The neurologist I saw back in August 2014 who misdiagnosed me with cerebellar atrophy wasn't on point with his diagnosis, but did give me some resounding advice on how to cope with chronic illness. As he was measuring my muscle strength, balance, and tremor, he told me a story about a violinist he had seen in concert who became so entranced in her music that she would sway and move with her instrument as though the rest of her world had just disappeared in the feeling of it all. After the concert, someone asked the woman what she felt while playing and she answered, “Bliss." His advice to me was to find my "violin:” something that was so all-encompassing that it could make the “What’s wrong with me? Will I ever get better?” thoughts about my medical condition disappear. Lucky for me, I already had. Birding is my violin.
Back when I was bed-ridden, there wasn't much birding I could do. On days when I could tolerate the visual stimulation of sitting in a car, friends and family members would drive me to nearby birding locations: the Brandywine Wetlands to look for interesting shorebirds; Wilson Road to see the Bobolinks/Eastern Meadowlarks and search through the swallows hoping for a Cliff or Bank Swallow; and Longwood Abbondi property, to check again for an vagrant heron, egret, or swallow. As you can imagine, driving to the same three locations over and over with the same goal every time became rather tiresome. But, there was something that revitalized my goals every month and gave me a renewed purpose-- eBird's "eBirder of the Month" challenge.
Every month since the beginning of 2014, Cornell Lab of Ornithology's eBird has posted details for a monthly birding challenge. The requirement to complete the challenge is simple, and those who are successful are entered into a drawing to win a pair of Zeiss Conquest HD 8x42 (!!!) binoculars. For example, the June 2015 challenge is to submit 20 checklists containing at least one breeding code. Back in April 2015, you qualified if you submitted 20 checklists containing a species of diurnal raptor (coinciding with spring raptor migration). As you can see, the challenge is usually pertinent to what the birds are doing. What was my motivation for completing the monthly challenges? Well, 1) anyone who knows me can attest that I love a good challenge. Otherwise, 2) the monthly challenges provided much-needed structure, goals, and motivation. And, 3) while I have yet to win one of the Zeiss binoculars, the optimism and hope I would feel every month while waiting for the “You’ve won!” email and imagining myself retiring my beaten and battered Nikon Monarchs did more good for me than the eBird team could have ever imagined.
So, when I was bed-ridden, I would formulate the birding I did almost entirely around the eBirder of the month challenge. One month, the challenge was to submit at least 20 checklists from a single patch. For those few weeks, I would ask whoever was driving me to head for the Route 82 farmlands, which was one of my patches. At that time, it was physically hard for me to tolerate the visual stimulation of the landscape moving as we drove around, but my determination to meet my goal of completing the monthly challenge would get me through the half hour/forty-five minutes in the car. Last October, the challenge was to submit stationary checklists of duration greater than one hour. Just a year earlier in October 2013, I would stand atop the hill at the Ashland Hawk Watch and count raptors for hours while scanning the skies, but in October 2014, moving my eyes around for more than 5, 10, or 20 minutes was sometimes enough to put me flat in bed for hours or days. That month, I probably submitted over twenty 1-hour stationary checklists (sometimes I even went over an hour). It felt SO GOOD to submit them, and to accomplish something.
Through completing these challenges and submitting all these checklists, I began to feel that every checklist I submitted was like earning a merit badge— as though I was proving to myself that on that day, I had accomplished something. I absolutely love eBirding and eBird; I use their data resources religiously and owe so many of my positive birding experiences to their species maps and alerts. Without eBird’s challenges, I wouldn’t have had a purpose to get “sick me” sitting up in a chair, or out in the yard, or to sit through those car rides every single day. So, I’d like to say thank you eBird and thank you Zeiss for coming up with this truly brilliant idea. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.
When it comes to my 2015 Recovery Big Year, I can’t help but think how much good could be done in introducing individuals who are struggling to cope with chronic illnesses to birding. If you know someone who’s not-so-healthy, introduce them to the monthly eBird challenges! And please, if you’re out birding, submit your checklists to eBird!