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OPINION

Birdwatching with 20-20 hindsight

One morning, my husband comes home and says, ‘The birds are different.’

A clutch of blue-gray gnat catchers await a meal of insects.
A clutch of blue-gray gnat catchers await a meal of insects.Jane Gamble/The Washington Post

One of my husband’s great pleasures this spring has been birdwatching, and one of my great pleasures is listening to him talk about what he has been seeing. He goes out very early in the morning, and when he comes back an hour or two later he takes off his mask, washes his hands, and gives me the report. “Two black-crowned night herons, a warbling vireo, and I heard a wood thrush,” he says one day.

Another morning: “A whole flight of yellow-rumped warblers, a pair of orchard orioles, and a solitary sandpiper.”

“Is that the name of the bird, or are you being poetic about having seen only one of them?” I ask.

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He tells me it’s the name of the bird.

A Carolina wren
A Carolina wrenJane Gamble/The Washington Post

He makes a pot of coffee and pulls out the brown case he has had since he was 9, where he keeps his ancient “Peterson Field Guide to Birds” and a little white card, replaced every New Year’s Day with another little white card, on which is printed a checklist of all the species found in Eastern North America. The case also holds a stubby pencil he uses to check off every new addition to this year’s list, along with the date. My husband has a backlog of these cards, dating back to 1965 — a 9-year-old’s careful yet exuberant check marks. He learned birdwatching from his grandmother, who used to stride out with him into New York’s Central Park early in the mornings before he went to school.

But one morning he comes home and says, “The birds are different.”

I think he’s going to talk about how the birds mean so much more to him during this spring of the coronavirus pandemic, or about how much more closely he is observing their plumage and listening to their songs — all things he has, in fact, been saying for the last few months. But what he goes on to say is, “There are species living here now that, when I was a kid, used to be Southern birds.”

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The turkey vulture, the black vulture, the red-bellied woodpecker, the blue-gray gnatcatcher, the Carolina wren, and the mockingbird — these, my husband tells me, were birds that he never saw in New York as a child, and was excited to spot when his mother would take him on birdwatching trips to Brigantine, on the southern coast of New Jersey.

A red-bellied woodpecker
A red-bellied woodpeckerMatthew J. Lee

But as New England has warmed, the habitat of these birds has shifted gradually, decade by decade, to the north, so that now they are living in Boston. Scientists have recorded these shifts, and my husband has noticed the changes, but this is the first time he’s said it aloud to me. And I realize that, over the course of 55 years of birdwatching and recording his findings on these little cards, my husband has been unconsciously creating a personal record of climate change.

Disasters occur at different speeds. An earthquake takes only a few seconds and yet can topple cities. A hurricane does its damage in the course of a day. We’ve been watching a pandemic rip through the world’s population over several months. But there’s another disaster happening, one that started before we were born and has been unfolding in slow motion over our lifetimes.

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A turkey vulture
A turkey vultureRichard Johnson/Mass Audubon

The effects of climate change are virtually impossible to detect in our daily lives. We can watch alarming images on our screens of melting polar ice caps, of wildfires in Australia, California, and Siberia. Or we can look at numbers on a graph, showing worldwide trends of higher temperatures and rising sea levels over the course of the last 50 years. But here, I suddenly understand, is climate change made visible if we only know where to look: the Carolina wren singing in the backyard, the turkey vulture floating high above Route 2.

When my husband goes out this spring to look at birds, he’s doing something that he finds both peaceful and disturbing. He’s looking back to those Central Park mornings with his grandmother, but he’s also looking ahead to the uncertain future: the grandchildren we may one day have, and the unimaginable, damaged world they’ll live in.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.