This time last year, I could not tell you what this nondescript little brown duck swimming past our boat was. I remember the first time I really noticed and photographed one, and how I had no idea how to start looking for what it might be in my newly acquired Peterson's Field Guide to Birds.
Had it not been for a chance encounter last year, I wouldn't own the field guide, and I might not even know what I was missing. One Saturday morning, after a rainy night, I noticed that the sun was peeking through the clouds and I headed to Lakeside Park beach area with my camera. I do this when I have time, as it's close and visibility across the lake is good. Even though the park area on the backside of the beach is closed to drive-through traffic during the fall and winter months, it's possible to walk in and enjoy, many times without seeing another human soul - just deer and birds and other wildlife!
This particular day, I noticed as I was coming across the dam that there were vehicles and people all around the beach area, setting up spotting scopes and cameras on tripods. I wandered over to the lady closest to me and she explained that they were on a field trip with NETFO, which stands for Northeast Texas Field Ornithologists. She shared her scope and introduced me to the other members. They had special access to the back side of the area for the day, and allowed me to tag along through the park, look through their scopes and binoculars (I didn't yet own a pair), and didn't even shush me when I interrupted their listening for birds by speaking both too loudly and too frequently. (This I only realized later, in one of those "ah-ha" moments that can come after you've learned just a little more!)
I won't try to name everyone that I had the good fortune to meet this day; I might leave someone out or bungle a name, but I made some friendships that I value just by getting out and looking around. They were so patient with me, with one member saying "we were all right where you are at one time" with a "we all had to start somewhere" kind of attitude. Everyone was enthusiastic about sharing what they already knew!
In fact, I can now identify that little brown Pied-billed Grebe because I had taken a photo not long after that day, and sent it to a NETFO member that I had met for help with the ID. From the guide, I now also know that Podilymbus podiceps are fairly common, and are small brown divers with "chicken bills" and puffy white sterns. They are not as showy as many of the other ducks, but while sitting on the lake watching for a majestic Bald Eagle or an Osprey with a fish to fly over, it feels good to know what they are called and how they fit into our ecosystem.
That's the beauty of venturing outdoors - you never know what you might see and learn or who you might meet. I'm thankful for people who love nature and appreciate the diversity and the wonder that surrounds us here in east Texas, and who are willing to help others do the same!