Photo credits: Dr. Robert Ho, UCSF '91

Practicing wellness through birdwatching and photography

I grew up in Heredia, Costa Rica, one of the richest coffee-producing cities in the country. Costa Rica has over 900 bird species, which account for 10% of the earth’s avian population diversity. Being surrounded by beautiful flora and fauna and being huge nature lovers, my dad and I would wake up early to go birdwatching. Later, in undergrad at the University of California – Irvine, I took bird biology and was able to learn and identify many bird species in California, which led me to continue birdwatching throughout college and in dental school. Here are some of the benefits I experienced as a result.

Practicing mindfulness

Incorporating birdwatching into my weekly routine is a great way to get outside and practice mindfulness. It helps me understand and appreciate my surroundings, and being outside provides me with comfort, a sense of well-being and connects me to nature. Research has shown that participants who listened to bird songs were more relaxed than those who listened to a meditation app. Another study found a positive correlation between the number of birds and trees in an area and residents’ mental health. Not only will birdwatching help you with stress recovery, but it is a great way to improve your physical wellness by going on a moderately paced walk or a hike.

Becoming environmentally aware

Birdwatching lets you explore and become aware of the number of bird species in an area. There are many birdwatching apps that can help you identify and record the number of species that you’ve seen on your walk. By observing and recording birds with one of these apps (such as eBird, a project of Cornell Lab of Ornithology), you can help scientists understand the impact of environmental changes and trends in breeding successes. Not only are you contributing to the understanding of bird species and conservation, but you are also taking a break from studying to enjoy the outdoors.

Photo credits: Dr. Robert Ho, UCSF ’91

Developing attention to detail

It took me hours of studying for our dental morphology class to detect differences in a tooth’s tilt and noting small traits from different perspectives such as buccal or occlusal views. Much like the details that make each tooth unique and knowing each cusp and specific dental anatomy, after birdwatching continuously, you can fine-tune this observation. You will slowly become aware of different bird characteristics such as the seasonal changes in a bird’s plumage, their beaks’ shapes, and their webbed or palmate feet. You will develop an attention to detail while noticing these hard to see field marks.

Telling a story

If you continuously photograph in an area, you are likely to see the same birds. Of course, the birds you see may change with each season, but by paying them a visit, you will learn more about a species’ behavior, and you can create images that tell a story. When quickly grabbing your camera or binoculars to get the bird shot you have been waiting for, you are also practicing your reflex speed. Exercising your reflex speed will improve the time it takes you to capture these quick moments in nature or in your day-to-day photography.

Practicing mindfulness in this way will give you the state of mind you need as a provider to care for and comfort the patients we serve. Taking a mental break outside will make you feel refreshed and ready to tackle your next midterm or crown prep. The skills used for bird photography, such as developing your attention to detail and reflex speed, can translate to excellent skills that can be used in the dental operatory as well. There are many benefits to birdwatching, but the most important is taking good care of our minds to be the best providers we can be to best serve our patients and communities. Always make time to take care of yourself by going outside. You never know what surprises you will find along the way!

~Nicole Iribarren, San Francisco ’23

Nicole Iribarren

Nicole Iribarren is a D2 at UCSF School of Dentistry and serves as chapter vice president and district 11’s membership co-chair.

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