On an unseasonably humid day in September, I meet birder Scott Weidensaul at Hawk Mountain in Kempton, Pa. He doesn't promise much of a show -- the heat doesn't create very good flying conditions for raptors -- but somehow Weidensaul, author of the new book "Of A Feather: A Brief History of American Birding," makes even an empty horizon exciting. As we wait, he describes what he loves about birding, relates the history of the mountain, and occasionally interrupts himself to point out migratory song birds and interesting insects.
"My mother says I was born with binoculars," says Weidensaul, who is on the Hawk Mountain Board of Directors and used to be a hawk counter there.
Fall is hawk-migration season and we're sitting under what Weidensaul calls a "migratory choke point" where thousands of birds fly by as they make their way south for the winter. As a result of the air show, thousands of people make their way up the path to catch a glimpse of the feathered predators, which include American kestrels, osprey and bald eagles. Today, we're just two spectators among the throng of school children.
Our patience pays off. By mid-morning we spy some sharp-shinned hawks and turkey vultures making wide circles as they ride the thermals -- rising currents of hot air that allow the birds to travel without using up all of their energy. The birds soar majestically, only their silhouettes visible against the sky. Through the binoculars, their dappled colors and aerodynamic shapes become apparent -- if you can keep them in your sights for long enough. "These birds have an unparalleled command of the air," says Weidensaul.
Birding's increase in popularity
Weidensaul has a knack for drawing people to birding, says Seth Benz, director of the Hog Island Audubon Center in Maine, where Weidensaul teaches every summer. (It's also where he met his wife.) "He has helped to popularize birding," says Benz. "He's made that field accessible, and he's shown us ways of going about it."
The number of people who the Forest Service considers "birders" has exploded in recent years -- the figure grew by 11.8 million people between 2003 and 2006, bringing the total number of birders in the U.S. to 81 million people. Whether you're a backyard birder or a professional ornithologist, nearly anyone who can recognize a birdcall or a tail feather can count herself a bird watcher.
But the growing popularity of birds hasn't translated into conservation dollars. Gear sales make birding a multi-billion dollar industry, but unlike hunting or fishing, there is no federal tax on birding paraphernalia that goes towards bird conservation.
"What worries me is that there is too much competition in birding and not as much concern for the birds," says Weidensaul. Habitat destruction, hazardous chemicals in the environment and global warming all threaten migratory birds. Healthy ecosystems from Canada to South America are crucial to their survival as they rest during migration.
Weidensaul hopes to bring attention to these issues by teaching people about birding and studying the animals. He's working on four research projects -- all unpaid -- including one that he's been conducting for ten years on the northern saw-whet owl, a bird that is about the size of a man's fist (pictured above). Each year 18 banders (who tag the birds) and 85 assistants collect data on the birds from the beginning of October until Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania. "Saw-whets are, well, just massively cute and appealing little birds," Weidensaul says.
His other projects include banding hummingbirds and other raptors -- a task he describes as "fishing from the sky" -- and teaching. As if that didn't keep him busy enough, Weidensaul also writes magazine articles and books. (One of his recent books, Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist).
Weidensaul's knowledge of birds, mixed with his background as a professional journalist, make him uniquely qualified to capture the interest of the general public, says Kenn Kaufman, a birding expert and author of numerous guides.
"Compared to most of us who do a lot of writing about birds and birding, Scott comes into the subject from a different angle," says Kaufman. "When he zeroes in on birds, he can do so in a way that's understandable for everyone, not just for the crazed birders."
After about five hours, we make our way down the mountain and into the visitors center. Weidensaul and I part ways, but not before he thanks me for giving him an excuse to go hawk watching. I should be the one thanking him -- I'm already making plans to go birding again.
Story by Susan Cosier. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2007. The story was added to MNN.com.