Birding ‘Career’ in Retirement Brings Multiple Opportunities

It was cool and damp and hot air balloons from the International Balloon Fiesta floated to the north – the perfect morning to be at the Rio Grande Nature Center counting birds with my fellow volunteers. I stopped to pause and be grateful for the opportunity to pursue a second ‘career’ in retirement.

RGNC-balloons

When I was in high school, I told my counselor that I wanted to study biology in college.

“Wonderful,” he replied. “You can be a teacher, a nurse, or a lab technician.”

My hopes were dashed. None of those sounded interesting or took advantage of my skills and interests.

Despite the fact that I was not going to pursue a career in biology, I excelled in my advanced biology class and my entry into the science fair when I was a senior in high school – Algae as a Source of Amino Acid, won the regional sweepstakes and a trip to Hartford, CT to compete in the National Science Fair.

Judy science fair

Science fair project – cages on top held mice who ate the algae

Eventually, I settled on a major in sociology and fantasized about marrying a national park ranger so I could live in a National Park. That, of course, never happened. I pursued a career in social work – with an emphasis on people with disabilities and their families.  It was rewarding, and I had no regrets.

I enjoyed hiking and camping as an adult to fulfill my desire to be out of doors.

Four years before I retired, I ‘stumbled’ into birding. While I had been fascinated with birds – even using them in my home décor,

sunroom-decor

I never thought I had the patience to really slow down and pay attention to them.

That all changed when I had my knees replaced in early 2002. My friend Barbara, a long-time birder, hung some seed bells in the bushes outside my bedroom window – and I started paying attention to my visitors. I found a field guide that had belonged to my Dad and tried to identify my new friends, calling Barb frequently to tell her about what I was seeing. Heartened by my enthusiasm, Barbara hung a suet cake in the bush, and soon a Curve-billed Thrasher paid a visit.

I was enthralled. Here was a bird that was not little and seemingly drab – but larger, with a yellow eye and long curved bill. I was hooked.

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Curve-billed Thrasher – my epiphany bird

As I recovered and learned to walk again with two new knees, I went to the Rio Grande Nature Center on the weekend, walked slowly, and then sat on a bench and tried to identify birds. I devoured Kingbird Highway and took my field guide to bed every night to study.

The following year I attended my 40th college reunion and afterwards spent a few days in Palm Desert with my long-time college friends. I had my field guide and binoculars with me and as we sat on the condo patio, I was constantly looking at birds – and figured out that the ducks with green heads were American Wigeons. When we hiked in Indian Canyon, I saw my first Wrentit. We spent the last night in Laguna Beach. As Penny, drove me to the Orange County Airport, we drove by the Newport Back Bay where American Avocets were feeding. My friend Sue was so captivated with the avocets that she and Penny returned to the Back Bay after dropping me off, and she purchased a field guide at the Visitor Center. It has been a passion that the two of us have pursued, including a number of birding trips .

The following February, Sue came to visit me, and she and Barbara and I went to the Bosque del Apache.

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Barb, me, Sue

I wrote to friends about my experience, “I stood on the deck overlooking the marsh and watched a flock of snow geese rise up en masse as the sky turned pink. Two years ago if anyone had told me I would be watching this miracle of nature in twelve degree darkness, I would have told them they were nuts. Yet here I was witnessing this awesome event and feeling fulfilled!”

Travel to visit friends and family began to include seeking out local birding spots and I added a day or two to business travel to explore local birds.

Within an hour of arriving in Fort Walton Beach to visit Barb and Tom Hussey in 2004, Barbara had whisked me off to see my first Florida birds, including seven ‘lifers’. During my visit, we visited locations from Mobile Bay, Alabama to just south of Tallahassee that are known for their bird diversity.

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Barb and I at Ft Walton Beach

Two months later I had my first experience monitoring birds while visiting relatives in Utah. My mother-in-law had arranged for me to participate in the annual summer bluebird box tally of the Wasatch Audubon Society. I also met Pat Bean, a newspaper reporter who wrote a weekly column about birds. I had just joined SouthWest Writers with the goal of writing after I retired. Perhaps I could even write about birds.

In early 2005, my three college friends and I decided to rent a condo in Playa del Carmen in the Yucatan Peninsula. Sue and I began planning for the birds we would see as we explored the Mayan ruins.

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Carole, Sue and I at Chitzen Itza

Later that spring, Breanne and I visited the Tetons and Yellowstone on our way to visit relatives in Utah. As we traveled north through Colorado, I insisted on making a detour to the Fort Collins cemetery to try and see a Tropical Parula, evidently blown off course during spring migration. Breanne had no interest in trekking through a cemetery and decided to wait in the car. After half an hour, she got bored and went looking for me. I still hadn’t seen the parula. We spotted a couple of women with binoculars who also were looking and wandered over to them. As I scanned the trees looking for a 4 ½” bird with a yellow belly, Breanne suddenly called out, “Is that it?” Without binoculars, she had spotted the rare bird we were searching for!

In July, Barbara and I spent a long weekend in Arizona attending the American Birding Association Conference. On the way over, we decided to rent a car so we wouldn’t waste the time before the conference started. Being around so many dedicated birders was exhilarating. By this time, it was old hat to get up at 4 am and head out on field trips before the heat of late July descended on the desert. I am still not a morning person, but am willing to stretch my comfort zone for something I love.

Eager to be ready to volunteer at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park after I retired, I spent six Saturdays in late winter 2006 attending volunteer training. My goal was to take ‘bird trunks’ out to schools and share information about birds.

After returning from a local birding trip or visiting a location while on a business trip, I posted my lists with pictures on a bulletin board outside my office at the Center for Development and Disability at UNM. My final list was Hawaii where I was fortunate to attend a conference two months before I retired. My co-workers were intrigued when I bolted out of my office early in 2006 announcing that I might be late returning from lunch as I was going to see a rare bird. When the staff of the Center gathered to help me celebrate my retirement, they recognized my passion by presenting me with a spotting scope.

On the Monday after I retired, Barb and another recently-retired friend took me to Percha State Park so I could spend my first day of retirement in the field.

By summer I was attending the weekly trips of the Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday Birders. Not only was I learning new local places to go birding, but I was gleaning information about bird behavior from my new friends and I began chronicling these experiences and information in my new blog dedicated to birds and birding – It’s a Bird Thing.

When I began taking the bird trunk out to elementary classrooms, I remembered why I had not wanted to be a science teacher – I really am not good at engaging children. I decided that taking classes on nature walks would be more fun. While I learned a lot about bugs, which fascinated the children, I was unsuccessful in getting them interested in birds.

By fall, I joined the group of volunteers that did a weekly count of the birds at the ponds and adjacent farm fields and knew I had found my calling. Within two years I was the count coordinator, recruiting, training and scheduling the volunteers.

My passion for birds has taken me to places that I would not otherwise have visited and motivated me to go on solo road trips.

The summer after retiring, I flew to Montreal, Canada and with practically non-existent French, drove alone across Quebec Province’s Gaspe Peninsula for the opportunity to view Northern Gannets nesting on Bonaventure Island on the peninsula’s far eastern coast,

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Nesting Northern Gannets

before visiting my friends Val and Wally at their cottage on Prince Edward Island.

My first formal birding trip was in June 2007 with my college friend Sue. She was living in the greater DC area and belonged to the Audubon Naturalist Society. We went on their trip to Alaska. Our itinerary included Seward, across the Glenn Highway, down to Valdez, along the Denali Highway until the pavement ended, and ending in Fairbanks. Our guides not only were knowledgeable about birds, but shared information on all aspects of the natural history of each location. Sue and I opted for a post trip to Barrow. As I stood at the edge of the Arctic Ocean in Barrow

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Standing on edge of Arctic Ocean

and later gazed at my first Snowy Owl, I knew I was hooked on birding trips, and began dreaming of an international birding trip. I have been fortunate to go on birding trips to Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and Cuba.

“It’s time you led one of the Thursday Birder trips,” coordinator Rebecca told me after I had been attending the walks for a year. I felt inadequate, but decided I could lead a trip to the Belen Marsh, a special location I visited almost weekly. I was so nervous, I put my scope in the car and forgot my binoculars; however, all turned out well and I have led a trip each quarter ever since, in addition to a few weekend trips for Audubon each year.

As I was carpooling with friends to go birding in southwest New Mexico in June 2008, the conversation turned to writing. One of them turned to me and told me I needed to write a better birding guide to New Mexico. While the idea seemed outlandish at the time, it percolated each time I wrote a blog story. By early 2009, I thought it sounded doable – if it only focused on central New Mexico and asked my friend Barbara if she would be interested in collaborating on the project.

That April, Barbara, Sue and I headed to the American Birding Association Convention in Corpus Christi, TX. On the way, we stopped to bird in southeastern New Mexico and sampled birding locations in the Texas hill country. After the convention, we traveled to the Lower Rio Grande Valley and worked our way north. We used bird-finding guides for three different regions of the Texas – each written and published by different entities. We made note of what we liked and what was missing as we prepared to embark on writing our first book. Two and a half years later and we were holding Birding Hot Spots of Central New Mexico in our hands.

book cover Central

While perusing the newspaper in early 2010, I noticed a small article about a graduate student who was looking for people to monitor Cooper’s Hawk’s nests and submit reports that would be part of a Master’s thesis comparing the defensiveness of nesting Cooper’s Hawks in city parks versus those in the natural bosque. I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the hawks myself and quickly learned that they nested all over the city.  I monitored two different nests – one in front of a nearby police sub-station and the other one at a park.

I monitored the nests for two years, and enjoyed learning about Cooper’s Hawk behavior during the nesting period and visiting with people who walked regularly in the park and were interested in the Cooper’s Hawk nest.

Kristen defended her Master’s thesis and I thought I would not have the opportunity to continue monitoring these wonderful raptors. Then I learned that Brian, the raptor specialist from U.S. Fish and Wildlife needed volunteers to monitor Cooper’s Hawks for his PhD research. I would have the opportunity to monitor nests in a quadrant of the city. I was invited to accompany Brian and Kristen for a morning in the field as they banded returning females attempting to defend their nesting territories.

Releasing banded Cooper’s Hawk

For the next three years, I monitored about eight nests in the area where I lived. Many of these nests were in backyards, and the homeowners were gracious in letting me either visit or regularly peer into their yards on a weekly basis.

When our first book was published and needed to be promoted, Barbara was still living in VA. She was able to join me for many of the initial talks, but I did many on my own. As I put together the PowerPoint presentation, it was important to me to use these talks as a way to not only sell books, but to excite people about birds that could be observed in central New Mexico. I discovered that while I might not be able to engage children, I enjoyed teaching adults.

After receiving an email asking if I would be interested in teaching a class at OASIS (a non-profit educational organization for older adults), I decided to give it a try. I have been teaching four classes a year – two in the classroom and two in the field, since 2012, and really enjoy it.

After participating in a number of the Christmas Bird Counts in central New Mexico, Barbara Hussey and I have been responsible for a route in the East Mountains for several years. Two to three of our birding friends join us each year. The count, the day after Christmas, has become an annual tradition I look forward to.

As I was getting ready to leave for Cuba in 2015, I received an email from Audubon New Mexico’s Director of Bird Conservation asking whether I would coordinate a Climate Change count for Central New Mexico Audubon. I agreed and sent off emails to friends who had experience counting birds asking them if they would do point counts for bluebirds over a long weekend in January. By time I checked my email when I returned to Miami and had access to the Internet once more, the required 20 people had agreed. I have continued to coordinate the twice-yearly count, added another 20 individuals/teams to count nuthatches.

I have had the good fortune to pursue my second ‘career’ for more than thirteen years. It has given me opportunities to teach, monitor birds, and co-author two books. I am indeed blessed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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