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Finding Solace in Solitude: How Birdwatching Transformed My Fellowship Year

Lily Elola

At the onset of my fellowship year, I was nervous about spending too much time alone. Living by myself in a cottage on a ~5,500 acre remote research site stood in stark contrast to my urban upbringing in the East Bay Area. Despite the appealing prospect of a change in scenery, worries about the unintended consequences of prolonged isolation lingered. It was amidst this uncertainty that I stumbled upon an unexpectedly reliable companion—birds. 


I can’t say I ever paid much attention to birds before last year. I deemed their presence unimportant and their noises (at times) annoying. Admittedly, my knowledge of birds stopped at pigeons, crows, and seagulls. Like many, I dismissed birds as insignificant animals in the grand scheme of an often stressful human life. Their reality felt distinctly separate from mine. 


My perception of birds underwent a remarkable shift during my first morning in the cottage. Naïvely, I anticipated the hardest adjustment to living alone in the woods would be the deafening silence. Imagine my surprise, then, when I was jolted awake at 5 a.m. by a loud knocking. My dog, equally startled, leapt to his feet and started barking at the front door.


I quickly threw on my robe and peered through the front door window. There, perched on the white siding of the cottage, was a small woodpecker with a striking red cap. The sheer sound of the bird’s hammering made it impossible to ignore.


I stood there watching the woodpecker, equally mesmerized and annoyed by its rhythmic precision. Pale morning light illuminated its glossy black-and-white feathers. I grabbed one of my journals from the bedside table and through half-open eyes scribbled, "red-headed small woodpecker, black and white". My notes felt amateurish, but I hoped they might be useful if I was ever curious about the bird again. 


After some investigation I learned that the culprit of my disrupted sleep was none other than the Acorn Woodpecker, a native to the Northern California oak woodlands known for its communal behavior of storing acorns in wooden structures. Much to my dismay, this particular woodpecker had taken a liking to the side of my porch. For the next two months acorns continued to shower from the oaks, accompanied by relentless knocking on the side of my house. Both my dog and I grew accustomed to the noise. Gradually I realized that my futile resistance to the “disruption” of nature would only lead to further frustration and disappointment. The intrusion of the Acorn Woodpeckers served as a powerful lesson in radical acceptance over the things I cannot control.


Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus)

"Gradually, I realized that my futile resistance to the 'disruption' of nature would only lead to further frustration and disappointment. The intrusion of the Acorn Woodpeckers served as a powerful lesson in radical acceptance over the things I cannot control."

The moment also proved to be a lively interruption to the solitude I had anticipated. In the weeks that followed, I jotted down sporadic notes about birds in my journal during lunch breaks, between meetings, even hanging out with friends. I found myself growing more mindful and present with every bird observation. The anxiety and loneliness that I had initially feared began to dissipate, replaced by feelings of contentment. 


This newfound joy inspired me to channel my birdwatching observations into a creative outlet. Quickly I began to illustrate California native birds for the Hopland Research and Extension Center. These illustrations not only provided me with a fulfilling hobby but also served as a way to occupy the abundance of alone time I had living on-site. Capturing the intricate details and social behaviors of the different bird species became a meditative escape.


Allen’s Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin)


Sometimes, if I was lucky, I’d look up to see the very same bird I was illustrating—a hummingbird, a raven, a jay. We would share a brief moment of coexistence, staring at each other until my subtle movements inevitably prompted it to take flight. These moments tallied. For every time I watched them, they watched me right back. With each fleeting interaction I gained a deeper appreciation for the importance of stillness and mutual respect.


"These moments tallied. For every time I watched them, they watched me right back. With each fleeting interaction I gained a deeper appreciation for the importance of stillness and mutual respect."

California Quail (Callipepla californica)


Birds serve as the not-so silent witnesses to our solitude. They coexist with us in moments of strength and vulnerability. The California quail hears me singing my favorite song through an open kitchen window. The Great Blue Heron watches me read by the river bank. Near the porch of my cottage, a family of scrub jays chatters excitedly upon my return from work.


"Birds serve as the not-so silent witnesses to our solitude. They coexist with us in moments of strength and vulnerability."

Inevitably I will move away from HREC, and I won’t be able to take the birds with me. Instead, I’ll carry the skill of birdwatching as a reminder of the connection I forged with the natural world during my time here. What began as a simple hobby has evolved into a profound understanding of the interconnectedness between all living things and the landscapes they inhabit. 


I can’t deny that there are still moments when feelings of loneliness or worry weigh heavily on me. After all, birds are not substitutes for human connection. They can, however, serve as momentary solace if you let them.

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