from, say, wildflower fans, who can examine the pistils under a microscope if they want. And it requires a lot of patience. The weather always keeps astronomers guessing, and the birds keep birders guessing.

  7. Jeremy

    Stargazing and bird watching are very similar. Both hobbies include looking at things yet you can’t quite see the same amount of detail. it seems natural to me that many people pursue both hobbies after all if your stargazing outside for sevral hours your bound to see a least a couple of birds fly by.

    Weather also connect with both hobbies, after all it controls the behavior obirds and it certainly affects astronomy.

    However I think there maybe more to it, we all most be observant,open minded and have a love of nature to pursue our hobbies. We all just love the great outdoors

  8. jerry church

    I was out watching the stars and satellite passes one night when a lone white heron flew across my field of view. It just about freaked me out. I thought to myself, I need to quit logging on to that Seti website so often.

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