Stargazers and birders have a lot in common. We use similar (sometimes identical) equipment. And even more important, we share a lot of skills and attitudes.
The analogy helps me put stargazing into perspective. I really work at celestial observing, trying to find the similarities and differences between objects, comparing my observations to other people's notes, and generally trying to improve my skill. But my attitude toward birds is quite casual. Every now and then I become intrigued by a particular bird, and try to find out its name and habits. But I've never approached birding systematically — and it shows!
I can identify a few dozen species that are particularly common or prominent, but I don't have the patience and persistence to sort through all the different kinds of ducks, swallows, or sparrows — let alone the 24 "confusing fall warblers" listed in Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds. And I frequently see birds that I can't pin down by family, much less by species.
But that's fine by me. Life is short and the body of human knowledge is immense; there's only time to do so much. The important thing (in my book) is to keep an open mind, to be on the lookout for new things, alive to the world around, not going through life with blinders on.
About a month ago, while walking across Danehy Park to the local shopping center, I was thrilled to see a small hawk atop a sapling right next to the path. I'd seen this bird, or another much like it, intermittently over several years, but I'd never been able to identify it for sure. This time, it was sitting quite still just twenty feet from me, and I could study it at my leisure. The unmistakable black marking on its face allowed me to identify it with 100% certainty as an American Kestrel when I got back to the office and could Google to my heart's content.
Judging by the descriptions of how these birds fly in Peterson's, I'm actually pretty sure I've seen two different small hawks in Danehy — both Kestrels and Sharp-Shinned Hawks — but that's a whole 'nother story. I'll just have to keep my eyes peeled and hope for a moment when a Sharp-Shinned poses as obligingly as this Kestrel did.
It was a raw day, in the middle of working hours, and there weren't many people around. But eventually I saw another guy walking briskly along the path, his nose to the ground. I wondered if he'd noticed me staring at the top of a tree, and thought I was some kind of nut case. But if he'd looked, surely he would have seen the hawk, and nobody could fail to be fascinated by it — could they? I almost stopped him to call his attention to what was, to me, a thing of beauty and wonder, a minor miracle. I've done things like that before, and by and large people have been grateful. But this time I let him walk by unmolested. What would you have done?