We invited Lisa Keitel to write this blog for us. Lisa is a 40-year member of First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC in Minneapolis. She is a Minnesota Master Naturalist, who leads afterschool birdwatching clubs for kids, and is a volunteer for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area National Park. She lives in St. Paul and birds wherever she goes.
Seven years ago I came home from the clinic after being diagnosed with breast cancer. The first order of business…rearrange the living room so I could see the bird feeders while recuperating on the sofa. Watching birds at my feeder became my refuge during a long dark winter of treatments and surgeries. These months of COVID-19 have been similar to that time on my sofa: I focus on what I love to get through the dark times.
"These months of COVID-19 have been similar to that time on my sofa: I focus on what I love to get through the dark times."
I love birds. I love sharing and teaching what I know. Being outside, searching for, and listening for the birds that grace me with their presence has always provided great peace and joy. I love bringing this experience to others, but sharing birding proved challenging because it does not shift well into the requirements of being physically distant. I have grieved the loss of the face-to-face programs and activities I routinely volunteered for pre-COVID.
Song Sparrow, photo credit: Lisa Keitel
In normal times, participants would come right next to me in order to spot the bird hiding in the branches. Sharing of binoculars and spotting scope is a regular occurrence. This is no longer advisable.
It has taken a little while to find a way to continue this volunteer work as a birder and naturalist. When stay-at-home restrictions were loosened in Minnesota, my Christian church community was looking for ways to gather outside in small groups and spend meaningful time together. I was approached for ideas and happily created “Listening Times.”
June Listening Time in Mississippi National River and Recreation Area National Park photo credit: J. Griffiths
During Listening Time, we meet in various parks, sit and actively listen to what is around us. I introduce our time together by inviting participants to open their senses, acknowledge the ever-present noise pollution in the day, then invite them to set that aside. What else can we hear?
"It is a gift to be so present and focus on the birds’ activities and travels."
I write down the birdcalls and insect sounds we hear during 10 minutes of silence. This listening brings us into, and keeps us in, the present. It’s similar to mindfulness or meditation. At the end of our time of silence, we talk about how the experience felt to each participant. Was it easy or hard to tune out the prominent noise? Did you hear the difference in the two birdcalls? Reassuring the participants that this takes practice, we repeat with another 10 minute of silence.
October Listening Time, photo credit: Lisa Keitel
In the silence, the American Goldfinch, the Eastern Wood Pewee, the Downy Woodpecker come into our worlds. Being silent heightens the visual senses so we can see the Turkey Vultures soaring and Cedar Waxwings flocking from tree to tree.
It is a gift to be so present and focus on the birds’ activities and travels. It is my gift to share these experiences with my church community. So go outside, listen, and open your senses to the healing and restoration our natural world can provide.
The group has spotted other wildlife like this butterfly at these Listening Times. J. Griffiths took this photo at July's Listening Time in Lyndale Peace Garden, Minneapolis.
For more resources on the health benefits of bird watching and forest bathing, we encourage you to watch the Green Team Summit 2020 workshop, "A Just Recovery: Addressing Social Isolation and Loneliness by Connecting to Nature." This workshop was led by Luis E. Morales-Vallín, an ornithologist and Director of the non-profit organization San Pancho Bird Observatory, which is based in San Pancho, Mexico.
You can access that workshop and all the other amazing presentations from this year's free and virtual Summit by signing up here. By filling out this form, you will be emailed a link and password to view the recordings, presenters' slides, and chat transcripts.