Personal Essay

Confessions of a Twitcher

Birds are loud, aggressive, and disruptive to sleep. They also may have saved writer Jonathan Soroff's life.

Portrait of the author as a twitcher. / Illustration by Dale Stephanos

I used to do cocaine. A lot of it. As in, five out of seven nights a week.

It might not be immediately apparent what that fact has to do with birding, but my near-daily nadir for several years was the shameful feeling of staying up all night doing drugs and not going to bed until the birds started chirping. The sound was a shrill reminder that I was a complete mess. I’d mutter, “Goddamn birds!” which really meant, “I’m a piece of garbage.” That was the most aware of birds I ever was until I thankfully quit doing coke.

Soon after, I started to pay more attention to birds in other contexts. I’ve visited Martha’s Vineyard for decades, renting a shack made out of popsicle sticks in the dunes of Aquinnah. In my late thirties, I’d arrive on the island and immediately run down to the beach to see if the conservationists had placed enclosures to protect the endangered piping plovers on our stretch of beach. Initially, I went to check because I was annoyed that these tiny shorebirds might encroach on my sunbathing territory, but the more I observed and learned about them, the more intrigued I became. I’d watch the plover chicks skitter along the shoreline, looking like cotton balls on two toothpicks, and joke, “They’re cute, and they taste just like chicken.”

On other days, I’d lie on the sand, watching as the nesting pair of ospreys that lived on top of a telephone pole on Lobsterville Beach hunted for fish. Once, just as one of them was bringing dinner back to the nest, it flew over our deck, and the fish gripped in its talons wriggled free, landing at our feet. Fluke fritters were on the menu that night.

They weren’t the only flying visitors I noticed. Along the packed-sand driveway, hundreds of chattering goldfinches would perch on the telephone lines, and during my morning bike ride, I would count the egrets and herons wading in the salt marsh that leads up to West Basin.

It was also on the Vineyard that I formed an intense brotherly bond with a year-round local and naturalist named Michael Stutz, who is a lifelong birder. One time at dawn, I saw a downy-white, goose-like bird flying just overhead. As soon as I got home, I hurriedly dialed Stutz to say, “I know they’re rare, but I could swear I just saw a snow goose!” It was rudely early for a phone call, and Stutz mumbled, “What, you didn’t know swans could fly, Jonathan?” before abruptly hanging up. I had a lot to learn.

An African penguin chick named “Bray” swims at the New England Aquarium. / Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Adding to my burgeoning curiosity about birds was the fact that I’m a travel writer, and I’ve had the good fortune to see a bit of the world. My last trip to Brazil was my first time seeing a wild penguin (Magellanic), and last year, on a voyage to Antarctica, I developed a newfound and profound respect for those tuxedo-clad denizens of the most inhospitable place on earth. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a wild toucan, improbably aloft despite its prodigious schnoz, or witnessed the ear-splitting cacophony and explosion of color as a flock of parrots emerged in perfect formation from a tree. On a trip to San Francisco, I made a point of looking for the famous parrots of Telegraph Hill, with no luck. Then, a few days later, I saw them in Pacific Heights, agitated by the noise of the Blue Angels putting on an air show during Fleet Week, the parrots flying frantically from tree to tree.

I also learned that birds can make great art. In Tanzania, I took a decent enough picture of a superb starling that I included it in a photo album otherwise dedicated to the Big Five animals. In June 2022, in the rainforests of Costa Rica, my guide helped me use my iPhone to take a shockingly good shot, through a scope, of a turquoise-browed motmot, the startlingly beautiful national bird of Nicaragua, with long, delicate tail feathers.

Still, I never thought of myself as a “birder,” because I never gave birds more than a cursory, if curious, glance. Plus, I still sometimes found birds intensely annoying. Recalcitrant Canada geese along the Esplanade. Larcenous seagulls on the beach. And even without cocaine, birds could make sleeping with the windows open unbearable. In fact, this spring, my husband, Sam, woke up early one morning, complaining, “The goddamned birds are so fucking loud. One of them sounds like metal scraping against metal.”

It was around this time that I discovered, while reading National Geographic, that the arctic tern—a small, unremarkable-looking bird—migrates from the remote, frozen reaches of the Arctic to Antarctica each year and might be passing me overhead on its 25,000-mile journey. (And I thought I had frequent flier miles!) I was absolutely gobsmacked. I never looked at birds the same way again. More to the point, I began intentionally looking for them.

The birding community is like a secret society—and once you join, all of a sudden it feels as though practically everyone you meet is a member.

I officially came out of the closet as a birder on June 8 at a Trustees of Reservations board reception on the Crane Estate in Ipswich. In the weeks before that meeting, I had begun to venture into nature, for the first time, with the sole purpose of spotting birds. On that day, I showed up early to wander the grounds and see what avian specimens I could find. During the reception, someone noticed my binoculars and field guide and asked if I was a “twitcher,” a slang term for an obsessive birder. I admitted that I’d just become one.

That’s when I discovered that the birding community is like a secret society—and once you join, all of a sudden it feels as though practically everyone you meet is a member. That person introduced me to an accomplished birder who told me that the sounds we could hear coming from the Crane Estate’s eaves were chimney swifts. Another guest pointed out that June was a good time to take up birding because although the spring migration had just ended in May, it would give me a chance to learn a few tricks before the fall migration began in September. In the parking lot, I met two more women who offered me other birding tips.

In the month after my coming out, I joined the New York Times Birding Project and followed bird-related Instagram accounts such as @birdsarebad and @apoorlydrawnbird. Even one non-bird-related account I follow posted: “As you age, it’s ridiculous how fast bird-watching creeps up on you. You spend your whole life being 100% indifferent to birds, and then one day, you’re like, ‘damn, is that a yellow-rumped warbler?’”

That post got 8,394 likes, including my own. Yet that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, I am now one of 45 million Americans who pursue birding as a hobby. It’s part of a surge that began during the pandemic, when the online database eBird reported a 37 percent increase in people documenting sightings. By all accounts, its popularity has continued to soar: As Christian Cooper, the host of NatGeo’s TV show Extraordinary Birder, recently told me, “Anyone can bird, anywhere, anytime—you can bird whether you’re in a swamp, the desert, the middle of a city, at sea; you can be homebound and watch birds out your window. You can bird by ear if you’re blind. It’s no wonder it’s exploding in popularity.” In other words, it’s accessible to everyone.

Birding grew on me fast. I found myself reading the Mass Audubon bird-sightings column in the Globe. I felt elated to read about the recovery of piping plovers in Rhode Island and ospreys on the Vineyard, and despondent to learn that the North American bird population is down by 2.9 billion breeding adults. I failed miserably at the New York Times’ interactive quiz on bird calls and songs but became completely engrossed in Cooper’s show on NatGeo. I even watched YouTube videos by Lesley the Bird Nerd. But most of all, I went out birding.

The learning curve with birding is steep. Starting out, I didn’t even know the difference between a call and a song. (The former is generally shorter and used to keep track of other members of the flock or warn them of danger, while the latter is longer and more complex, generally used in mating or defending territory.) I found myself relying heavily on an app called Merlin to identify birds I could hear but not see, which somehow felt like cheating. Did identifying a bird by sound alone “count”? David Sibley, the Concord-based author of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, reassured me that it did. “Experienced birders identify more birds by sound than by sight in wooded habitats, and those all count,” he said. “Some species—nocturnal birds like owls, some secretive marsh birds, and others—are almost always heard and not seen.” (I could add those chimney swifts from the Crane Estate to my log, after all!) Indeed, on Extraordinary Birder, Cooper repeatedly demonstrates his skill at identifying birds by sound, and when I asked him about Merlin’s remarkable ability to do the same, he jokingly replied, “I hate it because it makes me and my years of accumulated knowledge obsolete.”

Throughout the summer, I kept my binoculars and Sibley’s guidebook handy, and my sighting log grew to include egrets, ospreys, a red-tailed hawk, numerous varieties of ducks, cormorants, piping plovers, and an eastern wood-pewee, among others. I also heard what I believed to be a downy woodpecker without an assist from Merlin, and on the beach, I positively identified a black-legged kittiwake using Sibley’s guidebook.

A male piping plover. / Photo by Claudio Bacinello via Getty Images

In my own backyard, during one session, I heard a house sparrow, northern cardinal, blue jay, downy woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, and gray catbird. That might sound like a quotidian list, and it is, but in the process of researching them, I learned that nuthatches are the only birds that can walk up and down trees or upside down under branches. I also learned that the gray catbird is aptly named. It sounds like a feline getting strangled, and I’m guessing that was the bird that woke Sam up this spring.

Early on in my new avocation, I was waiting to meet someone by the Muddy River between Kenmore and the Back Bay. The Storrow Drive overpass loomed above me. There were geese all around and some kind of bird making an unpleasant “nyuk-nyuk-nyuk” sound, like the Three Stooges, and another letting out a tremulous warble over the noise of the surrounding traffic. I regretted not bringing my binoculars and Sibley’s guidebook, but even without them, I noticed I was more attuned to the cacophony of honking geese than that of the cars. It was as if simply by proclaiming myself a birder, I had magically connected more closely with nature, even in the middle of the city, and that sensation pleased me tremendously.

It’s similar to an addiction. As with drugs, there’s that “just one more” compulsion to spot another species when birding.

It wasn’t just birds that I was tuning in to. I started to notice butterflies, dragonflies, and anything else that flies. Birding has also improved my powers of perception and heightened my awareness of my surroundings. It sets up a mystery to be solved (identifying the bird) and, perhaps more important, reminds me that there are better things to spend hours staring at than a screen. Sunsets. The ocean. Trees. Grass in the wind. And, of course, birds—those endlessly intriguing little dinosaurs that surround us everywhere we go and that, as Cooper puts it, by flying are “the ultimate symbol of freedom.”

No wonder birding has become such an obsession for so many people. As Jonathan Franzen pointed out in his superb 2005 New Yorker story “My Bird Problem,” it’s similar to an addiction. As with drugs, there’s that “just one more” compulsion to spot another species when birding. But with birding, generally the worst that can happen is sunburn or bug bites. In other words, it’s a hell of a lot better than doing cocaine.

First published in the print edition of the October 2023 issue with the headline, “Confessions of a Twitcher.”