The daughter of two accomplished parents counts grosbeaks and waxwings to satisfy her gnawing ambition.

The leaves stir, brushed by tiny wings. I hear a chirp. I lift my binoculars to my eyes, and … nada. Zero. Zilch. If I do see the bird, I often can’t identify it. I’ve been birdwatching for 10 years now, and I still have a lot to learn. This is humbling, because I’m used to being good at whatever I do.

I can’t help it: I come from a family of self-improvers. My late father set the bar high. Placed in an orphanage at age 8 after his parents passed away, he put himself through Northwestern University with scholarships, student loans and part-time jobs, earning a Phi Beta Kappa finance degree. An insurance executive, he was the head of our local United Way and library board. After retiring, he took up lawn bowling, although he had never been the outdoorsy type.

My late mother dropped out of junior college after one semester because of the Depression, but she was accomplished in her own way. She chaired our elementary school PTA. She taught herself to sew clothes for my sisters and me. She ran an answering service. She took organ lessons and did crewel and embroidery, despite the arthritis in her fingers.

Having inherited the better-thyself gene, I’ve been understandably ambitious: Ivy League undergraduate and master’s, freelance writing and editing career, university adjunct. Over the years, I’ve taken up lots of hobbies aimed at self-improvement: knitting, karate, calligraphy, piano. And now, birdwatching.

In 2005, I splurged on a trip to Costa Rica sponsored by Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center. Our group of 18 divided in two. As we non-birdwatchers went whitewater rafting and canoed in a mangrove estuary, the birdwatchers added to their life lists.

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Of course, you can’t not see beautiful tropical birds in Costa Rica, and my roommate, Kimberly, could identify many. “Wow,” I said, “you must have been studying birds for a long time!”

“Hell, no,” she said, “only about six months.”

Six months? I figured if she could learn that much in such a short time, so could I.

I began the first of hundreds of center-sponsored Thursday-morning bird walks through Riverside Park on the Milwaukee River. It used to be filled with trash and robbers and junkies. Today, it is clean and safe, thanks to birders and dog walkers and the center, which brings in neighborhood elementary school students to explore the environment.

We start at 8 a.m. on the center’s three-story tower. “Cooper’s hawk moving left across the bike trail,” someone says. Although these are common in the park, I always get goosebumps when one whooshes overhead, with heavy wingbeats and a nasal “keh-keh-keh” call. Then we descend, taking the same route each week. In addition to the usual suspects – chickadees, cardinals, nuthatches – we see or hear the occasional rarity: black-billed cuckoo, northern shrike, horned grebe. Once, we even saw an American bittern nestled in a tree; this was odd, because they’re usually found in marshes.

After the two-hour walk, we return to the Urban Ecology Center, count the species we’ve encountered and log them into a national database. This is called “citizen science.”

For me, the weekly walks are less about citizen science and more about a spiritual connection. They offer ritual, community and the sense of something greater than myself. At the end of one walk, we stopped at the bird banding station, where a bander held a brown creeper. From a distance, they look like just another “LBJ” (“little brown job,” in birder-speak). Seen up close, their feathers have an amazingly intricate pattern of white, tan and black. My mother used to say, “How could anyone not believe in God after seeing a pansy?” For years, I’ve doubted the existence of God. Thanks to the brown creeper, I’m revisiting that.

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I’m working hard to improve my ID skills. I read field guides, listen to recordings of calls and songs, attend lectures and workshops, and go on birding trips. As a result, I can now easily recognize what some people call “junk birds”: crows, starlings, house sparrows, mourning doves. I can also, squinting in good light, pick out great blue herons, rose-breasted grosbeaks and cedar waxwings, especially if they’re in breeding plumage.

Come spring migration, however, I’m back to square one. All those warblers! I pore over my tattered field guide. Yellow-rumped, sure – can’t miss that yellow rump. But magnolia? Tennessee? And the darn thrushes: hermit, gray-cheeked, Swainson’s. I sometimes despair of ever sorting them out.

Yet I keep trying. I remind myself that I won’t improve if I don’t show up. Rain, snow, sleet, hail, I’m there. We’ve birded in below-zero temperatures. Once, after a snowstorm dumped 6 inches, we did the walk on snowshoes.

Every correct ID is an aha! moment, and I have more of them every year.

My overachieving parents would be pleased.

‘Make a Little Birdhouse in Your Soul’ appears in the May, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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