February 14, 2011

Beginnings and the importance of a mentor

However it starts bird watching gets under the skin. For me, I fell in love with eagles when I was nine years old. It was a chance encounter at the Edinburgh Zoo with a Golden eagle. I’d like to say she looked into my eyes and I knew it was so, but in reality that massive hulk of a bird seemed unnatural behind bars. Her size and ferocity were linked to the Scottish highlands, a rolling lullaby of green and rock and water. Seeing her up close was more about the potential of the wild that lies outside than some close educational encounter.

I returned from Scotland and wrote elementary school “animal reports” on far flung birds like the Harpy eagle and Eurasian hoopoe. These long distant relatives of the chickadee were of eye-raising obscurity to the school librarian who had laid out a table full of books, “The Children’s Encyclopedia: Giraffes” and “Wild about Chimps”. I produced carefully written script chapters on “habitat” and “diet”. “He has sharp claws to grip his prey,” is still scrawled on yellowing paper, fastened with brass brads, to this day.

Birds joined dinosaurs, knights, trucks and robots as a picture book and museum fueled childhood passion. But unlike these extinct and diesel pumped predecessors birds were accessible out my window. Part hunter, part collector, part visual learner I delved into the world of birds and through them was transported to the wild, unnoticed and natural places all around me.

Then came age 12 and voice cracking adolescence and at that very precarious moment I was blessed to have been connected to a mentor by my fifth grade teacher, Jen Tobin. Nancy Claflin was 60 years my senior and a gentle yet wind hardened Yankee. She would pick me up at 7am and walk me quietly through the woods of Lincoln or around the rock shores of Cape Ann. She pointed out Northern flickers and Harlequin ducks, we counted Red-tailed hawks on Rt. 128 as we drove north to Plum Island and she showed me how to connect the tiny foot paths of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in the spring.

This is how it got under my skin and despite a childhood fear that one day I would give up the hunger for exploration I am still here. The draw is too strong, the days too beautiful. Harlequin ducks still bob around the rocks at Cape Ann and though Nancy is now buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery I watch for signs of spring every year, as she taught me, those many birds ago.

[For more tips on becoming a bird watching mentor click here

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact: alexanderjosephdunn@gmail.com

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