On a recent chilly fall morning, a small group of birders set out for a mindfulness bird walk in the amber light and muted tones of the Bowdoin Pines. The first noise they heard as they approached the forest path was the trill of a chickadee.
“As soon as you walk into the woods, you hear that,” Ben West ’16 said appreciatively. (He started the Huntington Bird Club on campus last year in his first year at Bowdoin.)
Organized by staff clinician Bobby Carnicella, of Bowdoin Counseling Services, the mindfulness nature walk was a chance for students or staff to look for birds — mostly warblers and crows this time of year — while practicing the skill of staying in the present.
Carnicella pointed out that most of us scurry across campus, distracted by our thoughts of the groceries we need to buy or the meeting we just had. Mindfulness is about letting these thoughts pass through you, focusing instead on the cold air against your cheek or the cloud of your breath, Carnicella described.
That is, most of us hurry through life. But not West, Carnicella teased, “who has gotten so good at listening and watching.”
West replied, “The worst thing is when I hear something and have to go to class.”
Birding is a particularly good way to focus on what’s around you, Carnicella said. Becoming attuned to the subtleties of nature requires alertness. At the same time, becoming mindful can make one even more appreciative of nature. “A spirit of curiosity will arise as we get better at being here and observing what’s around us,” he noted.
On this morning, two black-throated blue warblers flitted about the understory of the Pines. Carnicella admired how their midnight-blue feathers shone in the light.
Walking on, West remarked that noises took on a different timbre in the old-growth forest. “They’re sweeter,” he said. “Maybe because of the pine needles?” After hearing the caw of a blue jay, he added, “That call sounds different, a little more filtered. It loses its hard edge.”
The walkers admired a snag, a dead tree pockmarked by pileated and downy woodpeckers. The birds had left the tall trunk partly stripped of bark and dotted with many small and big holes.
At one point, Carnicella reminded everyone to take a deep breath, to breathe in the cool, moist and soil-scented air. “Mindfulness is tough; it takes practice,” he said. But with practice comes the benefits, he explained: less anxiety, less judgement, greater self-acceptance‚ and perhaps a warbler sighting.