Making Conservation Connections-One Red Dot at a Time!

Words and images by Dr. J. Drew Lanham

Ursula the Ultravid – Ambassador for Birding and Conservation!
As I sit on my South Carolina screen porch listening to the sounds of summer settle in—the quarrelsome catbird protesting my presence, and the squadron of six or so chimney swifts twittering over the backyard, I’ve finally got a little time to catch my breath with the rush of migration done and everyone sitting on eggs , nurturing nestlings or fretting over fledglings.

The past half-year was filled with wonderful things, not the least of which has been time with my newest birding buddy, Ursula the Awesome Ultravid. I’m sure you’ve heard of her well-traveled younger sister, Athena the Wandering Ultravid? Well Ursula and Athena share some similarities—both are Leica 7×42 Ultravid HD bins, while. Both offer astoundingly bright and wide views of the world. And both have laid their lenses on a fair share of the finest that this country (and hemisphere) has to offer bird and critter wise. Unlike Ursula, Athena will cover more ground this year combing the ABA area for life birds, in the hands of some of the greatest birders in the world. Ursula has traveled too but her wandering has been a bit more—pedestrian. Both goals are admirable, but different. As I sit here and a red-eyed vireo drones on in the boiling heat, it comes to me that even more than the couple of hundred birds Ursula has pegged down for me, she and I have been able to reach even more people with messages of bird conservation and ethic that go far beyond field of view and magnification. Here’s the rundown.

First, Ursula and I ventured to the bitterly cold Delmarva Peninsula in February to do some work with the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education. I was invited to give a keynote on diversifying the conservation conversation and deliver a nature writing workshop with famed author of “What the Robin Says”, Jon Young. In between the business of speaking, Ursula and I were treated to the deep winter delights of Delmarva. Waterfowl –ducks, geese, swans—seemed to be in every field , ditch and retention pond. Tens of thousands of snow geese, thousands of tundra swans, scads of scoters and other species made the time between talks more than a little satisfying. Ursula pulled in brant (a long time nemesis bird) close enough for me to count feathers in the neck collar. And with the historic blizzard of SNOW (Snowy Owls, that is) falling into the lower 48, Ursula and I laid our eyes (and crystal clear lenses) on no fewer than FOUR of these magnificent beasts of the arctic in one amazing morning! Even better was that Ursula and I got to share views with some of the Coastal Stewards of the Maryland Coastal Bays program! This diverse group of dedicated conservation interns looked on in wonder as SNOW and sand came together at Assateague National Seashore. A couple of the students even got to look through Ursula’s eyes and were astounded at the amazing views.

Maryland Coastal Stewards watching SNOW

Maryland Coastal Stewards watching SNOW

One of the most memorable moments from my Delmarva excursion was the day we spent with Mr. Douglas Gibson. Perhaps one of only a handful of Black American master waterfowl carvers, Mr. Gibson took a few hours out of his day to talk about his life and love for birds! Fellow Leica Birding Team member Carrie Samis was there to witness the amazing interaction!

Deep conversation with Mr. Doug Gibson

Deep conversation with Mr. Doug Gibson

From Delmarva’s late winter deep freeze Ursula and I ventured on to sultry South Texas in late April. Again, another keynote—this time at the invitation of the Texas Ornithological Society. Early spring can be a birding bonanza as migrants wing their way across the Gulf of Mexico to find landfall on the coast of Texas. With fallout fantasies in my head I was off to Lake Jackson. Ursula and I set out on the first day down to little-known but bird-full San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. I like to take my sweet time by my lonesome on occasion to check a place out. As Ursula and I rolled along in our rental car, the songs of dickcissels – fresh off the Gulf – bounced all over the beautiful coastal prairie. My 7 x 42’s wide field of view pulled in warm cinnamon backs and lemon yellow breasts of one of my favorite grassland birds. In our morning of wandering there I think we maxed out on dickcissels, counting more than fifty singing birds.

By the way, did you know that binoculars can help you hear better? Well they can.

Watching those little beauties throwing their heads back and singing their guts out through my Leica’s was like a magnification of not just sight but sound too! A little more shy than the dickcissels but no less brilliant were the newly arrived painted buntings. Again, Ursula was up to the task and pulled a couple of the “nonpareil” out of the wood edges. With enough power to bring the bird close and a ton of light sucking ability, the little palettes of color popped in the greenery that they are so adept at hiding in. Ursula and I continued our slow trek through a hot and steamy San Bernard and picked up a modest 65 or 70 species without really even trying. Sometimes it’s just about absorbing the birds you see and not building up huge species’ lists. Ursula and I were dusty, but saturated with the sights and songs of newly arrived migrants. We were both transfixed by the beauty of the prairie and all those birds that just a few days before had been singing somewhere South of the border.

Dickcissel fresh off the Gulf of Mexico!

Dickcissel fresh off the Gulf of Mexico!

The next day my bins and I got back into the social groove and headed out with South Texas birder extraordinaire and President of TOS Jim Hailey. Quintana was the destination and with hopes of catching birds coming straight off of the Gulf I was beyond stoked! The tiny spit of land where so many migrants make first landfall is the dictionary definition of understated. The refineries and low scrub don’t make a big impression on first sight. But then a few moments on the right day can be spectacular. Jim told me that birds would start drifting in at about 9 or 10 am. Sure enough, creamsicle-colored Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers and magnolia warblers were the first vanguard. Although we weren’t slammed by waves of birds it was obvious that the invasion had begun. In addition to the passerines Ursula and I pulled in great views of shorebirds on the marsh and beach. There were semipalmated sandpipers everywhere! The capper though was another lifer. On the way back across the bridge from Quintana, I spied a wide-winged form flying –no cruising—along the horizon. Although it was speeding away from us Ursula was quickly in hand and I called my first magnificent frigatebird! My Ultravids –quick out of the holster and easy on the eye confirmed the Jizz.

Again, the keynote that night about connecting the conservation dots came together like a charm. We talked about how birding needs to change-to become more ethnically and culturally inclusive to become even better. In becoming more inclusive we should also strive to make conservation a priority –see beyond our bins as I like to say—to make birding more relevant in the conservation community. Ursula and the Red Dot were there again, representing the bridge between birding and conservation.

Birding the beach with Jim Hailey

Birding the beach with Jim Hailey

In between all the birding-bent travels we had the opportunity to visit a very special place. Baraboo, Wisconsin is where Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife conservation, formulated his Land Ethic. The Shack, a tiny unassuming cabin that was once a chicken coop, is a Mecca of sorts for those who hold conservation’s passion in their hearts. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold spoke of the interrelationships between people and land. A birder himself, Aldo Leopold and spent long hours logging the avifauna of his beloved farm. My good friends Nina Cheney of Eagle Optics, and Leica’s own Dr. David LaPuma (soon to be the new Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory) and his precociously cute daughter Corinna, attended my talk on Black American land ethic in the South. It was like seeing family there. Everyone seemed to latch on to the message of how ethnicity and experience can color our view of land and ultimately conservation. Time spent wandering around Baraboo, the Shack and perhaps seeing some of the same species Leopold tallied was time I’ll never forget. Nina and David and Corinna are now a part of my Baraboo family. Buddy Huffaker (Executive Director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation), Estella Leopold (Aldo’s only surviving child) and the other members of the Leopold Foundation staff and board always me feel welcome in this sacred place. Having birder family there just made the two days in Baraboo even more special.

Fun with conservation kindred in Baraboo!

Fun with conservation kindred in Baraboo!

Over the past three years I’ve ended the spring migration crush in northwest Ohio and the Biggest Week in American Birding! This is a true birder-bird spectacle that Kim Kaufmann, Executive Director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, puts on. The Great Black Swamp lies on the shores of Lake Erie and the warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers, thrushes and cuckoos can pile up in amazing numbers en route to their breeding grounds in the Boreal Forests of Canada to the north. What makes the spectacle such a people-pleaser is the boardwalk that winds through one of the great migrant traps in the U.S. It’s like a birding Disneyland, as throngs of thousands file slowly along, ticking off warblers that flit through the low shrubs. Birds buzz by at arm’s length. The tight quarters are the perfect spot for a light pair of lower power bins. BAM! Ursula would be right at home here. But then Jeff Bouton asked me to let Ursula rest and to take Athena out for a spin and some year birds. Ursula , being the good- natured binocular she is agreed to sit a couple of days out.

Lovin' the Leica Life!

Lovin’ the Leica Life!

 

On the first morning Jeff , Athena and I headed out to take in what was forecast to maybe be one of the best days ever for watching migrants in the Black Swamp. The feathered forecasters, including Dr. David LaPuma, were spot on. As we hit the parking lot, a wave of indigo buntings came off the lake and hit the tall cottonwoods like a blue hailstorm. I’d never seen anything like it -hundreds of little blue buntings twittering and flitting about in the green canopy along with a sprinkling of American goldfinches! Already Athena and I had been flooded with feathered things! There were all those buntings and fiches and brilliant Baltimore orioles were singing everywhere.

Jeff was wielding his own Leica bins but he had a secret weapon. His Leica 65mm APO- Televid was like a magic wand. Athena and I were checking out a Chestnut-sided warbler when we suddenly spied another “odd” bird in our sites. It was another lifer! My best look ever a black-billed cuckoo! I called the bird and lickety-split like Johnny on the spot, Jeff had the scope on the cuckoo; red orbital ring glowing like a target circle, and black bill beaming in the morning sun! Folks lined up to see the cooperative cuckoo, with ooohs and ahhhs falling like rain! As I said the crush of humanity is half the spectacle at the Biggest Week and after meeting friends old and new Jeff and I finally made it onto the boardwalk. It was my first time birding with the legendary Bouton I must say we made quite the team! Jeff was calling “stud” warblers right and left. He was funny and patient and technically tight all at the same time as he casually taught the finer points of identification to other birders and kept up the friendly banter that he’s so known for. Athena and I got along flawlessly as we left the boardwalk around noon with a hefty heaping of new birds added to Athena’s year list including stunner looks at a rather cooperative mourning warbler. That time with Jeff Bouton on the boardwalk was beyond awesome! I can’t wait to bird with him again. “Stud” birds are now a part of my birding lexicon!
So what about Ursula, my Ultravids? Well, the next day I offered to let my good friend and Biggest Week Organizer, Rob Ripma, take Ursula out for a day of birding while Athena and I tried to garner more year birds. Rob was blown away by the looks he got through the Leicas. Like most folk that spend time with her, they come away impressed with her vision and clarity. Warblers close in and raptors far away seem to come into focus quickly. That night I gave my final keynote address for the spring season. I talked about the public’s perception of birders and how we might bolster our reputations by becoming more involved and active conservationists. Again, the message was well received . I was even bold enough to debut my camo kilt that night! Ursula and I left our third consecutive Biggest Week with friends old and new piled up alongside an impressive list of birds and a new fashion statement that we’ll likely repeat at future events.

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Back home to South Carolina. Ursula the Ultravid and I settled in to the season. Around the state teaching birding classes and finding the local hotspots like the Audubon Sanctuary at Beidler Swamp and Congaree National Park, we had the chance to give time to the amazing birds that call the Palmetto State home. In my backyard the homebodies are singing, building, laying, sitting, feeding and flying about. The gray catbird quarrels and mews as the chimney swifts swoop and chitter overhead. The yard is filled with newly fledged Carolina wrens, eastern bluebirds, and blue jays. Although we’re home for the moment, Ursula and I are yet partners in birding. More than that, we’re partners in conservation. One of my mantras is “connecting the conservation dots”. This past spring was a multi-state exercise in that very thing. The dots were the amazing people we came in contact with that are all connected by birds and other wild things. The Leica Red Dot was there every step of the way and will continue to be my steadfast companion on future expeditions!

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