Mindfulness activities in nature: Try bird-watching

Sept. 23, 2021

Bird-watching can help bring a sense of calm and peace for those who observe the grace of a bird in flight or the beauty of its colorful feathers.

Birding helps people connect, often through friendly competitions to find the rarest breed or complete a checklist of local fowl. As a mindfulness activity, bird-watching has holistic healing properties, bird-watchers say.

Add bird-watching to your list of mindfulness activities to try. Source: Getty Images.
Add bird-watching to your list of mindfulness activities to try. Source: Getty Images.

Mindful bird-watching

Paul Doherty, a wildlife biologist who teaches students about birds and is the author of ornithological papers, says that bird-watching is most often an exercise in mindfulness.

“There has always been a connection between mindfulness and nature, and birds provide a nice entry point,” Doherty said. “They give you something to focus on, and there are lots of ways to take it forward.”

Doherty recently teamed up with Laurie Fonken, a health and well-being counselor and consultant for the past 35 years. The two met at Colorado State University where Fonken was the director of Counseling and Wellness Programs for doctor of veterinary medicine students in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. She retired in January, and with Doherty, offers programs that aim to connect participants to the healing power of nature.

“Different people might have different aims or goals with bird-watching,” Fonken said. “They might want to go to a specific spot to document a specific bird. Mindful bird-watching adds the element of centering through the use of breath and the senses which may enhance the experience for some.”

A Red Winged Blackbird, which is found along the Front Range. Photo by Rebecca Riedner, courtesy of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.
A red-winged Blackbird, which is found along the Front Range. Photo by Rebecca Riedner, courtesy of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

What is mindfulness?

“You don’t need to meditate to be in a mindful state,” Fonken said. “It’s about paying attention, focusing with purpose and being in the present moment so you can experience it fully. It helps us to slow down and to deal with what’s in front of us instead of dealing with worries about the future or ruminating on the past.”

Western Meadowlark. Photo by Deanna Beutler, courtesy of A Red Winged Blackbird, which is found along the Front Range. Photo by Rebecca Riedner, courtesy of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies..
Western Meadowlark. Photo by Deanna Beutler, courtesy of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

Why mindfulness?

“We are so busy with everything in our lives we become ‘human doings’ instead of human beings. We are not always conscious of how we move through the world,” she explained.

Mindfulness, the practice of purposefully focusing our attention in the present moment, allows our mind and body to be in the same place at the same time so we don’t miss those things right in front of us, Fonken said.

There are proven benefits to practicing mindfulness, according to Dr. Meredith Shefferman, who has a doctorate in psychology and practices at UCHealth’s Integrative Medicine Center in Denver’s Central Park neighborhood. Shefferman is a specialist in mindfulness and helps patients who are dealing with chronic pain, anxiety, stress and an array of other challenges.

“There has been extensive research over the last few decades, really an explosion of research, showing all the benefits of mindfulness meditation, whether that is for pain reduction, stress reduction, helping with anxiety, depression, burnout prevention, improved sleep, etc.,” Shefferman said. “There are many benefits as well for various issues such as hypertension, heart disease, prevention of postpartum depression and mitigating the impacts of menopause.”

Mindfulness can be brought to almost any activity, Fonken said. So, why not bird-watching?

Why birdwatching and how to get started

Bird-watching stimulates the brain. You hone your senses and learn to observe small details. Bird-watching gets you outside, which is good for mental and physical health. You can observe while sitting, or take a walk or hike to get your heart pumping. Bird-watching can be an individual or group activity. If you want to contribute to research by participating in annual bird counts and other projects, turn to your local Audubon societies.

Bird-watching can be a fairly inexpensive pastime. You can view birds with the naked eye or purchase binoculars. You can do it anywhere. If you’re new to bird-watching, Doherty has the following advice:

Binoculars for bird-watching

Paul explains binoculars during a mindful bird-watching program recently in the Poudre Canyon. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
Paul Doherty, a wildlife biologist, explains binoculars during a mindful bird-watching program in the Poudre Canyon northwest of Fort Collins, Colorado. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

Entry-level binoculars work great for bird-watching and cost between $100 to $150. Doherty can usually find a basic pair on sale for around $80. Fancier binoculars can cost upwards of $1,000.

When purchasing binoculars, pay attention to their strength and size. For example, an 8×42 means magnification power is eight times and the objective lens diameter (at the end of the binoculars) is 42 millimeters.

Remember, the higher the magnification, the harder the binoculars will be to hold steady. This may hinder your ability to see birds clearly, Doherty said. Binoculars in the 7–10 times power range are common.

Male Lark Bunting. Photo by Bill Schmoker, courtesy of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.
Male Lark Bunting. Photo by Bill Schmoker, courtesy of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

A bigger diameter lens allows more light to come in, making it easier to see birds at dawn or dusk but also leads to a heavier pair of binoculars which may be uncomfortable to carry around your neck. Binoculars with objective lens diameters between 25–42 are common.

“There is no right or wrong, just tradeoffs,” Doherty said.

Bird watching books are a wonderful way to find information about birds in a specific region, bird sounds, habitats and nests. Local organizations are also great resources for bird-watching information, including organizations like Bird Conservancy of the Rockies or your local Audubon.

Ways to incorporate mindfulness into bird-watching

Take a few minutes to do a mindful exercise before you start bird-watching. This will help you be present in your bird-watching experience.

Fonken starts with the breath and focuses on the senses. Before she heads out with her binoculars, she takes a few minutes to settle into the space.

  • Taking deep slow breaths focusing on the inhale and then the exhale.
    American Kestrel. Photo by Eduardo Lugo, courtesy of Male Lark courtesy of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.
    American Kestrel. Photo by Eduardo Lugo, courtesy of Male Lark courtesy of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.
  • Close your eyes or cast them downward. Scan your body from head to toe, focusing on each part for just a few seconds. Notice, but do not judge, how each part of your body feels.
  • Listen to the sounds around you. What sounds are close? What sounds are farther away? Again, do not judge the sounds, just listen.
  • Take slow breaths in through your nose. What smells are there?
  • Purse your lips like your drinking from a straw. Now breathe in and out slowly. What do you taste?
  • Slowly open your eyes and notice the colors and textures around you. Are things moving? What is still?
  • Take a few more deep, slow breaths and start on your bird-watching way.

“So many of us run from place to place, our brain may be in a different place than our body,” Fonken said. “By taking just 30 seconds to slow down, you can bring all those senses into present awareness, and then continue to use those senses throughout your bird-watching experience.”

As you continue your adventure, try other mindfulness practices, such as:

Mindful walking: As you walk from place to place, try to do it mindfully. This means that you are aware of each step. Focus on your heel to toe slowly touching the ground, one step at a time.

Mindful listening: Close your eyes and notice the sounds around you. Notice the silence. Listen to sounds nearby and for sounds far away.

Mindful breathing: Stop and focus on your breath. In and out. How it fills up your lungs and how your belly goes in and out.

Dark-eyed Junco. Photo by Kari Strand, courtesy of Male Lark Bunting. Photo by Bill Schmoker, courtesy of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.
Dark-eyed Junco. Photo by Kari Strand, courtesy of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

“Mindfulness is accessible to anyone,” Fonken said. “Slow down, pay attention, be aware of what’s around you, use your senses and your breath. … You can even do mindfulness in line at the grocery store, just cast your eyes down and listen. Notice the colors around you. Centering yourself in your body and your space and bringing awareness to the present moment. It can calm you.

“Breath is something you always have with you. It’s a resource you have right there all the time.”

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.

ADVERTISEMENT