Life Lessons From Bird Photography

I am convinced that photographing birds requires its own special skill set.

A large, state-protected wetland preserve near me houses over 260 different species of bird.  I visit there often and, of those 260 species, have photographed roughly seven birds total – two of which were the common robin and one of which was the profoundly obnoxious Canadian goose.   Once while there, I spent twenty minutes carefully setting up my camera to photograph what ended up being a bird-shaped leaf in a tree.

In my defense, I didn’t have my glasses on.

To properly photograph birds, a photography website once advised me, bring food along.  Birds are easy to photograph when they’re eating or otherwise occupied.  But you’re not exactly encouraged to do that on state-owned land, it’s not great for wild birds, and, anyway, I prefer the challenge of taking a photo-walk and attempting to capture them without supplemental aid.

That’s because the process of doing so reminds me a lot about what God wants from us in our Christian walk.

When I go “bird-walking” with my camera, I have to be fully in the moment.  If I dwell too much in my thoughts – if I focus on what I have to do five hours from now, or on a problem bothering me – I miss the tell-tale rustle of brush and the proximity of birdsong that tells me to lift my camera.  If I’m not paying attention, I’ll blink and glance up only to find a martin’s torpedo-shaped body already in full flight above: a winged blur that my lens can’t capture.

This immersion also means that I’m paying attention to everything, my head on a constant swivel.  This attentiveness offers its own rewards, and they aren’t always birds.  Unexpected blessings pop up everywhere.  Today it was a clutch of pale mushrooms growing out the side of a tree, the scent of fallen, overripe crab-apples, and a sedge of herons perched on some stumps in a nearby pond.  When you’re looking for everything, you’re bound to find something – and more often that not, that something is a surprising gift.

More than anything, though, photographing birds requires an attitude of mingled acceptance and openness.  I might see a bird or ten or twenty; I might not see any.  I might see robin on robin on robin; today might be the day I see an egret or capture a house martin during its breathless pause from flight.    I’m rarely disappointed when I finish a bird-walk, even if I’ve captured no birds, and that’s because I understand there are no guarantees beyond the pleasure of the walk itself.

As a result, when I come back from bird-walking, I almost always feel peaceful and serene.  The experience itself is a joy, regardless of the outcome or what I found (or didn’t find) along the way. And I imagine it’s because the attitude I cultivate during the process is one that mirrors what I ought to cultivate in my Christian life, too.

Jesus encouraged His disciples to be present, and to focus on the current moment rather than worrying about tomorrow or pressing issues in the future.  He sent them on their journey to disciple others with only what they needed for the present moment and no inherent promise of success.  To do the work of the kingdom, their job was to simply get out there, proclaim Jesus, and trust God with the rest.

All too often, we clutter our own lives with details and frustrations and worries that aren’t germane to our main mission.  We build expectations, only to be disappointed when they aren’t met.  We develop desires, then hinge our hopes on them.  We plot out how we want or expect things to go and then, when we miss the landmarks we anticipated, grow discouraged.  It’s so much simpler to live as Jesus did: to walk from moment to moment, meeting whatever circumstance or person was there, with the goal of presenting God’s love and His nature everywhere.

For the weekend, I wish to you the attitude of the bird-walk: a few days where you turn your focus from what will or won’t happen to simple acceptance of whatever happens.  Hours spent being fully present, not focused on tomorrow or the day after or the next week.  And much joy, derived from sources both familiar and surprising.



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