Mark Eis – Observing the natural world

We have spent the last couple of weekends up at our tiny cabin in Big Bear and what is supposed to be our weekend and winter relaxing retreat with friends instead often turns into a weekend of small projects that eat into our relaxation time. Obviously this is about choice, so in order to observe some kind of balance and perspective this weekend we did choose to knock some projects off the list and incorporate spots of downtime either swinging in the hammock or hanging on the deck; pausing to be part of the nature around us.

In the morning the woodpeckers demand our attention as they hammer their beaks into the surrounding pine trees and during the day we are visited by many other stunningly attractive birds the names of which completely allude me. It got me thinking how little I know about my natural habitat and how these moments of relaxation watching the wildlife is both calming, humbling and something that for me is necessary to keep my life in perspective. Mark Eis who I spoke to yesterday is also an observer who succeeds in integrating his love of nature into his daily routine.

Mark, you have a reputation for being a bit of a ‘twitcher”, when and how did the interest in bird watching begin?

I’m happy to share a little bit of my “twitching” passion with you. Here in the states it is more commonly referred to as “Birding” which doesn’t really do it for me either. I guess I refer to myself as a “Bird Nerd” since I consider it also a course of study. And viewed more broadly, it is really a framework to practice paying attention to the natural world in general.

At home growing up in upstate New York we always had a bird feeder or feeders out back and the common Saturday or Sunday morning entertainment was to watch the Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Tufted Titmice work their air traffic control patterns as we ate our waffles or pancakes. I never really gave it much thought though. I’ve always been interested on some level in the natural world and wild life but it was not, ironically, until I was living in New York City (Brooklyn actually) across from Prospect Park that I began to formally go out and look for birds. My then girl friend at the time (now wife) and I saw a beautiful small bird one day in the shrubberies around one of the buildings on the circle at Grand Army Plaza. It turned out to be a warbler species called a Black Throated Blue Warbler. We found out about the Brooklyn Bird Club on line and began meeting up with them on early mornings and before we knew it we were hooked.

I gather that you integrate this hobby very much into your daily job as Technical Director; spotting birds around convention centers etc. do you venture into the wild too?

One aspect of birding that I really like is that it is completely portable. You can do it anywhere and with minimal or even no equipment. The birds one sees in and around a convention center tend to be house sparrows and pigeons, low on anyone’s list of birds to watch but I’ve seen the odd raptor prowling places as unlikely as downtown LA. You never know what will fly by. The key is just to pay attention. That you can do anywhere. As for expedition birding, my experience has been limited to day trips here and there- shore birds in winter, breeding warblers in nearby preserves in the spring, and I try to have my binoculars handy any time I’m out hiking, driving, camping or canoeing. I also try to participate in the yearly Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon society.

Would you say you are a casual admirer or do you ‘seek out’ rare birds?

Among the “twitchers” there are the “listers” who keep scrupulous “life lists” of birds they have seen and those they wish to see. Many will travel half the globe for a “life bird.” I am not of that rarified ilk. I do try to do some casual journaling, more of observations than laundry lists of species but my lack of listing could be blamed as much on poor record keeping in general than any sort of distaste for the listing creed.

That said I do think of myself as more than a “casual admirer.” I have made several trips either out of my way, or specifically to some destination in order to see a notable bird. I’ve also invested a fair amount of time, money and effort into the study of birds, even going so far as to enroll in a correspondence course offered by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in basic bird biology. So much more than a casual interest but not a “lister.”

How do you feel that you benefit from this pastime?
How do I benefit? Hmmm. I think I get much of the same benefit from enjoyment and observation of the natural world that the average church going person gets from their worship routine. I think much of the contemporary neurosis afflicting modern society stems from too much introspection; being too wrapped up in ones own existence. Anything that takes us out of that “it’s all about me” loop and gives us perspective on our place in the natural world, the cosmos etc is probably a good thing.

Birds, even the lowly pigeons and ubiquitous house sparrows, are wild animals, as wild as the wildest African lion. They exist on their own terms, in their own reality, tuned in to their own consciousness and for their own purposes. I like checking into that world, knowing it exists, and by extension hopefully facilitating its continued existence.

Mark, I don’t ever think I will make it to the ranks of bird nerd but I share the appreciation! Thank you for your insight and for the perspective that we can remain connected to nature even in urban environments.

Looking out for more feathered friends..

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