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This morning I saw a Philadelphia Vireo underwater. It jumped sluggishly among branches of specked alder at the Ice Pond here on Monhegan Island. At the pond I saw lots of birds underwater.

An American Redstart darted through bayberry branches, stopping a few times underwater to pose full-frontal for me. A Least Flycatcher called out “whit” from its perch underwater on a ragged birch. I noticed Green Heron, Herring Gull, American Crow (all in flight) and Common Yellowthroat, Swamp Sparrow and Common Grackle — all of them underwater. But the Philadelphia Vireo — the one underwater — it sent me into another dimension.

Normally, atop one of these blog posts you would see a bird photo, in this case a Philadelphia Vireo. I’ve been watching birds for nearly 40 years, 20 of them with serious cameras. But I have no bird photo for you today. I left this morning for the Ice Pond with only my binoculars. No camera, no glowing screen, no gadget of any kind. No rain coat, no water bottle, no notebook. No distractions.

I left this morning for the Ice Pond with only my binoculars. No camera, no glowing screen, no gadget of any kind. No rain coat, no water bottle, no notebook. No distractions.

And here this morning on Monhegan Island, 10 miles out to sea off Maine’s midcoast, there were no winds. Nothing made the branches shake and the leaves tremble but the birds. And when that happens, when it’s dead calm like this, we easily find tiny songbirds: just point your binos at anything moving in the green.

So tranquil was Monhegan this morning that the Ice Pond was slick and still and shiny and flat — so smooth that it reflected, in sharp focus, the trees of its shoreline. So as I gazed deep into the pond below me, I saw trees plunging toward the sky and birds flying even farther below into the blue. And when I tipped the brim of my ball-cap just low enough, just right, I would lose peripheral view of the actual trees and the actual sky. The world where I stood was gone; it unfurled instead beneath me into the pond. That’s when I noticed, underwater, the Philadelphia Vireo on the alder. (It was upside down.)

Among the great rush northward of birds here on Monhegan, Philadelphia Vireo is by no means the most flashy or charismatic. Smooth and gentle is how I would describe him: a clean olive-gray back; soft white below with a watercolor wash of yellow mostly on his throat and upper breast; and a rounded gray head, with a soft, smudgy darker gray sketch-line from behind his eye to his bill. All those are fine field marks in the pantheon of vireo identification. But there’s another mark that you won’t find in your field guide, and that mark is this: When you see a Philadelphia Vireo, a gentle euphoria washes through you.

Again, it’s a gentle joy. Not like the raging joy you get from a Sage Grouse or a Swallow-tailed Kite or a Resplendent Quetzal — the raw euphoria ornithologists and birders call “ornigasms.” No, a Philadelphia Vireo is more like one of those wonderful dreams that you get to live real life, like finding love or seeing whales or eating chocolate. That’s how I feel when I see a Philadelphia Vireo. And, at least to me, it’s a damned good field mark.

You yourself cannot test this field mark of mine, at least not with any photo I took of the vireo. As I mentioned, I left the optics behind this morning. And I’m doing a lot of that here on this particular Monhegan expedition, and on most of my journeys birding. As a result, I’m enjoying birds now more than ever.

Cameras change the way we are outside. As we try to take a photo, to capture the bird, to take it with us to enjoy again later, to share it with others, the camera also takes something from us. Even as we aspire to preserve the moment in nature, the camera steals some of the actual moment, some of the actual nature. To be sure, the rise of digital cameras and gadgets has expanded our knowledge of birds and their wonderful vagaries. Now, anyone with a point-and-shoot and the temerity to ask, “What’s this?” will often get a quick answer. And sometimes they unwittingly photograph something rare, something we experts would never believe without the image. So, yes, we can learn a lot. At least collectively we learn a lot.

Individually, we stand to lose a lot. I will not conclude this essay with a polemic against cameras and gadgets. You need not lose the glowing screens. After all, on my laptop are 18,884 images, 3,399 of which are birds. I’ve used photography to share with you wildlife and wild places. I’m proud of my images. So all this is easy for me to say and write.

Far too often, birders are looking far too often at nature in their gadgets and not enough at actual nature.

But I will only suggest that you more often leave behind the camera and the smart phone. Far too often, birders are looking far too often at nature in their gadgets and not enough at actual nature. Bring instead your field guide — an actual book. Record your eBird lists not as you watch birds, but after you’ve enjoyed them, as you sit in the woods or back at the car or back home (entering sightings from a list in your notebook). And, yes, photos are great, a thrill, a source of detail, memory and verification. But to borrow from Agassiz, “Look at your bird.” Not with the distraction and challenges and frustration of photography — which, oddly, brings to the photographer less focus on the beauty and lives of our birds — but instead with a singular attention to the bird itself. Nothing more.

Maybe then you’ll find even more euphoria from birds. You’ll most certainly see more of them. You’ll more often notice the crimson explosion from the head of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. You’ll find the time to observe and understand and know the markings of sparrows. The sun will rise a second time for you from a Northern Parula. You shall more often hear the distant and the ethereal songs of our thrushes.

And maybe you’ll even see a vireo underwater.

  1. juan a sanchez jr says:

    Beautiful beautiful. Thanks for another wonderful column.

  2. Kate says:

    I love this article and conversation. I almost always have a camera with me and I find it changes my “eye.” I look for small things, things that will fit the frame. That means I see things I might not otherwise. But the same is true when I leave it behind. Then I see the larger picture. I might not notice the way the petals are framing a plant, but instead notice that the meadow is shining with dew and the clouds are making shadows. I see that birds are flocking and I’m more likely to sit and watch a while.
    Enjoy your sabbatical Bryan and thanks for the reminder to leave the mechanical eye behind from time to time!

  3. Brendan Collins says:

    Love this Bryan! Thanks for sharing. Nothing better than that feeling of unexpectedly stumbling upon an avian treasure. Recently I had that same feeling your described while watching shorebirds at Delta Park, Colchester. I was alone way out on the delta sands watching White-rumped Sandpipers as the sun sunk low behind the Adirondacks in the western sky. Out of nowhere, a group of at least 9 Common Nighthawks began hawking insects all around me. Reminded me of those nighthawks over Fenway!!

  4. Hi Bryan. This reminds me of a poem I wrote called, Stop counting. It tells the biologist to think qualitatively so as to not miss the little things that make us laugh.

  5. Charlotte Hanna says:

    Summer is so wonderful for its sounds.
    In the morning before I get up I just listen to learn what’s around me.
    And there, faintly, in the distance, was the Wood Thrush I thought had vanished from our woods. Joy.

  6. Nancy Frass says:

    Loved every bit of this! Esp the Philly vireo sentiments!

  7. Nancy Mosher says:

    I’m a new subscriber. This is beautiful writing.

  8. Dudley Carlson says:

    Wonderful observations, astutely put. I love your PhVi “test,” and the admonition to just look and enjoy. Though, of course, I always enjoy your photos as well! Enjoy Monhegan – great place to see a bit of spring.

  9. John Snell says:

    Great! Thanks!! Could not agree more!!! I’d also suggest leaving the bird book behind some mornings. The birds don’t really care what we call them and too often I see the book and our need to ID a bird (or flower or plant or any of the many other things we watch and see) just get in the way of enjoying the thing.

  10. Connie Youngstrom says:

    That was really beautiful. Thank you Bryan!

  11. Julie says:

    I, too, likely tend to have the camera over shoulder on my birding jaunts. Over the years I’ve learned that the “perfect” shot usually presents itself when I don’t have it along. After reading your reflection, I’m wondering if that “perfect” shot is merely the close-up and perfectly focused experience of just enjoying a bird. Maybe had I had the camera along, it wouldn’t actually have been the great shot I really thought it was???
    It’s a reminder to just go out and just enjoy watching sometimes and to revel in the experience instead of kicking myself for forgetting the big lens. Thank you!

    • Bryan says:

      I heartily agree, Julie. Yes, of course, we get some amazing shots out there. But so often the perfect shot presents itself when I DON’T have the gear. And I do think that results in part from more of a “calmness” on our part without the cameras.

  12. Donna K. Cundy says:

    That’s such a good reminder. I like the part about taking an actual bird book too. And your description of the vireo. Wow.

  13. Mike Rosenzweig says:

    What a beautiful multi-layered word confection! Exploring the optics of a perfectly still pond. Reminding us of the profound satisfaction of simple nature encounters. Encouragement to leave devices at home, and just “be” where we are. Thank you for your eyes, your thoughts, your words. Enjoy your time on the Rock.

  14. Laurie says:

    Wise and wonderful, Bryan. Thanks!

  15. Laurie Danforth says:


    You are so right.

    I stopped searching for the perfect shot of each bird or any other moment in my travels a few years ago. Before that I had been taking sometimes almost a thousand or more photos on a wildlife trip. The first time I did it was in Colombia and it was especially liberating in a country where getting a shot of a bird is almost always challenging. Also once I returned home I was controlled by needing to store and edit hundreds of photos on the computer.

    Something is missed with the photos and without. Reliving a trip with my family is really fun.

    I am about to leave on a three week trip to Oregon to be with family. Thanks for reminding me to be in the moment.

    • Bryan says:

      Great, Laurie. Thanks! Yes, we do love our photos; I still do. Good advice: Particularly in the tropics, I need to look more and shoot less. Enjoy the trip to Oregon! Send photos! (Just kidding.) 🙂

  16. Ginny Alfano says:

    What a beautifully written and thought provoking post, Bryan. When I learned about birds at the tender age of nine (sixty years ago) we didn’t have the cameras of today. We learned by sight and song. I was fortunate to have a wonderful Mom who taught me so much back then. We did have a pair of binoculars such as they were back in the day. Of course, we didn’t know any better 🙂 . She made the birds really live for me. We took many short trips to wooded areas, fields and the harbor where I learned about the water birds. We studied every bird we saw and looked them up in our bird book. Those birds remained imbedded in my brain for years. Not because we had a camera, but because we truly “saw” the birds ourselves. We watched their movements, what they did, where they went, and what they ate. I was so fortunate to have been raised by an amazing lady who loved all of nature and taught me to be kind, caring, and always vigilant. I brought my children up the same way, and now I’m teaching my grandchildren about the beauty of nature as well. I provide them with the bird and nature books for their various age levels. Their parents set up feeding stations and put the books by the windows. The grandkids will call me all excited with “Grandma, guess what bird I saw today?” My 10 year old grandson in North Carolina will also call me about Dragonflies. I sent he and his sister the Stokes book for Beginners and they just love it. So, here we are – three generations who have and are learning about wildlife by just simply watching and then checking their books. It makes this Grandmother extremely proud and happy. Thank you, Bryan, for a lovely post.

    • Julie says:

      Lovely, Ginny!!! Kudos to your mom for instilling the passion and to you for passing it along!

    • Bryan says:

      Hi, Ginny. This is wonderful and beautiful and illuminating. Thanks SO MUCH for sharing it. I wonder how my own growth as a person on the long green path would have changed if I had gadgets and cameras with me as a kid. Not too long ago, while I was guiding a trip to Pt. Pelee in Ontario, we noticed a group of teens sitting on the grass in a circle after birding. What amazed me was that not one of them had a smart phone. They were sitting together, field guides open, binoculars at their sides, simply taking and looking together at their books. It was a scene from our pasts. And, I regret to say, somehow incongruous. Thanks again! Your kids and grandkids have a great nature mom and grandmother!

  17. Mark Council says:

    I agree 100%, Bryan! Technobifercation is dangerous! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this-

  18. Brian Willson says:

    Uplifting, thank you.

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