This year’s celebrity guest birder for the Bird Studies Canada annual Baillie Birdathon is Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association. I’m very pleased to give you today my interview with Jeff, especially during what is a very busy time of year for him with travelling, ABA presidential duties, and spring migration!
You can find Jeff’s Baillie Birdathon page here; his Birdathon goal is $15,000!
Prairie Birder: Please tell us about yourself.
Jeff: I’ve been interested in nature, especially wildlife since I was a tiny kid. I didn’t catch the birding bug until I was 12, but I caught it hard. When I was a young birder myself there weren’t young birder clubs or social media, but I still managed to find a lot of support and mentoring through organizations like the Delmarva Ornithological Society and the Delaware Nature Society. One of the things I liked best about birding at that age was that in just a year or two, I could hold my own with the adult birders and really make a contribution to the group. Now, I’m not saying that I was as good or as seasoned as the long-time birders. But I was sharp enough to pick things out and add something. One of the things I like best about birding is that it’s truly an all-ages, lifelong activity in a way that few things are.
I went to college at two schools: the University of Delaware and Earlham College in Indiana. While at Earlham, I spent a trimester in Kenya as part of a field study program, which was the single most educational experience of my education, if you will.
After college, I worked at places like Acadia National Park in Maine and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas before landing my dream job of being a bird tour leader, with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. I did that for 12 years and thoroughly enjoyed showing people wonderful birds and places and sharing the experience with them. It was an amazing gig.
I then spent a few years freelancing in the birding industry, writing for BirdWatcher’s Digest and Houghton Mifflin, speaking, working birding festivals for Leica Sport Optics, as well as a stint managing a nature center in southern Delaware. During that time, I was involved peripherally but significantly with the American Birding Association, helping with their conventions and chaperoning many of their youth birding teams.
In late 2010, I took the job of President of the ABA. Hard to believe it’s been almost four years, but it also still feels very fresh and new.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to make a career out of birding. I genuinely love the birding community, the amazing people who share this passion and zeal for birds and the outdoors. It’s a privilege to serve them.
PB: How did you get involved in the Baillie Birdathon?
Jeff: I was invited by the folks at Bird Studies Canada. It was a huge honor to be asked and even though it’s a particularly busy time of year, of course, there was no way I could turn down the offer!
PB: Where and when will your Birdathon take place? Is your wife Liz, an ABA staffer, going to be able to join you?
Jeff: I’ll be birding with Jody Allair and others on Saturday, May 10th, wherever he takes me in and around Port Rowan and Long Point [Ontario]. Though I’ve birded Rondeau and Pelee and all the birds will be familiar, this will be my first time around Long Point. Having heard so much about it for so many years, I’m very much looking forward to finally seeing it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for Liz to come this time.
PB: How much have you birded in Canada, in general, and at Long Point in particular?
Jeff: I’ve birded Canada more than any other country but the US. I’ve made something on the order of 10 trips each to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Manitoba. I’ve been very fortunate to visit Nunavut multiple times, with two trips to Pond Inlet on Baffin Island and another to Wager Bay. I’ve visited the Vancouver region a couple of times, as I have the aforementioned Pelee/Rondeau area and have stayed a couple of nights in Ottawa. I also made a memorable November birding trip to Quebec. No Long Point, no PEI, no Alberta or Yukon. So I guess I would say that I’ve made a good scratch in Canada’s surface, but man, there’s a lot of ground to cover.
PB: Do you have a target number of species you’re hoping to see during your Baillie Birdathon?
Jeff: Jody tells me that a total of around 140 or so will be good for the Long Point area. As for target birds, I have no targets in the sense of lifers or near-lifers. But I’m very excited about getting to see and hear a bunch of old friends. And who knows what may turn up? My dream bird in the region would be a “Cory’s” Least Bittern, but I bet I’m not alone in that dream!
PB: Kenn Kauffman wrote a few years ago, just before you became president, that when the ABA first started (and when he first joined), “it served a unique role in connecting the active birders of the US and Canada”. Do you think this is still true?
What would you tell Canadian birders in 2014 who want to know what the ABA can offer them?
Jeff: No question, yes, the ABA serves a unique role in connecting birders of the US and Canada. I think that role has evolved a lot over the nearly five decades of the ABA’s life and it continues to. Early on, there was a huge need for basic bird finding and identification information which has partially but not nearly wholly been filled by the internet. Of course, the ABA is still providing that information, too. Our Facebook Rare Bird Alert, to cite one small example, has a stellar track record of breaking news of ABA rarities. At this point, it’s the place to watch for this sort of info. Today, I see the ABA playing more of a role in being the center, or perhaps a center in this decentralized age, of birding culture and community. And I think we are THE center of birding culture. What it means and how best to go about being a birder — that’s right at the heart of what we’re about and that’s not true of any other North American organization, though there are a number that certainly do a great deal that is of value to birds and to birders. But as far as standing up and being counted as a member of the community of active, passionate birders? That’s the ABA.
For Canadians specifically, I think the ABA is unusual and worthwhile in that we define our core area of concern as the US and Canada. Right there, that encourages a shared vision and perspective. Of course, the ABA and its members’ interests extend beyond the ABA area, around the hemisphere and the globe. But there is an undeniable shared US/Canada outlook and community that the ABA fosters.
One thing I’d like to emphasize: we are always looking for Canadian content for our publications online and off. If you have stories to tell about birding Canada or birding as a Canadian, I guarantee they will get a fair hearing. Folks can email me at email@example.com and I’ll pass you along to the proper editor or manager.
PB: What sort of relationship is there, formal or informal, between the American Birding Association and Bird Studies Canada?
Jeff: Well, I hope that it’s a growing one. I’m doing the Baillie Birdathon this Spring and Jody Allair has an article about Bird Studies Canada that will be published later this month in our first-ever Birder’s Guide to Conservation and Community. So far, we don’t have any formal partnerships but I’m hoping to meet lots of folks and generate lots of ideas during my upcoming visit. I would also add that we all strongly suspect that many of the ABA’s Canadian members are also members of Bird Studies Canada and that offers natural opportunities for collaboration.
PB: How would you describe the differences in the various organizations: ABA, Bird Studies Canada, National Audubon Society, and even Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology?
Jeff: The ABA strives to inspire all people to enjoy and protect wild birds. We do that in a wide variety of ways and many of the other organizations you mention, all fine ones, overlap part of what we do. But I think one key difference is that the ABA is fundamentally in the business of promoting and supporting birding, where most other organizations emphasize birds, or conservation, and/or ornithology. Supporting birding is something they do to advance those ends. We support birding and we firmly believe it leads to good outcomes for birds, for habitat, and for society. We know it does for individuals. So while I see all these groups as having compatible and complementary goals, I think the ABA is the single place to register your identity and passion as a birder and to join a community of birders.
PB: What percentage of ABA members are Canadian? Are you looking to encourage membership from Canadian birders, and if so, how?
Jeff: Our Canadian membership generally runs about 10-12 percent, which closely mirrors the population of the two countries. We are looking to encourage membership from all birders, but if you or anyone has suggestions for ways to better reach Canada, I’d be delighted to hear them. We also try to have representation on our board and committees that at least approaches that 10-12 percent benchmark. Currently, we do not have a Canadian board member, so please get in touch if you’re interested or know someone who might be.
PB: You became president of the ABA in 2010. Shortly before that, you wrote, “The question for ABA is whether it’s going to adapt and change and once again lead and inspire the birding community.” Since you became president, how has the ABA been adapting, changing, leading, and inspiring, in both the US and Canada?
Jeff: Hands down, the biggest “mechanical” change is that we’ve gone online and are active in many social media spaces. But that increased online presence has been in the service of an even more fundamental change — making ourselves more accessible and responsive to our members, as well as giving them a number of useful forums where they can exchange information and discuss issues. We’re also accomplishing a real shift, I think, where we full-heartedly embrace both the purely recreational aspects of birding and the more legacy-building, conservation impulse that nearly all birders feel. In the past, I think there’s been a tendency for something of a rift to appear there, at least part of the time. But I find that today, perhaps most especially with younger birders, it’s all seen as essential parts of a larger whole. Birding is and ought to be a big tent for many approaches, for people of all ages and types. I’m very happy with the progress we’ve made toward promoting that vision and making it a reality.
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Thank you, Jeff, for the opportunity to interview you and good luck on your Baillie Birdathon!