Written By: Trent Leslie Wildlife Photography by Trent Leslie
Birding has always been part of my life. It was a way to connect with my dad growing up and as an adult. My childhood includes memories of Christmas bird counts, seasonal migration events, and participating in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch during the glory days of the mid-nineties. As I grew older, I maintained this interest in birding, but it waxed and waned through different times in my life.
Then, 2020. Is 2020 a verb yet? MadTree had an all-hands meeting at the Cincinnati Nature Center, which included a treasure hunt around the park. One of the ways to earn points was by identifying species of birds. I surprised my co-workers with my typically useless bird knowledge and felt like an avian hustler when I identified however many we ended up finding that day. This triggered something inside of me. “Oh yeah,” I thought. “Birding is actually something I’m still passionate about!”
The week after the meeting, the pandemic hit and shelter-in-place began. My wife and I took the quarantine quite seriously, as she is a healthcare worker treating a vulnerable population. As our lives came to a screeching halt, the one thing we could do was go outside. She loves to trail run, and I love to bird. We began having joint adventures where she would run and I would bird. We would meet back at the car, both re-energized and excited to share what we saw and to discuss our time outside.
The timing of the pandemic was gratuitous for a birder. It was spring migration, and I had more free time on weekends than I had had in years. And then…we got our stimulus check. What are you supposed to do with a stimulus check? Stimulate the economy. That I did, by buying a camera and lens I had secretly been coveting for years.
Since then, I have been putting it to good use every weekend and many weekdays. Since we couldn’t travel, which is something my wife and I often do, we began to explore local parks. This led to finding new trails and opportunities to bird in places I didn’t know existed. I found fishing trails along the Little Miami River at Otto Armleder, Lunken Airport, and Magrish Riverlands Preserve. We’ve explored along the Great Miami River, following it from Combs Park in Hamilton to Oxbow Nature Conservancy in Indiana. We day tripped up north to Caesar Creek State Park, and we’ve frequented East Fork State Park many weekends. It was mostly for the joy in exploration, but admittedly also for the ‘gram.
The birds.and.stuff.and.things Instagram account has already grown beyond what I imagined. I don’t want to be an influencer, and I’m not one for the limelight. However, seeing the impact it has had on my friends, family, and the world beyond my little bubble has been so meaningful. It has shown that an appreciation of nature photography isn’t only global and universal, but also – due to the medium – doesn’t even experience a language barrier. Because of the pandemic, I’ve been inspired to take in my part of the world in ways I never did. And the camera gives me the tools to share this world with others.
The pandemic has also led me to explore more knowledge and challenge myself beyond birding and my job at MadTree. I’ve signed up to participate in the Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist Program in order to learn about other cool things to photograph and to meet fellow nature nerds. I’ve moved out of my comfort zone and become more active in longstanding accounts with eBird and the Cincinnati Birders Facebook group. It’s even been unexpectedly common to meet familiar names in real life at popular birding spots.
This is a long winded way to say that 2020, as tough of a year as it has been, has reignited a fire within me to see the beauty around me, connect with the people in my community and beyond, and find a common ground through nature in these divided times. As is cliché tradition in nature writing, I feel obligated to close out with Walden now.
“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness … At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplored, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed, and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of Nature.” -Henry David Thoreau