One of my wife's co-workers asked this question a few years ago. I guess his curiosity just got the better of him. Or maybe it was just total mystification. I think he thought of us as smart, fairly reasonable people but he just couldn't understand what we did, or why, when we went 'birdwatching.'
We spent the last week at Cape May, NJ, 'birdwatching' about eight hours a day for five days in beautiful, sunny 70 degree weather. I can't think of a more enjoyable vacation than being at Cape May, NJ in migration season with sunny weather. The accompanying photos are all from that trip.
In some ways I think that the pleasures of birdwatching parallel those of flyfishing for trout. Good trout streams are often in very beautiful areas. They are often quiet and uncrowded. So part of the appeal of both is just being outside, enjoying some of nature's most beautiful, and most quiet areas.
There is also the sense of sport or game. I suspect that my wife's co-worker thought that birds just pop out and pose for you. That is almost never the case. They are often hidden by leaves, tree branches, other more common birds, or they just won't sit still, as in the Magnolia Warbler below.
Sometimes you can just see part of them and have to use your knowledge of them to make a good guess as to their identification, as in the same Magnolia Warbler in another view.
At other times, as in the photo below, identification is a challenge of a different type. Just what are those specks high in the sky? Even binoculars or scopes may not have enough power to identify them clearly. In this case the larger bird is almost certainly an Osprey. The smaller bird is probably a Mississippi Kite, a bird we'd never seen before. But we couldn't be sure of this. Various clues like the manner of flight, color, shape, and the knowledge that more skillful birders had recently seen Mississippi Kites in the same area led to our tentative identification.
In other words you need skills similar to that of flyfishermen to both find and identify many birds. But like flyfishing half the pleasure is just being outside in such a beautiful environment. This is particularly true at Cape May.
One of the other pleasures is just the beauty of the birds themselves. Especially when seen in magnification through binoculars or a spotting scope almost any bird is beautiful. Even the feather pattern of a House Sparrow can seem striking when seen through binoculars. And if the bird is more colorful than a House Sparrow, such as a Blackburnian Warbler, their appearance when seen in magnification is breathtaking. I'm sorry to say that we didn't see any Blackburnians on this trip. A watercolor of one we saw on another birding trip however, sits atop this page.
Sometimes it is a more simple, graceful beauty as in the Snowy Egret below.
Sometimes the excitement is in just seeing a bird that you've never seen before, as in the Lark Sparrow below. Tbere is always a sense of wonder and discovery in birdwatching. Sometimes it is in seeing a new bird. Sometimes it is in seeing new behavior, as when we say nine Great Blue Herons in flight over The Meadows at Cape May. We think that they were heading off to roost but still need to read up a bit on this to confirm it.
Finally there is the pleasure of feeling connected to a larger world than that in which most people spend most of their time: that of nature. The predictable timing of bird migration, something particularly noticeable at Cape May, exposes people to another sense of time. It is a pleasure to feel part of a world that has its own unique rhythms. All in all there is the feeling of being part of a much larger world. Perhaps in fact what is birdwatching for us is peoplewatching for them.