A three day journey by boat to Attu
My Attu adventure starts on a wind-swept Aleutian isle
It's funny how the world works sometimes. I've been Facebook friends with Alison for at least a year and our worlds have almost crossed- almost, until today. As fate would have it, we both were waiting for separate flights in the Anchorage airport. I didn't pass up the opportunity to interview her for The Birding Project, and she happily obliged.
Why birding? What drives you to travel and watch birds?
It started out when I was 6, my parents took me out to look for ducks. I’m pretty sure they regretted doing that, because two weeks afterwards I saw a Short-eared Owl, and that was really cool. Let’s look for gulls, lets look for sandpipers, let’s look for warblers… so much for their weekend naps!
My family hunts a lot. I think that’s what birding was for me, is another form of hunting. You go out with a target in mind, and having to search for it and figure out how you’re going to find it, with weather conditions. You know that you’ve seen it, and you know that you’ve put in the work, and it’s on your list.
Guiding to me is actually more fulfilling than birding is. When you guide, and you show a bird to somebody that’s really wanted to see it for a really long time, it’s like seeing that bird for the very first time all over again. Knowing that you were instrumental in that process, and feeling that joy, and seeing their joy…
People bring new perspectives. Hearing their observations can expand my understanding on a bird that I am already familiar with.
I care a lot about the list of my clients. It’s exciting and I love it, but i’d be just as happy seeing that bird in Russia or Japan.
Has it been challenging to be a young female birder?
There’s definitely more layers of difficulty in that. I started going to bird camp when i was 16. It was like a lek. There were all these young male birders. I always felt like the only female grouse on the lek.
Fortunately it’s different now, there’s a lot of women birders. I’ve missed out on getting [birds] because I was a girl.
That was probably the first time i was painfully aware of the shortcomings of my gender.
It has it’s advantages too, I never have problems meeting birders… networking has been really easy. Going places and having a normal dynamic is sometimes harder.
I try to tear down those gender barriers, but it takes time.
Raymond is an awesome dude. I've tried to get together with him in New Mexico to learn about his work with Rosy Finches, but our schedules didn't mesh. I was glad to catch up with him at The Biggest Week in American Birding, and hang out with him for a little bit. Guys like Raymond add a little spice to the mixture of birders on the boardwalk. However, he's sharp as a tack and shares some valuable insights in our interview. Check it out below:
What’s your story?
Lots of mentors. The spark bird for me was a community of birds.
I was camping, about 7 years old in the pine forests in New Mexico. I was sitting there on this log in camp, I was whittling a stick and i saw this bright yellow flash out of the corner of my eye. I looked down, and on the same log I’m sitting on is a male Western Tanager. He’s perched there, kind of looks up at me, I looked down at him- a really calm exchange like it was clear i wasn’t going to hurt him. It fed along my side. It flew off and told my scoutmaster I just saw this amazing bird. He had a bird book, and he gave me his binoculars and bird book and said “have at it” I wandered off into the woods. I saw a Black-headed Grosbeak, I wandered off into the clearing and saw Western Bluebirds. I spent the afternoon hiking through this forest and having my eyes and ears opened to the world of birds.
That was the experience that just opened my eyes and made me focus on a specific type of organism. Through birds it’s allowed me to learn about the planet through travel and connection with people and with our planet.
What advice would you give to young birders or a new birder?
Get involved, and realize that even as a young birder there’s really nothing that you can’t do. You can affect change and you can really do a lot just as a young person.
When I was 13 years old i started this Rosy-Finch research study. it’s since become the largest of its kind and it’s connected people across N.M. in terms of becoming aware of birds, and conservation issues. That was all done as a young person. It was through having mentors to encourage me but also through not being limited by the fact that i was young, and being ok with exploring your passion and being who you are.
[Young birders should be] Getting out there and learning your local birds. Taking field notes. Drawing birds. Really studying individual birds I spent a lot of time when i was young sketching birds. There’s nothing like learning your local birds really really well. Understanding birds well allows you to offer so much to the birding community anywhere, really.
Birding is I think the best way to learn about the planet and learn to appreciate what we have. It gives me a focus to fight for. Because birds are everywhere. Whether you’re in the arctic or the tropical rainforest, or northwest Ohio, they are absolutely the indicator species that is easiest to study and the easiest for people to connect to. I think that is what allows us to really try to affect change, and fight for protecting what natural spaces are left on the planet, and changing the attitudes of people so that we can hopefully begin to restore what we’ve lost and restore human connection with nature through birds.
I met Dan at Magee Marsh in Ohio last week. If he didn't offer to drive me, I wouldn't have seen the Curlew Sandpiper. He didn't know that he would be interviewed for The Birding Project until after he heard my story. I'm glad he shared with me some pieces of his story, and now with his permission I can share some pieces with you!
How did you get started birding?
It’s all because I bought a camera.
I was working ungodly amounts of hours needed a break from that. I started taking pictures of birds because that’s what was out there. From there, it snowballed into a reason forgot going to work. It started in April, and there were birds everywhere.
Can you share some advice to a new birder or young birders?
Own every field guide you possibly can. So many people just use Google and look at apps, and post pictures to Facebook for someone else to I.D. Get a field guide and really use it. I have hundreds of field guides, i buy them everywhere i go. Book sales, garage sales. I’ve opened every one and gone through them because each one offers something different.
What’s a unique aspect about your experience as a birder?
I did a mini Big Year. To see more birds. I wanted to actually go out and see them.
I county list and I do like my lists, but I’ve had a little disdain with the listing. So many people sit around and wait for other people to find birds, and then go chase them. I like to go out and find them.
It depends on what day you ask me. It’s like a giant scavenger hunt. Every day you go out and you never quite know what you’re going to see. That’s what i like the most about it. It’s not the same thing every single day. At that point, I won’t do it any more, I’ll move on to moths and butterflies (laughs)
Only 12 years old, Elliot skipped school to visit Magee Marsh in Ohio to see some birds. You can tell from his smile that it's worthwhile!
Aren’t you supposed to be in school today?
Why did you come out here instead?
It just interests me, birding does.
How did you get started?
In Boy Scouts, I took the bird study merit badge, and that got me hooked.
Anything in particular you’re hoping to see today?
Not really, just looking!
Tell me about the process of how you create your artwork.
My goal is for every piece to be a story, because I really want that emotional moment of seeing a bird and seeing it as a living thing to be seen in the piece I make. My rule is I can’t paint a bird until I see it. Otherwise I would just copy it out of a field guide, because they do it perfectly.
What usually happens is I go out and I have an amazing day and I see something that really changes my life in a way. I think about it and I remember it and I go and try to draw the experience as I remember it, not looking at pictures or anything.
Then I throw down a lot of watercolor. I love using ink and watercolor and stuff that really runs. It’s out of control and you can let it do its own thing, kind of like the experience of birding where you have no control over anything and you hope that it works out.
Then I fill in the anatomical details so people know what it is. I want to make sure the bird gets recognized, because it’s their picture too.
Do you have a favorite bird to paint?
I love Turkey Vultures. They were a bird I really misunderstood. I grew up with the Lion King, and thought they were going to eat Simba, so they were mean.
I watched them soar and they were so amazing! They were sort of goofy when they walked around, and I watched them eat dead deer. I realized they’re turning the deer back into new life, they’re these really peaceful alchemists flying around cleaning up after us all. That was a really peaceful thought. I love them for that.
A serendipitous birder rendezvous at a rural Thrasher hotspot
He traveled the world and saw over 6,000 species- all in one year!
New birds, and a new National Park stamp in my passport!
A friendly face in Ohio's birding crowd
A Bay-breasted Warbler brings strangers together
He saw a need for a collegiate birder network, and started ICON!
Last year in 2015 I followed along as Dorian blogged about his modern-day birding adventure, biking 18,000 miles across the lower 48 doing a Biking Big Year.
I recently had a chance to interview him about his experience, but nothing substitutes to hearing about it from his point of view, so I encourage you to click the above link and see his journey.
I met Dorian last week on our Princess Cruise from L.A. to Vancouver, B.C. He wrote up a great summary of our Pelagic Cruise, which can be read on his blog, The Speckled Hatchback. A great read for anyone considering taking a repo cruise on the Ruby Princess.
What do you want people to know about your biking 'Big Year'?
I think it really is a modern day adventure. People think about doing that and real life and responsibilities get in the way. The fact that I took the risk and go and put my life on the line every day on America's roads and ride around really lends itself to adventure. That's the best thing about it.
I biked 18,000 miles in one year. The birds provided the excuse to do that. I had the chance to challenge myself and learn about myself along the way.
What advice would you give to a young birder?
Birds are only part of the picture. If you get tunnel vision on just birds you're missing the big picture of ecosystems- of evolutionary and conservation biology, and environmental stewardship.
Birds are a barometer as to how the planet is doing. Yes, they're aesthetically beautiful and fun to watch, but we need people to advocate on their behalf and on behalf of the natural places that we enjoy.
[We need to] live responsibly. That means not consuming a lot of stuff, not wasting a lot of stuff. Thinking about the choices that we make- transportation-wise, consuming-wise, food-wise, those kind of things. Birds are just a part of the picture.
Can Christian spot a California Condor hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon?
Round #3 in Arizona, targeting two tricky species near the Mexico border
I target birds because I like taking their pictures. They are a challenge, and I like challenges. I used to shoot birds, I did it once and then felt bad afterwards.
Smith began watching a pair of Bald Eagles nesting near him in Florida. They raised their young, and once they fledged he didn't have anything else to do so started to look around and finding other birds he hasn't seen. Starting with Blue Jays and Cardinald as a kid, Smith is now seeing exotic birds like the Cuban Vireo, a first North American record! (Pending acceptance by records committees)
A couple days of solid birding, pushing onwards to 550!
"Birding is experiencing life. Birds are always around you. No matter where you are you can always hear or see a bird. They're just this fixture of life around you."
I met Danny while quickly driving through South Llano River State Park. It's rare for me to meet birders my age in the field, and I had to take advantage of the opportunity to bird with them and try for the Golden-cheeked Warbler. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing it again!
The time quickly passed as we talked and shared stories, excitedly pointing out species new to Sarah, a smily and enthusiastic college student who joined Danny on the morning's quick jaunt. Although we didn't see the Golden-cheeked, I was thrilled to spend some time with this duo from Texas Tech and hope our paths cross again down the road!
A spiritual opportunity. It can do a lot of healing and growth. I bird so I can have an excuse to go to places like this. it's good for the soul, and the birds are cool too.
What would you share bird people about National Wildlife Refuges?
They are underutilized, which is great for birders, because there's hardly anyone there other than hunters part of the time. When you get there, talk to the wildlife biologist there always ready to talk, they will tell you where the hotspots are.
If you go to a major city on a business trip, there's got to be a refuge within an hour or two from you. Get a car and go there for half a day and you'll have a really good time.
I met Dennis the other day on my second or third trip to find the Thick-billed Vireo, which I ended up not seeing. Some birds you end up never seeing! He wrote a book on National Wildlife Refuges of the West. I wish I could share our whole interview as he had many neat insights into Birding. However, using Siri to write blog posts while driving, and updating and editing them in the car during a downpour in Texas is quite the task! I have 7 or 8 more blog posts on the way- from birders in 8th grade to almost 80!
Internet in Houston tonight...