Blog-erview with Jessie Barry
During the April 2007 American Birding Association convention in Louisiana, I happened to go on a field trip with Jessie. Although she wasn't an official leader, she quietly emerged as a knowledgeable birder who helped others see and hear the birds. I got a kick out of her ability to recognize a desired species' call while driving down a road with the truck's window rolled down. She received many kudos from the trip's participants for that valued find.
Jessie contributes to WildBird as the reviewer for the Book Nook department, so she reads and evaluates three recently released books for each magazine issue. You'll no doubt read her name in print more often soon. In the meantime, you can read about her here.
What’s it like to work as the hawkwatcher in Cape May during fall?
The one-word answer: awesome. The birds you see and the people you meet are the experience.
Starting with the birds: While it is a cliché that “there is never a bad day of birding in Cape May,” to a large extent, it’s true. During migration, there are few days without interesting birds in the area.
Each season brings a new amazing birding experience. This year, it was the flight of 163,000 scoters on Oct. 26, and the seasonal total was over 1,000,000 seabirds.
From the hawkwatcher’s perspective, this meant sneaking peaks out to the ocean and pouting a little, wishing I was there, but the hawkwatch was rewarded with rarities this year. Species seen from the platform this fall included New Jersey’s first Lesser Nighthawk, Barnacle Goose, Ruff, Say’s Phoebe, Western Kingbird, Anhinga, White Ibis, Eurasian Collared-Dove... and the list goes on -- not forgetting the 33,500 incredible raptors, of course, and 121 Peregrine Falcons in a single hour! I tallied 221 Peregrines that day!
The people. There may not be a community in the states with so many birders and naturalists. With a number of talented locals, you will learn from the best.
The visitors come from across the country and “across the pond.” And there is “The Birdhouse” or “The Intern House,” where New Jersey Audubon Society/Cape May Bird Observatory houses its seasonal employees (counters and interpretative naturalists): eight people in their 20s, five bedrooms, two showers, one refrigerator and a freezer full of dead birds. Can you imagine it?
Did a specific event/species encourage you to start birding?
I was flipping through a field guide during a “reading time” in my sixth-grade science class. I was writing details of my latest lifer in my field guide, my first Wilson’s Snipe, when my teacher, who is an avid birder, noticed what I was doing. He looked at me with a big smile, pointing to the book, and asked, “Did you see a snipe?”
At that point, it was a matter of days before I was out on my first CBC (Christmas Bird Count). I have been birding ever since then. My interest in birds was already there, but I attribute my interest in birding to encouragement from my mentor and supportive parents.
Who do you consider your birding mentors?
Primarily, my sixth-grade science teacher, Kevin Griffith. I am also grateful for the many other professional birders who guided me once I was exposed to the national birding scene, especially Michael O’Brien, Louise Zemaitis, Jon Dunn, Steve Howell and Pete Dunne.
How do you encourage the next generation of birders?
You take them birding. See if they have an interest in birds. If things go well, take them out again.
Birding runs in the blood. If it is there, you’ll know fairly quickly, and this often starts at a younger age than you may expect.
In my case, I was not a birder until I was about 10, but I knew the names of 30 ducks and geese when I was 2. (My doctor still brings that up each time I am in her office.) The key is just to be supportive and encouraging, and share your passion for birds with the kid.
Eventually a young birder will benefit by subscribing to a young birders' listserve to learn about scholarships, conferences, camps and other events. The young birder will realize that they are not alone and that there are other kids their age out birding. Peer pressure runs rampant in middle and high school, but it does go away by college.
Becoming a mentor can be an extremely rewarding experience and significantly change the life of a kid, and potentially shape birding down the road. For example, Jeff Bouton and I have a few things in common. OK, we’re both former Cape May hawkwatchers, write for WildBird, attend national birding festivals and events, and have the initials JB, but I’m not the original “JB.”
Jeff was also in Kevin Griffith’s sixth-grade science class. Coincidence? Nope. It all goes back to a great mentor, and you don’t have to be the best birder out there to be a mentor.
Do you have a nemesis bird, and if so, which species?
Do we really have to bring that up? Ok, Dovekie has given me some trouble. Recently that was taken care of (sweet bird!), so Sharp-tailed Sandpiper rises to the top of the list.
Early on, it was Indigo Bunting, a common bird, but I never found them until I learned the call. Finally saw one; it was my 200th life bird.
How do you feel about rubber ducks?
Well, I love ducks, but rubber ducks don’t really turn me on the same way. Cute as they are, maybe feathers and flight are the missing factors. (Sorry Amy!)
What’s the best thing on the Wawa menu?
Wawa… just the thought of it makes my heart feel warm. Having pretty much lived off Wawa and food from charitable locals while hawkwatching in Cape May, I sampled most of the menu. There’s no question that my days were not complete without a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel with a “Little Bit of Plain Cream Cheese.”
But, don’t forget a 16-oz. dark roast coffee with a touch of half and half and a splash of French vanilla. And save 10 cents (and a tree) by bringing your own travel mug!
How often have you participated in competitive events like the World Series of Birding or the Great Texas Birding Classic?
As often as I can! I’m a bit of a Big Day junkie. I have three World Series of Birdings under my belt and am a four-time participant in the Great Texas Birding Classic. I also did six Montezuma Muckraces (western New York) and hold the New York State Big Day record.
I enjoy the competitive aspects of these events and love seeing so many species in a day. These events raise valuable funding for conservation. Thanks to everyone who supports these events.
Are you pursuing a career related to birding?
Yes. I am not sure exactly what aspect of birding I will focus on, but right now I’m enjoying traveling for field jobs and various scientific and popular writing projects. I would predict some tour leading and maybe graduate school are likely to come shortly down the road.