Travel

Grab Your Binoculars and Your People, It’s Birding Szn

A new generation of urban birding clubs are not just eager to change the perception of birding-they're building inclusive communities around it.

Photo by Lanna Apisukh for Thrillist
Photo by Lanna Apisukh for Thrillist
Photo by Lanna Apisukh for Thrillist

In 2024, revenge travel is out. Finding peace, and your new passion, is in. This year is an opportunity to pump the brakes-to look up, turn in, get lost, ride along. We’ve collected 12 stories, each of which highlights a pursuit or experience that embodies this mindset. We hope they act as inspiration for the year to come-the beginnings of your very own 2024 mood board. In the fall of 2020, my roommate set up a bird feeder in our backyard with the hope of catching a glimpse of Boston’s airborne fauna. Stuck inside during our senior year of college, enduring both a pandemic and a nerve-racking election, we were desperate for a little solace and some passive entertainment. After a few days of shooing away ravenous squirrels, we welcomed our first guests: a pair of robins with rust-colored bellies followed by a few plump, peaceful bluebirds. We observed every guest that approached our windowsill with awe, drawing sketches of the birds with colored pencils that we hung up in our kitchen. What we were doing, I realized later, was birding-albeit a pandemic-era version.

We weren’t the only young people fostering this new hobby. “The 2020 pandemic and isolation had a big effect on people our age; it felt like my early 20s were, in a way, stolen by COVID,” says Hannah Kirshenbaum, who co-founded NYC Queer Birders with her friend Anna Kremer. “Birding was a way to reclaim the time that we were ‘losing.’ I think people were starving for the outdoors and community.”Historically, birding has been associated with groups whose members are older, particularly retirees seeking opportunities to get out of the house. Typically toting $1,000 binoculars and fancy cameras, people (primarily men) between the ages of 55 and 64 make up the largest community of birders, with an average annual income of $150,000 to $200,000. In these circles, gatekeeping rare species and competitiveness around life lists (the number of species a birder has seen in their lifetime) are fairly common and have contributed to the perception of birding as something of a solo hobby.Groups like NYC Queer Birders and Feminist Bird Club, which lead bird-watching outings throughout New York City, are not just eager to change the perception of birding-they’re building inclusive communities around it. “There’s a lot of elitism in birding, a lot of older white men in Tilley hats and fishing vests, showing off who has the most impressive checklist and gear. Feminist Bird Club was founded as a reaction to that,” says Maxwell Matchim, a member of the club.Founded in New York City in 2016, Feminist Bird Club has courted members who share a passion for birds, the environment, and social justice. The group, led by Molly Adams, has since expanded, with chapters across North America and Europe, and has raised and donated more than $100,000 to organizations like Honor the Earth, which supports Indigenous communities, and the National Network of Abortion Funds. Feminist Bird Club has also led walks in partnership with NYC Queer Birders. While people of all ages are welcome to tag along to either group’s gatherings, the participants tend to skew younger.In the past, birders had to rely on physical field guides to identify birds. Now, with the creation of apps like Ebird and Merlin, which map out hot spots around New York City (submitted by birders themselves) and help users keep a running list of their findings, birding is easier and more accessible than ever. The hobby has made its way into social media as well; Feminist Bird Club and NYC Queer Birders both maintain strong Instagram presences where they announce their future outings, and the hashtag #birdwatching has amassed more than 181.4 million views on TikTok. “In reality,” says Matchim, “anyone who appreciates birds in any capacity is a birder.”At Feminist Bird Club’s monthly gatherings, young birders from all around New York City congregate, ready to catch glances of finches and warblers hiding in the native grasses of greenspaces like Central Park and Greenwood Cemetery. I met up with them on a chilly Sunday morning at Shirley Chisholm State Park in Brooklyn, where members old and new introduced themselves. Experienced birders excitedly let me know that winter is “weird duck season,” where ruddy ducks, Canada geese, scaups, and more flee the Arctic tundra and wetlands for warmer bodies of water.We entered the park slowly, a cacophony of song sparrows setting the soundtrack. I quickly learned that in birding patience is a virtue. Binoculars raised to our eyes at all times, we stared intently at American kestrels and dark-eyed juncos so long that my arms started to cramp up. The focus has a payoff, though. In a frenzy, we all flocked to the shoreline to watch two bufflehead ducks squabbling. “Are they fighting? Or flirting?” the birders asked, as they imagined different scenarios for what they’d coined the “duck drama.” One of them leaned over to me and said with a laugh, “Birders like to project their feelings onto birds.”About an hour into my outing with Feminist Bird Club, it occurred to me that this was likely the longest I’d gone without checking my phone since I first got one as a teenager. In a world consumed by doomscrolling social media, spending two hours stalking birds instead of strangers on Instagram proved to be the perfect respite.

“When you’re birding, it’s almost like understanding another language,” says Matchim, who has met multiple friends and their partner through birding. “It’s an incredible way to help ground yourself and develop intimacy with natural spaces and other people.”

Unsurprisingly, studies have revealed that millennials and Gen Z are more prone to mental health problems than their older counterparts, due to a lack of socialization and a rise in screen time. Birding, and the mere presence of birds in urban areas, however, have been shown to improve our psychological well-being, reducing anxiety, depression, and stress. Living among concrete and skyscrapers especially, connecting with nature is not something that necessarily comes with the territory in New York City, nor does the busy lifestyle make it easy to find time for conservation efforts. For these urban birders, though, merely getting acquainted with local birds has empowered them to want to protect their environment.In the past, both Feminist Bird Club and NYC Queer Birders have collaborated with NYC Audubon, a grassroots community that works to protect wild birds and their habitats in the city’s five boroughs. Along with preserving the biodiversity of the more than 200 bird species that frequent the city, NYC Audubon hosts lectures and guides free birding outings, all with the mission to expose New Yorkers to the city’s plethora of underrated green spaces, like Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, which is more than three times the size of Central Park.

“Millennials and Gen Z have grown up in the context of constantly being aware of climate change and biodiversity loss and all these massive environmental issues, so there’s a real preciousness to being able to experience these birds,” Matchim says. “There’s almost this urgency to be like, ‘Well, if I don’t see this golden-winged warbler, I might not be able to in 10 years.’ Once you have a relationship with the environment around you, you want to protect it.”Along with their conservation work and programming, NYC Audubon works toward building green infrastructure and making the city more bird friendly, through getting legislation passed that requires city-owned buildings to turn their lights off at night to reduce bird collisions and protecting trees from being chopped down in Jamaica Bay and The Ramble. On an individual level, however, there are a myriad of ways young New Yorkers can get involved. “What’s good for birds is good for people,” says Roslyn Rivas, the public programs manager at NYC Audubon, “[like] planting native plants, buying locally, and not being too disruptive.”

As we made our way back around the park to Hendrix Creek, I paused to take one last look at the shoreline. A flock of ducks was waddling along the grass. A fellow birder told me that an easy way to identify birds was by their markings, but this flock looked pretty standard, with black heads and brown backs, resembling Canada geese. I raised my binoculars to get a better look, remembering that a white neck marking that resembled a pearl necklace differentiated Canada geese from brants-and there it was. I had identified my first bird in the wild, and suddenly it was as if I were seeing the world through a clearer lens. It reminded me of what Kirshenbaum had said: “Once you get into birding, you can never turn it off. It doesn’t matter where I am-if I see a little flutter in the corner of my eye, I’m going to investigate. It just makes being alive very exciting. I swear, it’s going to make us all live longer.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Kelsey Allen is an associate editor on the local team at Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.