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Confessions of a Missionary Birdwatcher

Jesus said to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). It’s a command, a Greek imperative, a motivated mandate from our Savior. In the same Greek verb form, Jesus also said, “Look at the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26). But mysteriously, when you’re having pre-trip meetings for a short-term mission trip, this second verse is conveniently omitted in the team preparations — no doubt the first step on the slippery slope to apostasy.

OK, so let’s be honest. Not all second-person aorist imperatives in the Bible carry the same weight. Making disciples of all nations surely outranks other scripturally-spoken commands like “Bring the cloak I left with Carpus at Troas” (2 Timothy 4:13) or “Use a little wine for the sake of your stomach” (1 Timothy 5:23), or (dare I admit it?) the one about birdwatching. Be that as it may, for an ornitheologist, “his commands are not burdensome,” (1 John 5:3) and my packing list for a mission trip always includes a pair of binoculars and a field guide.

When I explain these two items to the people I meet on these trips, the usual response is a blank stare. You look at birds? For fun? A passion for international cuisine, or World Cup Football, would be a lot easier to play off. But I long for the day when my fumbling attempts to explain this hobby are met with a vigorous nod, a high-five, a flurry of excitement. In my dream scenario, someone will speak up from the crowd of VBS children, or community of refugees, or classroom of indigenous church leaders around me and say, “Of course! How absolutely normal! And by the way, have you seen the nest of Yellow-faced Grassquits behind our church? Here, pastor, let us show you!” The subsequent conversation will flow freely and effortlessly between the radical claims of the gospel on our lives, and the feeding preferences of the local tanager population.

It rarely plays out quite exactly like that.

Matthew 6:24 says, “You cannot serve both God and your life list.” Or at least something like that. If you keep the main thing the main thing in your gospel commitments, a mission trip will not land you a lucrative list of new species. Unless you’re John Stott, I guess. Stott was a world-renowned theologian and birder — the one who coined the term “ornitheology” — and when he traveled, his hosts enjoyed taking him to exotic bird locations as a thank-you for his ministry to them. For my own part, being neither a famous theologian nor a renowned birder, it’s a bit awkward to tell your host church, “And now, take me to your Snowy Owls.”

Resourceful birding in Honduras, 2019.

This explains many of the aberrations on my life list. A fellow birder might look at my eBird stats and ask, “Why do you have just one bird logged in Brazil?” Because it was a busy week of painting, evangelism, and mime ministry (yes, I said mimes), and because that one Toco Toucan was very obliging (despite the mime stuff). “You were in Honduras for a whole week and only managed to tally 19 birds? How is that even possible in such a bird-rich country?” Because the garbage dump that we were ministering in (no exaggeration here; it was literally a garbage dump) didn’t have a lot of wildlife. “Why is Malaysia so under-represented on your life list? You were there ten days, right?” Yes, and did you know that they close national parks for Ramadan? Yeah, neither did I, until after the one-hour taxi ride dropped us off at a closed gate.

There’s kingdom ministry represented on that life list; it shows itself in a lack of actual birds, for the gain of joyously pursuing the greater commandments. But that doesn’t mean I’m not looking, seizing what small opportunities might avail themselves. When birding isn’t the main purpose of your trip — and when you’re traveling with non-birders — you have to become hyper-aware, stealthy, birding in the margins. In fact, the birds practically have to come to you, because you’re not likely to find time to come to them.

My most recent example: I was in Poland earlier this month, partnering with several evangelical ministries there and seeing the Polish church in action. A birding friend saw my ministry photos on Facebook and mentioned, “I bet you’re seeing some amazing new birds there, right?” Well, not exactly. And so, having already reported to my church on the typical post-trip ministry highlights, let me provide a different sort of travelogue on a more minor theme: the exploits of a birdwatcher on a mission trip.

It's a crane.

>>> FRIDAY MORNING: Connecting flight in Munich. I could log my first German bird if I could see even a simple House Sparrow on the tarmac. Alas, despite a two-hour layover, the only bird anywhere near this terminal is the logo on the Lufthansa jets. What is that anyway, a stork? A crane? Yes, a crane. Likely a Common Crane, Grus grus, endemic to central Europe. I become aware of the fact that I’m trying to do a field I.D. on a corporate trademark. This seems a little desperate.

>>> FRIDAY AFTERNOON: On landing in Poznan, I catch the fleeting silhouette of a small bird of prey hovering over the grass. Small. Hovering. My field guide says Eurasian Kestrels hover, often at airports. The glance was mere seconds, but nonetheless I claim it as a lifer, and my first bird of Poland. The airport is otherwise devoid of bird life, except for a few of those stylized Lufthansa cranes.

>>> SATURDAY: The dawn breaks on my first day in Poland, and I open my hotel window to look out on the cobbled streets of downtown Poznań. A flurry of wings welcomes me, circling from the red-rustic rooftops. Rock Pigeons. Ah, good ole’ Columba livia, the faithful friend of downtown birders worldwide. They descend in droves on a woman across the street, who pulls her coat tighter and picks up her pace. Saturday bird count: one bazillion pigeons.

Urban birding.

>>> SUNDAY: Pigeons abound, lining every rooftop, staring down on the open square in ominous Hitchcock fashion. I’m already over it with the pigeons. We walk to church — a brisk thirty minutes through the charming streets and local monuments of the city. I enjoy conversation with the members of my team, all the while listening in the background for birdsong. Pigeon-cooing is interspersed with occasional caws of crows and magpies. I mentally add them to my list, doubling my Poland species count to date.

>>> MONDAY: We are touring a facility on the outskirts of town. There are some trees — a decidedly better habitat than three days of airports and city streets. The group is momentarily distracted with a bathroom break, so I pull out my phone and act like I’m reading an important e-mail, when in actuality I’m opening my Merlin Bird ID app and recording the ambient noise to listen for birdsong. Merlin informs me that there is a Goldcrest, a Eurasian Robin, a Common Chaffinch, and a Black Redstart in that hedge of fir trees over there. I see some slight inconclusive movement. The group is reassembling and beginning to wonder where their pastor went. I claim the Goldcrest and hide the binoculars.

>>> MONDAY AFTERNOON: We’re walking to lunch alongside a lake. A lake, mind you! I nonchalantly tuck the binoculars under my coat and try to look normal as I fall behind a few steps. In the ten-minute walk I claim two Great Crested Grebes on the lake and a raucous flock of Greater White-Fronted Geese flying overhead, all the while trying to keep the rest of my team within sight so as not to look either aloof or lost. Merlin also taunts me with yet another Common Chaffinch that is nowhere to be seen (To my European readers, please don’t laugh when I admit that the chaffinch would be a lifer for me. I don’t ask for much).

>>> TUESDAY: Today we gather donated food from a food bank and several vendors and prepare it for afternoon distribution. At the first stop, hefting boxes of radishes into the team van, I’m grateful for the Black Redstart that surveys our work from the adjacent rooftop. Merlin also suggests there’s a chaffinch nearby, but I’m beginning to wonder if Merlin is taunting me.

>>> WEDNESDAY: Polish countryside! Today we are digging drainage ditches for two “tiny homes” built for Ukrainian refugee families. Digging in Poland is like running your shovel through potting soil — a far more satisfying and productive experience than the rocky red clay of my North Carolina yard. When others take water breaks, I break for birds: five minutes here, ten minutes there. Eurasian Jays do regular flyovers (lifer!) and a raven croaks his way across our field. Alleged chaffinches ping the Merlin app, but I’m not buying it. If I knew what I was looking at, or had a knowledgeable local birder at hand, or had some time to kill, this would be my finest Polish birding moment. But instead, let me assure you, you would be proud of the impressive trench we dug. It is a thing of beauty.

>>> THURSDAY: Rain. Chilly. Pigeons.

>>> FRIDAY: Train to Warsaw. Here, finally, is my opportunity to venture well outside the confines of the pigeon-and-crow city and truly embrace that biblical command to consider the birds. However, I have underestimated the speed of the train. I log a few Eurasian Jackdaws at the first station, but for the rest of the three-hour ride I mostly see a lot of dark-greyish blurry things with dark-greyish wings silhouetted against a dark-greyish sky. Wait, there’s a flock of… something. And there’s a soaring pair of… something.

Train birding

>>> FRIDAY MORNING: The window of our AirB&B opens to a typical Warsaw study in contrast—the modern backdrop of skyscrapers against the haggard foreground of neglected Soviet brick apartment walls. The architecture showcases the recent efforts to rebuild the… Wait, is that a birdfeeder on the sixth floor? I spend the next twenty minutes with binoculars trained on the porch of this kindred spirit. One lone Great Tit appears to have the whole feeder to himself. It’s only one bird, but it might be the only color in this strange dark alley. I log the sighting, with a few pigeons thrown in for good measure.

>>> SATURDAY: There are sparrows in the Old Town Market Square of Warsaw, and a local outdoor artist sells paintings of them. I snap a curious photo of a sparrow who is admiring the sparrow art; he seems to approve, so I buy a small painting. This may be the most birder thing I’ve done all week. We ride the train back; I count blurry shapes in the sky and don’t even bother logging a checklist. I did see some cranes, but they did not look as advertised in the Lufthansa ads.

A Eurasian Tree Sparrow and patron of the arts

>>> SUNDAY: Last full day of the trip. Before services, I walk to a local park on a cold and windy morning. The wind makes any Merlin sound recordings nearly impossible and yet this AI bot still confidently reports a chaffinch. They’re apparently everywhere and yet nowhere, hiding in plain sight. I decide to make one more pass through the park before heading back.

And suddenly there is a surreal minute, a hypnotic momentary now, when the sun stands still through the clouds and the stiff wind softens to a whisper, a hush that heralds the appearance of two Eurasian Nuthatches (a lifer) on the tree directly in front of me, picture-perfect flashes of color, and a Middle Spotted Woodpecker (a lifer) alights above me on a neighboring tree, a freshly-made shaft of light revealing every contrast of red-on-black-on-white, and when I look back down I discover that two Common Wood-Pigeons (a lifer) have landed directly in my path, and all the full-hearted contentment of an outstanding week of gospel ministry with inspiring and visionary leaders is met with a last-minute divine gift to one who desired to both go into all the world to make disciples, and also not forget to consider the birds.

>>> MONDAY: Flight home. Once again, there are no sparrows in Munich. Only a Cranus lufthansas.


If you enjoy reading this blog, may I ask you to consider a “thank you” to either of two outstanding causes that will make a difference for the people of Poland (as well as the two million Ukrainian refugees that currently call Poland home)?

The first is the partner ministry that my team supported on-site: Bread of Life Foundation. They are doing holistic work in the city of Poznań and beyond, providing food assistance, transitional housing, children’s camps, refugee care, relational support for orphanages, and so much more, with beautiful gospel motivation. I am humbled to call these servants friends.

Evangelical Poland is a unique partnership of denominations and ministries working together to engage their country with the gospel. The vision is stunningly ambitious, and the need is soberingly dire. I am especially eager to see them raise the funds to purchase a retreat center that would act as a ministry hub for the entirety of Western Poland, as well as shared space for a church that would serve the local area: 154,000 people with absolutely no evangelical church presence.

Would you consider making a donation, no matter how small, to encourage and support either of these efforts? And feel free to tell them where you heard about them.

I'm grateful to continue working alongside these ministry partnerships, and hope to return someday soon. Plus, I still need to locate a Common Chaffinch…

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