I Got Jizz

Well, at least more than rhythm. Of course I didn’t realize it until I read this paragraph in Barnes’ How to Be a (BAD) Birdwatcher:

That is the principle on which jizz works. Jizz is the art of seeing a bird badly and still knowing what it is. And there is only one way of learn how to do it, and that is by watching birds. Not chasing them or ticking them. Watching. Bird watching is a despised term in some circles; they prefer the meatier term birding. But without watching there is no birding. You watch, you seek a name you carry on watching, and from watching you learn. Or rather, you absorb. You see your bird from awkward angles, making curious, ungainly shapes half-hidden by leaves; as we have already noted birds do not, in the main, line up in profile looking hard left, as they always do in field guides. No field guide can teach movement; you can only learn it by watching. Silhouetted birds, flying across field-that one with the all-day rowing action is a row; that buoyant glide and sideslip is a gull. That switchbacking flight is a great spotted woodpecker. That flap-flap-glide is a bird of prey.

Nor did I realize it until I found myself pointing out certain birds to other people out walking the refuge. In fact, I was amazed when I first discovered that I could identify an awful lot of birds accurately after a year of serious watching.

For awhile, birding was mostly about the thrill of getting a bird I’d never captured before, but gradually it became more than that:

You acquire the skill of jizz recognition simply by looking. By looking at birds you have already identified; because, you see, identification is the beginning and not the end of the process-and that is why birdwatching, good and bad, is the exact opposite of train-spotting. Every seeing is a moment of greater understanding. Every seeing makes the bird more fully a part of you, a part of your life.

And again, I don't mean this in a sloppy New Age way; I mean it in a hard, no- nonsense way. You can't recognize a bird by jizz unless it has become a part of your life: until, that is to say, its pattern and behavior are stored in your brain, ready to be accessed the next time you lay eyes on it.

You start with the common birds-how else could you do it? There are, as I have said, more common birds than rare ones. And understand this: the hunt for rare birds can't be done until you know the common ones. How do you know it's rare unless you know all the other birds that are not rare?

Now I appreciate greeting old friends as they return from their travels. Now I find it hard to go anywhere without noticing the birds that are there.

Barnes is certainly right that

The more you look, the more you see. Every passing minute is richer, more rewarding. The more birds you see, the more birds you see. When you recognize the patterns of daily life among the birds you know, you will recognize something that breaks that pattern. Those familiar starlings, feeding in a gang on the ground, quarreling companionably with one another. And in an instant they are all gone: Why? What?

And you learn to look up when this happens, and behold. You are rewarded: a hawk swerving away having missed its pass; the starlings were too quick this time. Once you understand the ordinary you prepare the way for the exceptional. Once you have begun to savor the quiet joys of everyday birds, you have made yourself ready for the peak experiences. You are ready for that combination of the gloriously normal and the staggeringly unexpected that is the heart of the life of the bad birdwatcher, and the good.

I’m amazed at how often I’ll see a remarkable bird, but more often than not when I ask others if they saw what I did, they reply that they didn’t see anything at all. Of course, I suspect a few years ago I wouldn’t have noticed them either.

Now that I’m into my second year of birding, I’ve also become much more aware of the seasons:

Time matters. In the spring I go to Minsmere to see the birds breeding, defending territories. I can, if I look carefully, see the fluffy chicks. Is there anything quite as charming as a new avocet, with its tiny retroussé beak? The Scrape, the most famous part of the reserve-the place where you find the avocets-is teeming, teeming with food, teeming with birds eating it and using it as fuel to breed. When I go back in autumn, the chicks are gone, and other odds and sods drop by, some for a long stay others to refuel on their way elsewhere. And in winter, there are times when the Scrape is untenanted: once I saw nothing but a crow on this, the most famous bit of habitat in British birdwatching. But in the spring, the wet meadows known as the Minsmere Levels are pretty quiet; in winter, they are crowded with gulls and geese, thousands of them. It you go looking for birds, you need to understand about place and about time.

And as you begin to understand time, you begin to understand the rhythm of the year as the birds understand it-as the birds live it. Understanding time is not just the key to seeing more birds. If you understand the year as a bird does, you have taken a step outside the human narrowness of vision. As you understand a bird's vision of time, you find you have begun to understand how the earth itself lives and breathes.

When you’re out in the world enjoying nature, you no longer need calendars. The birds, or absence of birds, will tell you more accurately than any calendar what time of year it is.

4 thoughts on “I Got Jizz

  1. I prefer the expression ‘bird-watching’ to ‘birding’, but I particularly dislike the word (and concept) ‘twitching’. Is it used in America too?

  2. I think that “twitching” is used here, too, among more serious bird watchers, but I don’t think I have ever heard it except in a book, alan.

    I use “birding” more often than “bird watching” but that’s only because I consider myself a man of few words. I usually just say I’m going out for a walk and carry my camera with me.

  3. Uh…I find that noun unfortunate, because you might say it clouds the point. On that theme, when you finish your reps at the Y, look for a book called “How to Look at Things. It addresses the “levels” of visual experience and how our eye makes certain assumptions. As a veteran you’ll appreciate the difference between a jungle and a jungle with a sniper in it. It LOOKS different, eh? You also remind me of a great anecdote about the naturalist and techer Agassiz, who (when undergrads came to study biology with him) assigned them to look at a particular fish and to report on its features to him. He commonly would nod calmly and say, “Keep looking,” and then the student would go back and see five more features. Every time After 6-10 weeks, they knew that fish and in later years, said, when they heard the word “fish” that’s the one that came to mind. Your flower photos terrific, as usual.

  4. I doubt I ever use that word again, Mike, but I’m not sure if there’s another word out there to describe what Barnes is referring to, and it’s certainly a real phenomena for those who bird.

What do you think?