Whitties Find Passion, Zeal in Birding
February 7, 2013
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Senior Matt Beatty is not a morning person, but early Saturday mornings find him at the trails around Bennington Lake, McNary National Wildlife Refuge or the Blue Mountains observing the birds in the area.
Beatty, an environmental humanities major, is an avid birder. He became interested in birding after taking Regional Natural History from Tim Parker in the biology department. Professor Parker sometimes leads birding trip for students, but according to Beatty it is often hard to get people into birding because the best time to watch birds is in the early morning and “it’s just hard to get college students up that early.”
Yet there are still some passionate Whitman students who love birds enough to make the early morning sacrifice. Alumna Clara Easter ’12 and first-year Megan O’Brien are two of those students that have a passion for birds that compels them to wake up at ridiculous hours and travel long distances to watch birds.
For Easter, O’Brien and Beatty birding is a family thing. Easter’s mom and her grandpa are both avid birders and she was inspired to start birding because of them.
“[Birding] was sometime that my mom and I could really connect over,” said Easter. “Being with my mom and sharing it with her made it that much more special. A part of me wanted to impress her; I wanted to be as good as [she and my grandpa] were.”
She has been on many birding trips with her mom and her grandpa; Easter and her gandpa took a recent trip to Canada to see a rare bird from Siberia, a lifer. A lifer is a bird that you have never seen before; for avid bird watchers seeing a lifer is important because they get to add it to their life list, a list many birders keep of all of the types of birds they have seen in their lives.
“When we found [the lifer] we turned and looked at each other and it was really a beautiful moment when you’re just like, ‘wow, these are really stunning creatures,'” she said
Beatty and his dad both love watching birds. They keep in touch via email about the birds that they see.
“It’s a nice bond, something we can share,” he said.
O’Brien and her mom became interested in birding together and have been on many trips all over the United States and Costa Rica together. One of her fondest memories of bird watching with her mom was when she and her mom went to Stockton, California to see the cranes.
“We drove out at zero dark thirty, and it was super foggy, and when the fog lifted there were thousands of cranes all over the field,” she said. “They all took off at once and you could not see the sky; it was really neat. I remember it really vividly; I have just never seen that many birds in one place at the same time.”
Every birder is different and there is a lot of variety in the way that people practice birding. Beatty goes out with his binoculars and walks slowly, identifying birds as he goes. Listening is an important part of birding and some people can even identify a bird by sound.
When first starting out Beatty said he always brought his field guide with him and used it to identify every bird that he saw, but birding has a fairly quick learning curve.
“It doesn’t take long before you recognize all the familiar birds of the area,” he said.
In addition to identifying birds, many birders keep life lists of all the birds they have seen.
“Birding is a good combo of keeping a list and then just going out there and birding because you love it,” said Easter. “There are a lot of different levels; everyone approaches it differently.”
Birding is about being observant, about noticing things that other people overlook in nature.
“You get absorbed into their world and you start noting all these things around you,” said Easter.
There are many active birding communities around the country; in Walla Walla the Blue Mountain Audubon Society leads trips once a month and gets local birders in contact with each other. People often use email listservs and online forums to report rare bird sightings to the birding community and discuss birding. Seeing rare birds is important to some birders, and there is always the excitement of seeing something unusual.
“There’s the normal species you expect to see when you go to Bennington Lake, but there is always the chance that you’ll see something really unusual,” said Beatty.
When an unusual bird is sighted people come from all around the area to see the bird. In September a Wilson’s Plover, which is native to the Gulf Coast, was sighted at Bennington Lake.
“It was funny, there were 20 birders form Seattle and Vancouver at Bennington Lake watching this bird,” he said.
Birders go to great lengths to see birds. According to Beatty, a common place to find birders in the Pasco area is at a pond near a feed lot that reeks of cow poop or at a nearby landfill because there are a lot of birds in those areas.
“I find birding to be pretty hilarious at times, just because the people that do it are often so funny; there’s something funny about driving four hours to see a little bird,” he said.
People do travel all over the world to see birds; there are even specific trips just for bird watchers.
“It’s a really supportive community; everybody who watches birds for the most part is just really compassionate and they take the time to make sure you know what you’re looking at,” said O’Brien.
All a person really needs in order to bird is to be observant.
“Birding opened up my eyes to those tiny little details that other people don’t see,” said Easter. “You are hyperaware of the birds around you.”
“My favorite part is that there are birds everywhere so even if I’m not birding, if I’m just walking downtown, I’ll see birds in the trees,” said Beatty. “It’s the type of happy that affects your whole life even when you’re not birding; you can’t help but notice the birds.”