The cardinals began building their nest around the time the stay-at-home orders were issued in New York State. They picked a cozy spot in our hedge, two feet from our kitchen window. A few days after the structure was finished, three speckled bluish eggs appeared in it. A week or so later, they hatched. My family and I spent all our mealtimes staring out the window. The spectacle was better than anything on TV. The birds made us feel less alone, until one day they flew away.
The cardinal saga had awoken in me a long-dormant love of birds. I ordered an expensive pair of binoculars and took to calling them “nocs.” But soon the thrill of spotting previously unnoticed species in my neighborhood—goldfinches, Carolina wrens, red-winged blackbirds—began to wear off. It was around then that we came up with the idea of a cross-country birding road trip. We decided to head for Wyoming, a destination that my outdoorsy friend Justin Bishop—a photographer and fellow birding neophyte—knew well and had long been urging us to visit with him.
Our sudden interest in birding and road trips was, it turns out, woefully unoriginal. During the pandemic, participation in both activities skyrocketed, according to people who keep track of these things. It’s understandable, even obvious—both birds and cars are synonymous with freedom, and in late spring, when planes were grounded and birdsong filled the silence, that mobility was awfully attractive.
To prepare for the trip, I called the dean of American birders, David Allan Sibley, author and illustrator of the two birding guides I own as well as a lovely new compendium, What It’s Like to Be a Bird. Our interview turned into a crash course in ornithology. Sibley gave me tips on field drawing (start with a circle for the head and an oval for the body, and work quickly), taught me proper birder slang (it’s “bins,” not “nocs”), and clued me in on a debate that has long been roiling the American birding community: whether to call its members birdwatchers or birders. “A bird-watcher is, like, the backyard hobbyist who feeds birds, looks at cardinals and robins,” he said. “And the person who keeps a life list and goes on chases, travels, and searches for birds, that would be a birder.”
I was a bird-watcher. I was determined to become a birder, fuddy-duddiness be damned.
Before hanging up, I asked him if there was any particular bird I should look out for on my trip. According to Sibley, the holy grail of Wyoming sightings is the greater sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird known as much for its involvement in land disputes as for its elaborate courtship dance. “That’s definitely one species that birders will travel to that region hoping to see.” I had my marching orders.
At 4 a.m. one late-June morning, my wife, Jess, and I gingerly lifted our two young daughters from their beds and strapped them into their car seats. They awoke shortly before we reached Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where we met up with Justin and his girlfriend, Hilary, for a quick hike (highlight: Eastern bluebird) and a let’s-get-this-out-of-the-way hug, our first non-family human contact in weeks. From there we convoyed through West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado, Justin and Hilary leading the way in a Toyota 4Runner retrofitted for overland camping. We followed in an over-packed Mazda.
It took us three days to reach Denver, where my family and I switched out our Mazda for a Mercedes Sprinter 4x4 ingeniously fitted by Jonathan Feld of Sportsmobile West, with a kitchen and two queen-sized beds. No adventurer myself, I relished the look of envy on Justin’s face.
Every night for the next week, we camped at a different breathtaking site, each worthy of an Ansel Adams photograph or an Aaron Copland symphony. Around dawn, I would sneak out of the van with my bins for a solo hike. The birds were most active at that time of day. Sitting by a frigid mountain stream in Colorado, I saw three mountain chickadees flitting among the spruce trees and a lone sandpiper pecking along the bank. Amid an ocean of sagebrush, a sheltered oasis of greenery abounded with green-tailed towhees. High up a pine tree in the shadow of the Grand Tetons, I spotted the aquiline profile of the pine grosbeak backlit by the rising sun.
I was crestfallen whenever Sibley’s guide declared that my miraculous sighting was considered “common.” As the week progressed, however, we saw rarer birds. As we floated down the Snake River, bald eagles swooped over our boat, followed by a belted kingfisher and a flock of white pelicans. Later, a curious long-billed curlew took off as we drove past, rising above the cloud of dust kicked up in our wake. An American kestrel—the country’s smallest bird of prey—hovered over the plains near the Hole-in-the-Wall where Butch and Sundance hid out. At a picnic site in Yellowstone, a cocky gray jay stole my daughter’s prosciutto.
With each new check mark on my list, I was morphing from a bird-watcher into a birder. I could practically feel myself fledging.
A couple of days before the end of our trip, I began to panic that we had yet to see a single sage grouse. I enjoined my daughters to look through their cheap plastic binoculars, which occupied them for about five minutes before they begged for the iPad. I called game wardens in places we were heading to, but only reached their voicemail.
As eager as I was to check off “greater sage grouse” on my list, however, I realized I wasn’t willing to miss out on the next sublime campsite. I like birds because I like nature, not because I have an obsessive collector’s mentality. I didn’t want to move heaven and earth just to spot a scrawny mountain chicken. If that meant I was a bird-watcher after all, so be it. It was, pardon the cliché, all about the journey.
After picking up our Mazda and starting back down I-70, we received a call from Justin, who wound up staying behind in Wyoming for a few more weeks.
“You won’t believe what we just saw,” he said. “A flock of grouse, right near our old campsite. They were everywhere!”
It absolutely killed me.