Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Twist on an Old Cliche': Like Son, Like Father

                        It was in the heart of the Ozarks that my wife Martha and I made the most important decision of our lives. We chose to have children! At the time there was no way to truly grasp how this decision would profoundly shape the direction of our lives. Early on, however, it became very evident that parenting is not a simple transfer of knowledge and awareness from parent to child. Rather, it is a mutual exchange of experiences that shapes all of us forever. Clearly, our children unknowingly transformed us in countless and irreversible ways.   Both of them, Nathan and Laura, throughout childhood and into adulthood, instill in me a sense of wonder.  They both are environmental educators today, and continue to teach me their own lessons about the outdoors.  In the coming weeks, I've decided to write about both of them.

            This is the story of raising a birder, my son, and how birds became a part of our entire family’s life.  This was not because we necessarily wanted to learn about birds, but rather because of our then pre-school son Nathan’s fascination with feathered creatures.  Through his formative years, birding dominated his thoughts and impacted the rest of our family.  Our vacations centered around birding hotspots, as we would often combine birds, beaches, and interesting cities to make sure fun was had by all. 

            It is my observation that the best birders have an inborn, natural ability that the rest of us do not possess.  I personally was not born a birder.  I started at age 39 because my 12 year old son wanted to bird.   I still work very hard to differentiate species by song, field marks, habitats, and behavior.  Every spring I have to relearn much of what I previously thought I had committed to memory.  Once I was a general lover of the outdoors, fascinated by the beauty and complexity of all of nature.    Now I am an avid birder, but I am still fascinated by the beauty of all things natural.

            However, my son Nathan, now 32, was born a birder.  His earliest drawings were of birds and their cousins, the dinosaurs.  A precocious reader, he journeyed to the library weekly to amass a pile of dinosaur, bird, and nature-related books.   One of his favorites was Mr. Popper’s Penguins.  I remember laughing hysterically at the adventure of penguins held captive in a refrigerator.  In the 5th grade, he won an author’s contest when he wrote a book about a family of penguins that were caught on a shrinking iceberg as it floated with its flightless inhabitants along the Humboldt current from Antarctica, up the coast of South America, and on to the Galapagos Islands. 
            I wasn’t surprised when Nathan began his bird life list at the age of 12.  He didn’t begin his list in our home state of Missouri, but his interest was piqued during a spring break visit with his winter Texan grandparents in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
 Nathan at Santa Ana NWR in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, 1992
The Green Jays, Plain Chachalacas, and Altimira Orioles in the trailer loop at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park provided the magic spark that turned his literary interest into a full-fledged passion to seek out and discover new birds in the field.  I became his driver, and his passion for birds lured me willingly into the field as often as possible.
            It was the summer of the same year that he was introduced in summer school to Rebecca Matthews, long time birder, Audubon Society of Missouri officer,  and a founding member of the Greater OzarksAudubon Society.  That fall we joined GOAS, and participated in our first ever Christmas Bird Count in Greene County.  We were so excited to be part of the Fellows Lake team of experienced birders!  Only a week later, we were participating on a CBC team in Taney County, led by Rebecca Matthews.  Nathan spotted and identified a Palm Warbler, which became his first independent documentation write-up.  The sighting was accepted by the Missouri Bird Records Committee. 
Christian County Headliner, June 1, 1994
            In the spring of 1994, the internet became a nationwide sensation.  Both Nathan and I were contributing to the new Birdchat listserv, and our collective knowledge of birds was rapidly expanding.  It was during this time that we met two people who impacted Nathan’s birding future dramatically.  Mark Goodman and Susan Hazelwood, both officers in the Audubon Society of Missouri, notified us via email that the young person selected to receive an American Birding Association scholarship to Victor Emanuel Nature Tour’s Camp Chiricahua was unable to attend.  Would Nathan like to apply? 
  Nathan Swick (in the center) at VENT Camp Chiricahua, 1994
            The rest is history.  The birding community of Missouri rose to the occasion and with a $500 scholarship from the American Birding Association, $250 from Audubon Society of Missouri, and $250 from Greater Ozarks Audubon Society,  Nathan headed to SE Arizona to participate in the VENT Camp Chiricahua for youth birders.  It was a joint ABA, ASM, and GOAS investment in the future that paid off for both Nathan and the birding community as a whole, but not until after his ten year hiatus from birding. 
Fidra Island, North Berwickshire, Scotland

            In the summer of 1995 we took a family trip to Great Britain where we birded our way across Scotland; visiting birding hotspots;  Bass Rock, Fidra Island, St. Abb’s Head, and the Isle of Skye.   Soon after this trip, the demands of an active high school and college life placed birding on Nathan’s back burner for a decade.   It was during his honeymoon in Asheville, NC, in 2005, that the sighting of a Black-throated Blue Warbler at close range reignited the flame that he had felt as a youth, and he hasn’t looked back since.  His life in North Carolina has been bird-filled.

Birding in Costa Rica with my son Nathan, 2007

            In 2007, Nathan began The Drinking Bird blog which quickly placed him in contact with the nation’s best birders, and established him as a valuable contributor to the bird blogging world.  It was not long after that he became the southeastern U.S. birding representative for the most popular bird blog in the world, 10,000 birds.  He currently serves as coordinator of the American Birding Association Blog .  In addition, he is the eBird Reviewer for North Carolina, is active in the ChapelHill Bird Club, and works to develop future ornithological leaders by co-sponsoring the Young Naturalist’s Club of the Wake County Audubon Society.  He is truly one of a growing group of outstanding young birders who have developed their skills both in the field directly and online.  The merger of technology and direct field work is their domain, and they are taking the birding world in new and exciting directions.

            And then there’s me, the driver and the fortunate dad of the young birder.  I am a birder today because I parented a natural born birder.  Furthermore, I work with youth in the Green Leadership Academy for Diverse Ecosystems (GLADE)project, which I co-founded and currently co-direct.  The project is likely an extension of the interest in birds that developed within me when I took to the field with my young birding son.  At least, I have to give him partial credit for the bird focus in this conservation leadership development project.  The overall mission of the Green Leadership Academy for Diverse Ecosystems (GLADE) is to care for Ozarks ecosystems, to develop future community leaders, and to improve the quality of life through conservation and educational efforts throughout the Ozarks.  Specifically, our GLADE youth restore giant cane habitat in hopes that the Swainson’s Warbler will return to a small portion of the White River watershed.   It is very appropriate that the same Audubon Society of Missouri that encouraged Nathan as a teen, supports GLADE’s work to restore critical habitat for Missouri’s endangered species and to develop leaders that will positively impact the future of ornithology and avian conservation.  But then, that’s what ASM has always done.  It is this long term work of advocacy and action that gives ASM, ABA, and GOAS a special place in our family’s heart.  They helped to raise our son, and led him in the direction of his dreams. 
            The moral of the story is this.  A seemingly random act of kindness, as taken in the mid 1990’s by ASM leaders Mark Goodman, Susan Hazelwood, and Rebecca Matthews, aimed at a young birder and accompanied by a genuine concern for the birds themselves, rippled outward, resulting in new and progressive leadership within the bird conservation community.   Just like then, our investment today in youth birding and conservation can truly make a positive impact.            Will our children and grandchildren continue the enduring legacy that Missouri birders have created  and thereby experience the joyful song of the Swainson’s Warbler along a clear Missouri Ozarks stream?  As always, it’s up to us.  The answer lies within the motto of the Audubon TogetherGreen program:  Our actions today shape tomorrow.

Monday, May 21, 2012

When the student is ready.....

           His song rang out like a cathedral bell at dawn.  A rush of adrenaline increased our momentum as we descended toward the spring branch.  Again, his alluring melody arose from this lush cane sanctuary.  We stopped to capture this moment, to feel the intensity of this melody.  This bird was no ordinary bird, and this quest was no ordinary quest.   
            This quest required many years of searching, and this bird impacted my life’s journey, even before I knew it existed.   When I became aware of its existence and searched repeatedly for it, it eluded me.  Somehow I sat back on my laurels, believing that I could encounter this species like the first robin of spring.  By the time I realized that this would not be the case, the years had passed and the miles of driving cross country and hiking through dense cane labyrinths had accumulated.  I recognized that I would come to this bird only when the species, and I, were ready.  “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” I recalled in some lost bit of literature.  
            I was joined this day by my friend and colleague Andrew Kinslow.  We had time to prepare, as several reports from the area confirmed the bird’s presence, but none of the seekers before us came away with more than a fleeting glance of this “King of Camouflage”, the Swainson’s Warbler.  Learning from those who had gone before us, we quickly quelled our desire to rely upon digital playback.  On this day, by broadening our perspective and fully understanding the nature of this encounter, we developed a more appropriate strategy. 
            With my lawn chair and Andrew’s camping stool, my journal and his book, my river shoes and his bare feet, and our cameras and binoculars in hand, we traversed the bubbling stream, and listened for the effervescent warbler song rising above the stream’s din.  We approached the repetitive melody, settling into a marginal clearing within the dense Giant Cane that towered 18-20 feet above us.  We were determined to stay as long as necessary for the bird to welcome us into its lair.
            Birder Matt Andrews soon arrived (I knew him from previous shared viewings of shorebirds, and most recently, a California Gull he discovered in the Ozarks last fall).  We first saw Matt following the bird’s call from tree to tree.  When the warbler returned to our location at the center of canebrake, Matt approached us, and we invited him to join us.  It was a winning combination!
            The warbler flew from perch to perch without giving even a slight clue.  We were amazed at his uncanny ability to fly undetected over and over again.  However, within 15 minutes, Matt exclaimed in a near whisper, “I got him”.  He patiently lowered his binoculars to give us visual clues to the bird’s location on a bare limb 30 feet above the ground, just above the canopy of the canebrake.  Its long, pointed bill stood out as its most obvious field mark, but we basked in our view of its chestnut cap, it light supercilium, and dark eyeline.  All three of us watched in awe as the bird sat in an unobstructed clearing, singing every 10-12 seconds during one of those “eternity in a moment” experiences.  In reality, probably 2-3 minutes elapsed before the bird moved on, continuing its circuitous route.   
            This warbler broke all of our stereotypes for the cryptic skulker.  It was amazingly cooperative, and truly did not appear to care that we were there to observe its daily activity.  This experience gives me an opportunity to say a word or two about the birding world’s current obsession with playback devices.  First, I am not opposed to the proper and ethical use of such devices.  In fact, I use mine frequently.  But, I think it’s important to note that we should do our best to understand each individual species before, and not after, we visit their habitat.  Prolonged use of calls or using them at high volumes (birds hear quite well) serves only to stress the avian creatures we love so much to experience, and desire so deeply to preserve.  The best approach to many species, especially threatened or endangered species like this Missouri Swainson’s Warbler, reflects the Buddhist Proverb earlier sited:  “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  So do your homework, your field work, and your soul work.  Truly we are the bird’s students, and our most satisfying nature experiences and lessons come when the paths of birds and us naturally converge and leave lasting imprints on our lives.   

            A Footnote:
            It may sound like it, but the Swainson's Warbler was not the only bird we saw.  Here is Andrew's photo of a Hooded Warbler!
            Long before this day when I heard and then saw this life bird, the Swainson’s Warbler, I was called by its haunting melody.   For several years, I traveled to the most predictable Swainson’s Warbler location in Missouri at the Greer Access of the Eleven Point River.   More recently, I traveled to Howell Woods in North Carolina to view the bird in NC’s most reliable Swainson’s habitat.  But the student, apparently, was not ready, and the teacher…. Or bird, did not appear. 

            Four years ago, the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society developed a project to restore critical habitat for Missouri’s endangered Swainson’s Warbler.   The Green Leadership Academy for Diverse Ecosystems (GLADE), of which I am a founder and co-director, is far more than a bird camp that restores riparian cane habitat, but its roots are there in the canebrakes, which diminished in an age of reservoir creation and food plot biology in the White River Basin.  With the disappearance of the cane, so went the Swainson’s Warbler.  The last Swainson’s Warblers nesting at the Drury-Mincy Conservation Area, an Important Bird Area where GLADE is held, was over ten years ago.

            In GLADE, we are training a new generation of conservation leaders who currently work in riparian cane restoration to bring back a species few will ever see.  Even those who attend the academy have a very small probability of seeing what we saw this day.  Still, these young conservationists work tirelessly for the day when the song of the Swainson’s Warbler echoes off the limestone bluffs that rise above our Ozarks streams.    Last spring University of Missouri Bird Researcher Will Lewis heard the Swainson’s melody as it passed through the restoration area at Drury-Mincy.  It was the first sighting since the restoration work began.   

            Today our GLADE alum look to an alternative future where they bring their children or grandchildren to their restoration site at Drury-Mincy to view the little bird with a big song…..  The bird that is a worthy teacher, but only if the student is ready!