Watching birds from the Greenewalt seat

Ian Stewart

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

This is the advice that a young Richard Feynman, the illustrious physicist and author, received from his father and it struck a chord with me given the enjoyment I get from simply watching birds, no matter how common they are. Particularly in the last 25 years, the term ‘birdwatching’ has been gradually replaced with the term ‘birding’, which gives me mixed feelings as it implies actively searching for a large variety of birds has become more important than passively watching those already before you. Sure, there’s no denying that the large number of people exploring the more obscure corners of Delaware and other states has increased our understanding of species’ breeding and wintering ranges as well as their migration patterns, especially if their data are submitted to eBird. Still, I sometimes feel as though people with only the ability or desire to watch birds from their kitchen window or in their back yard are being excluded or even looked down upon in some circles. I think this is unfortunate as we should appreciate the value of simply watching birds now more than ever.

The Greenewalt seat at Coverdale Farm Preserve

For example, I recently spent an hour watching birds from the ‘Greenewalt seat’ at our Coverdale Farm Preserve in Greenville, Delaware. This stone seat is located in the Frank Lindsay Greenewalt Area of the preserve. This mature woodland and stream valley is dedicated to the fond memory of Dr. Frank Lindsay Greenewalt (1865 – 1942), the father of Crawford Greenewalt.  Dr. Greenewalt loved to sit on this stone bench enjoying nature’s sights and sounds. This wooded stream valley that he cherished is preserved and managed by the Delaware Nature Society for the quiet contemplative enjoyment of nature for all that enter.

In that one hour I saw or heard 17 species of birds, including amazingly close views of three Veeries and a Wood Thrush searching through the carpet of fallen leaves in search of arthropods, as well as four species of woodpecker and an Eastern Wood-Peewee which repeatedly sallied forth for airborne insects from a perch right in front of me. The thrush sightings highlighted the value of just sitting quietly in one place as otherwise I may not have seen these shy ground-dwelling birds. The tranquil hour I spent in the Greenewalt seat was all the more valuable given the pressures of modern life brought about by the health and social challenges we have all faced in 2020.

Male Downy Woodpecker seen feeding from the Greenewalt seat

Although the world would benefit from more Greenewalt seats as well as more families like the Greenewalts, who generously donated their land to DelNature for it to be enjoyed by literally thousands of program participants, in truth the Greenewalt seat is a metaphor. Anyone can have their own Greenewalt seat. Just find a quiet spot that overlooks an open area with a backdrop of tree or bushes, preferably with a stream or pond before it as this will attract insects which will in turn attract birds. Try to sit with your back against a tree of wall to hide your outline, and time your visit so the sun is striking the bushes as this will warm up the insects upon which many birds feed. Mornings are usually the most active period for birds but late afternoon can also be good.

This vista at Ashland Nature Center would make a perfect spot for wildlife watching

Having said that, your Greenewalt seat could just as well be in your kitchen or living room, especially now that the cooler weather is here. Even though it is still just late-October, many birds which usually spend the winter much further north are irrupting south in search of food. with flocks of Pine Siskins and Purple Finches being widely reported throughout the state. These winter visitors are not difficult to attract to your back yard, even in urban areas, meaning that you can watch them up close over your morning coffee while staying warm and cozy indoors. The most reliable foods for attracting birds are black oil sunflower, nyjer (black thistle) and suet cakes, all of which are readily available at stores such as Wild Birds Unlimited in Hockessin, and the best way to attract a diversity of birds is a diversity of feeders, including table-tops, hanging tubes, and finch socks, as well as just millet sprinkled on the ground. I have happily spent hours watching the different species of birds at my feeders, and following Richard Feynman’s advice, have learned which species are bold or shy, which come in flocks or alone, and which prefer to eat each type of food and at which type of feeder. These may be just simple observations but learning about the birds makes me feel like I understand them as well as being able to identify them.

This Purple Finch was seen while sitting in my kitchen

These are turbulent times in our nation on many fronts, and now more than ever we need the solace of nature. Whether you prefer to watch them from your window or search for rarities in a lonely wind-blown field, birds are all around us and are pretty much carrying on as normal. I hope that you all achieve mindfulness during these stressful times by finding your own Greenewalt seat.

Are you interested in some guided Nature Therapy? Please register for the upcoming Delaware Nature Society program:

Nature and Horticultural Therapy Techniques Nature is well-known for having therapeutic benefits, which have been documented and known for quite a long time. Horticultural Therapy is a practice that uses plants and gardening to improve mental and physical health. Known for improving memory, cognitive abilities, and creating joy, walk away from this two-part program with some new skills and techniques to help you get more out of nature walks and time in your garden to improve your life. Learn to focus more on your surroundings and absorb colors, texture, fragrance, to improve your mood, create balance, and help deal with today’s stresses. Join Kathy Andrzejewski, a Horticultural Therapist, on this two-part program. A Zoom lecture on a weekday evening will be followed by a weekend field trip to try out some techniques to improve your life. Nov. 4 Zoom Lecture 6:00pm-7:30pm; Nov. 14 Field Trip 10am-noon to Ashland Nature Center. $20 for Delaware Nature Society Members. $25 for non-members. Register for the program.

12 thoughts on “Watching birds from the Greenewalt seat”

  1. Ian, great perspective and advice. My Greenwalt Seat is, infact, my kitchen window from which I peer out to feeders stocked with niger seed, suet, and safflower seed. The black sunflower seed feeder which attracts more aggressive birds is a farther distance away. I always appreciate what you write and look forward to your next article.

  2. Thank you, Ian. This was very uplifting, as I was made to feel “Less and not a true birder” because I mostly watch from the back yard!

  3. Thank you Ian, you remind us of the transcendent experience of just being with our phenomenal natural world.

  4. Thank you so much for this refreshing take on bird-watching! In September I made a cute little seat from rocks and a flat slab of slate under a hemlock in our yard so I could just lean back and watch….that particular “observation station” was short-lived, as I discovered (the hard way) a humongous colony of biting ants inhabited the ground beneath. You have inspired me to try again!

  5. No Pine Siskins yet but I am waiting. We had them last year or maybe it was the year before and it was great!

  6. Ian; thank you for your thoughtful blog. WE spend many hours watching the birds in our back yard and a t the feeders. I think we have some pine siskinns, but I have a hard time telling them from all the immature goldfinches, any suggestions? WE both try to use the Sibley guide

  7. Hi Dave, it is Joe Sebastiani here. For Siskins, they are very streaky on the entire underside, and Goldfinches never have streaking like that. Glad you are getting Siskins! They seem to be all over the place right now.

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