With a wide array of bird species on campus, it is hard not to notice a flock of green lovebirds with beaks surrounded by a rosy blush of feathers, or the warble of a sparrow or the coo of a dove as you walk to and from classes. But as most may give the birds a passing glance, some make sightings a hobby.
David Pearson, professor has been bird watching, or simply birding, since he was ten years old, and quips that he is a missionary converting students to bird watching.
When he announced as a teenager that he wanted to make a living off of bird watching, he says reactions went as expected.
“‘Oh, that’s a hobby, you can’t make a living at that,’” he quotes. Having written a series of books on the subject, it would appear Pearson has the last laugh.
Bird watching itself requires little equipment, Pearson says. One only needs binoculars and a field guide. Perhaps not even that much, as he notes he spent his first five years as bird watcher without binoculars, unable to afford them. It forced him to develop his observational skills, he adds.
He sees bird watching as a way to develop discipline and organization, the dignity to take criticism, and most of all an appreciation for nature. Discipline is a necessity for those who are not morning people. Sessions require waking up at or even before dawn, he says, and can run as late as almost midnight.
Still, with technological advances, it’s rather easy to bird watch now, he says. There are more ways to test your birding knowledge on the Internet, and it’s possible to record your sightings online.
“If the only thing you ever do is look at a computer… you’re missing out on a lot,” he says. “But if you use it as a supplement… to get you out in the field, better equipped to do a good job… that’s exciting use of technology.”
As bird watching spans continents, Pearson says he has also acquired knowledge and respect for different cultures and people around the world.
“Not everyone has to be a bird watcher,” he says. “Some people look at insects, butterflies. Some people like to take pictures. I think it’s important for a lot of people to get out into nature… it doesn’t have to be birds specifically.”
There are about 20-40 species of birds on ASU Tempe campus, Pearson explains. That’s not just during the day either, as Arizona possibly has more owls than any other state in the union, he adds.
“It’s one of the prime bird watching places in all of North America,” Pearson says.
Pierre Deviche, professor in the School of Life Sciences at ASU, has been bird watching for four years, but cannot say what first sparked his interest.
“Like cooking… you don’t get up one morning and say, ‘I love cooking,’” he says. “You kind of learn it, and you kind of develop a taste for it.”
Birds are something no one really sees until they’re noticed, Deviche says. And then you see them everywhere.
Deviche says that once you’ve seen all the common birds, you hunt for the rare ones. Part of the fun is seeing things few, if any, have gotten to see before. This requires going to out-of-the-way places, as Deviche admits he’s bird watched all over Europe.
He said the best birds can be found in the tropics.
“You go to tropical areas… [they’re] sort of sensory overloads,” he said. “You’ve got all these really colorful birds… like high up in the canopy… singing, calling, flying. It’s just really overwhelming.”
The interesting thing about bird watching in Arizona is the mix of native and non-native species, he says. The Rosy-faced Lovebirds found on campus were originally African birds, and came to Arizona about 25 years ago. He theorizes someone had them as pets, released them, and the lovebirds adapted and spread. The Phoenix area is the only place in the U.S. they can be found, he added, noting that this attracts a lot of bird watchers to the state.
He explains that the Phoenix area is also attractive to migrating waterbirds in the winter, some coming from as far as Russia. Deviche calls them literal snowbirds.
Deviche admitted he has not done much bird watching lately, as his interest has been overtaken by his passion for dragonflies. But he comments that the field has changed recently with the technological tools available, and the change makes it easier for people to join.
“When I started birding, none of that stuff existed,” he says. “Computers did not exist. Internet did not exist. It’s really changed a lot.”
Craig Anderson teaches bird walks for children with Audubon Arizona. He said bird watching is one of the fastest growing sports in the nation.
Craig Anderson says birding is a lifelong passion of his.
“My mother showed me a picture of me when I was four years old, standing out in the back of our house… there were probably about six inches of snow on the ground,” he said. “And I was watching birds… My mother said it was so amazing that here it was, winter and snowing… and I was all, at that point, fascinated.”
Always a fan of the outdoors and discovering new things, Craig Anderson explains that when he came to Arizona 45 years ago he got into bird watching on a hike with friends. From there, he became involved with bird camps and volunteering.
Craig Anderson says Gilbert’s water reclamation area has become one of the best bird watching sites in Arizona. A rare bird from Asia, a Baikal Teal, was spotted there a few years ago and attracted birdwatchers from across the country.
Birdwatchers also come to Arizona to catch a glimpse of rare birds that venture here from Mexico, Craig Anderson explains, as well as the state’s native birds like the Abert’s Towhee.
“There’s nothing really special about how it looks other than… it doesn’t exist anywhere else,” he says.
There are also hummingbirds easily attracted by a bird feeder, as well as the numerous birds that can be spotted right in someone’s backyard.
“You can always watch birds,” he says with a laugh.
One of his most memorable bird watching experiences was when he and a friend encountered a mountain lion guarding a cow it had killed, and they took photos of it. Over the days, they watched as it dragged the cow carcass farther off.
“That was a really good bird watching trip,” he says. “One of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. That’s one of the things that I also love about bird watching, which is because it gets you out in nature, you have the opportunity to see other things.”
What Craig Anderson finds fulfilling in teaching is that he gives a lot of underprivileged children a chance to do things that they almost never get a chance to do.
“Many of these kids never have an opportunity to go camping, or even getting out of doors,” he says. “I’m not surprised that some of these kids live almost in constant lockdown… because their neighborhoods are not safe… Often, it’s the very first time they’ve ever had a nature experience.”
He said there are three things he focuses on when he teaches children. The first is getting them to understand why birds are a unique species (The answer is that they have feathers). Craig Anderson then talks to the children about feathers and how they enable flight and serve as a warm coat for the birds. This serves as a transition to orient the children on the kinds of birds they’ll be seeing.
Craig Anderson teaches them how to use binoculars and how to identify birds from pictures. Finally, he takes them out on a bird walk and talks about any birds they see.
“You know, pique their interest and reinforce the fact that they’re discovering things,” he says.
He mentions that on the walks he also tries to teach children about the environment, noting the primary purpose of Audubon Arizona is to protect birds’ environments. Craig Anderson sees bird watching as the first step in a spectrum. He notes that it’s then easy and almost inevitable to become a conservationist and even an environmental activist.
“As they get more and more curious, they start asking questions, and so I do my best to answer,” he said.
Kathe Anderson also volunteers to teach beginning bird watching classes with Audubon Arizona, although hers are geared toward adults.
As a child, Kathe Anderson says she thought bird watching was boring whenever her mother would try to get her interested by talking about birds that came to their bird feeder. After her children went to school within the last 20 years, she had more time and interest for bird watching. Her feelings eventually bloomed from disinterest to passion.
“I have about 300 favorite birds, and they’re favorites for different reasons,” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes they just have shown up in a special time in my life.”
One example of an extraordinary birding experience, she says, was when she and a group were out looking for the Sandhill Crane on a cold November morning. There was a magnificent rainbow at the time, and the cranes flew against it in a V and landed with a “bugling, haunting sound.” She says everyone was unwilling to break the moment with talk and simply observed in silence.
Though she’s uncertain what exactly prompted her to teach, Kathe Anderson believes it came from bird walks and realizing she knew enough to lead one of her own. From there, it was natural to progress to teaching.
She says she starts her classes talking about the kinds of binoculars needed, noting they don’t have to cost much. She also discusses field guides and recommends finding them at a library. Then she moves on to a bird identification exercise.
Her second class is spent talking about bird bills, bird calls and sounds, and the diet and habitats of various birds. Diet is important because it helps bird watchers scout out locations – a fruit-eating bird is likely to be found near fruit trees, and a fish-eating bird won’t be found in the desert.
Kathe Anderson says she could spend forever talking about birds.
“There’s just something very magical for most people about birds,” she says. “Their ability to fly, the fact that they fly thousands of miles.”
For a lot of people, Kathe Anderson says that bird watching is just an excuse to be outside.
“Birding is the gateway drug to nature stuff,” she says. “I didn’t make that up, somebody else did. But I think it’s very accurate.”
For Kathe Anderson, she feels that bird watching has forced her out of her comfort zone, giving her a better understanding of people and of how to figure out puzzles.
“Even an ordinary bird in an extraordinary place is a puzzle,” she says, like a pelican showing up in the middle of Tempe.
Krys Hammers, president of Desert Rivers Audubon, has always been an outdoors person and has bird watched for ten years.
“It gives me an excuse to hike a little slower,” she says.
Hammers says the Audubon chapter runs entirely on volunteers, with some, such as herself, working the equivalent of a full-time job. The chapter’s mission is to educate about birds and their habitats. Part of this is accomplished through free bird walks held three times a month, including an owl walk held at night, she explains.
“Just by attending one of our beginning bird walks… that we offer regularly too, we can kind of get you started that way,” she says.
Hammers teaches beginning birding classes, with one memorable class involving her students spotting a Great Blue Heron eating a duck, tail feathers sticking out of his mouth.
“I told them the challenge was to identify the duck,” she says with a laugh.
Her personal best bird sighting was by the Salt River, when she saw a Lawrence Goldfinch as a beginning bird watcher.
“They all flew in, right into my field of vision,” she says. “A lot of the people who were standing around me never saw them, but I got a great look at them.”
Hammers sees part of the fun of bird watching in the implied competition, seeing as many birds as you can. Generally, a bird watching session takes half a day to a full day, with bird sightings dying down around midday.
“Anybody can do it, because you can watch the birds in your backyard or you can… hike to a mountaintop to find them,” she says.
Students certainly don’t need to hike up A mountain to see some interesting birds. All they have to do is look closely at their surroundings on campus to notice the teeming life that’s right in front of them.