By Sam Craig, Director of Adventure Pursuits and Rock Gym
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matt. 6:26 ESV)
It all began a few years ago.
I was working at a coffeeshop when a customer came in and told me about a snowy owl they saw at Crane Beach, a beautiful beach about 15 minutes from where I was living at the time. I was curious. So, after work I went looking for the owl.
I grew up admiring nature and knowing a few bird names and their calls, but this was different. I had never gone to a specific location looking for a specific bird. The peculiar thing about snowy owls is that they hunt in the wide open. They’re an artic bird, who live most of their lives in arctic tundra – a place with little to no trees. So, they are a popular bird to look for, since they are easy to spot – in the open. Birders say that they look like a “milk jug” placed in the grass.
I remember my first sighting. I turned the corner of a well-known trail in the sand dunes and there it was. Sitting quietly – like an old mountain sage. A light breeze was blowing its feathers as it stood stoically. And I thought “this bird flew thousands of miles to stay the winter on my beach.” It took my breath away. I returned another 2 days in a row – and she was there. Sitting in the same spot. Quiet and still. And then one day, she was gone. I would spend the following weeks looking and would not see her or another snowy owl until the next year.
Lots of snowy owl birding involves walking for hours on end and not seeing anything. I’ve gone for 2-3-hour hikes 2-3 times a week for several weeks in a row looking for this bird and leaving having never spotted a faint glimmer of its presence. But sometimes a friend will arrive, or in this case, a bird unexpectedly.
I have often only seen the snowy owl 2-3 times in the first or second week of December, but last year, on January 15, I took a long walk in the dunes and there it was. Sitting in the distance. Quiet and still. I am thankful that I decided to bring my binoculars that day. It was this unexpected treat. For some reason, maybe it was the surprise or the many hours of looking, the moment made me tear up. It’s hard to explain. It’s all wonder and mystery and connection all wrapped up inside me. If anything, birding has become a practice that has given me new eyes and helps ground me in the present moment.
Franciscan writer Richard Rohr describes prayer as “looking out from a different set of eyes, which are not comparing, competing, judging, labeling or analyzing, but receiving the moment in its present wholeness and un-wholeness.” Thomas Merton wrote that “Monastic prayer, especially meditation and contemplative prayer, is not so much a way to find God as a way of resting in him whom we have found, who loves us, who is near to us, who comes to us to draw us to himself.”
In a strange way, birding is teaching me how to pray – to be still like the owl and to rest in the presence of the provider’s care. When I hear a bird call or song or see a flash of color fly overhead – I am brought to the present moment with questions like “who is that? What bird was that?” I am also reminded, like the passage in Matthew, that I am taken care of as a part of this world.