Phew. A heavy sigh of relief escaped my mouth. Ten birds handled in under twenty-five minutes, that was a record for me, and the normal, safe rate at which a bird bander is expected to handle a live specimen. After a month of scrambling to bring my skills up to par, I finally achieved the 3 minute challenge: take the birds out of the net in under three minutes, collect the data in under three minutes, and release the bird back along its happy way. For this brief moment, I felt competent, like I could actually go about calling myself a bird bander…Until I went off to carry out a point count and mistook a Western Scrub Jay call for a Gray Jay. To the untrained ear, this may seem like a trivial mistake, but for the sake of protecting avian wildlife, it’s a critical error that could skew data necessary to understand where the birds go and what resources we may focus on in land management plans.
These small slip-ups are also my reminder that a challenge met is not a final destination, but rather the beginning to a new path of learning. Attaining wisdom is much like a first encounter with your favorite food item. That first bite seals your fate, a fleeting moment of euphoria that you will forever desire when hunger inevitably strikes. From that moment on, you will always look forward to the next meal, and all of the satisfaction that it will bring.
I remember it distinctly: the day I discovered the glory of the empanada. At just barely eight years old, my parents shipped my brothers and me to Argentina. With five thousand miles on the plane and thirteen hours on a bus to travel, when we finally arrived three days later we burst out of my uncle’s decaying car as chaotically as the loose screws and bolts that precariously pieced the scrap metal together. The scene we happened upon offered no relief: ingredients were sprawled out across a long table, exclamations of “Che!” and “Epa!” randomly interrupted passionate conversations, and sporadic echoes of chastising slaps cut through the crisp air as a warning to keep our prying hands away from the food. After a few failed attempts at sneaking in for a handful of food, my mother put me to work at the table, showing me how to cautiously fold the edges of the dough to tuck the ingredients into a neat pie. Getting my hands in the mess made me more anxious. What would this appetizing packet ultimately taste like?
There is no equivalent feeling that I could relate to explain the glory that consumed me when I finally took my first bite into an empanada. With the juice of sauteed meat and vegetables dripping down my cheek, my family violently attacking the hot trays of food, and the whistles of curious birds in the background, in that moment my mind was awakened to the beauty of good food and company. This wisdom has left me longing for more, a curiosity that I fill with dreams of what kind of empanada (meat, corn, onion, tomato…), where I will eat it next and who I will share this precious knowledge with. Learning is my intellectual empanada; I love it too much not to enlighten others when I fulfill a new tidbit of understanding. It’s a vicious cycle, the more you know, the more you ask, and the more compelled you are to keep seeking answers.
When I first started my adventure into the world of birding, I understood close to nothing about a bird’s biology, need to sing, why they leave for the winter, and significance in society. It was a massive surprise to me that I landed a job with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to work with birds. Something strange happened to me over the course of the year I worked for the Institute–I became insatiably curious about the movements of birds. While the work empowered me with knowledge of songbirds on the East coast, I was very aware of how little of the surface I scratched. Environment for the Americas called me at just the right time–saying yes propelled me through a series of disparate projects that introduced me to new families of birds and entirely new habitats. By the end of the summer, I had taken on the persona of Yaquina Head’s “Crazy Bird Lady” and often found myself in conversations with strangers about how insanely cute Snowy Plovers are. Yet, even then, I knew I was still swimming in the shallow end of the pool.
EFTA’s suggestion to apply for Klamath Bird Observatory was my invitation to accept a new challenge: to learn about the songbirds of the West coast. Through this experience, I am operating where I feel most comfortable learning–out of my comfort zone. My colleagues, trainers, and Stephanie are all pushing me to be a better biologist, advising me on where I can improve my technique in handling wild birds and inspiring me to study the bird’s life cycles in more depth. I am incredibly blessed to be surrounded by stimulation, and be able to study our subject matter up close through banding with KBO. On our first day our supervisor handed Stephanie and me a checklist of materials and tasks he wanted us to master. As I go ticking off the checks, my mind rolls into a conflict of complacency and impatience; each step I conquer paves way to another hill to climb. In the field, I am happy to embrace my slip-ups, because they bring to light my weaknesses and force me to bridge the gaps in my understanding. Much like the craving for empanadas, questioning my developing expertise is my motivation to keep learning.