Since Ben West ’16 was 8 years old, he’s been birding; he says it’s part of his overall interest in nature. By now the 18-year-old knows 100 bird songs and has accumulated a life list (a birders’ way of keeping track of their bird sightings) of around 520 birds.
When he started at Bowdoin this fall, West quickly discovered he had a shared ornithological passion with his advisor, Biology Professor Nat Wheelwright. When Wheelwright suggested to West that he reach out to other birders on campus and start a birders’ club, West quickly went about setting one up.
Rather than starting from scratch, West instead reinvigorated the inactive Huntington Bird Club, named for Bowdoin Professor Emeritus Chuck Huntington who taught ornithology and ecology at Bowdoin from 1954 until his retirement in 1986. Huntington also directed the Bowdoin Scientific Station on Kent Island and, at age 92, still maintains a research program there on Leach’s Storm-Petrels.
“The club has not really been active in the last 10 years or so, so I’m delighted to see it spring back to life,” Wheelwright said.
The first birding trip West organized, in September, was to Morse Mountain in Phippsburg on a sunny Sunday to look for migrating hawks. While eating breakfast on the summit of Morse Mountain, the group of students spotted six red-shouldered hawks, one red-tailed hawk, four turkey vultures, one northern flicker, one double-crested cormorant and one snowy egret (both in the salt marsh below), lots of ring-billed gulls and several black-capped chickadees, and they heard one American goldfinch. In total during the trip, the group spotted 19 bird species.
Since moving to Maine from Iowa, West has been exploring the local area, learning about East Coast birds and spotting a lot of warblers, especially in the Bowdoin Pines next to campus. He says he’ll likely major in biology when he has to declare a major junior year, and wants to focus on ornithology in graduate school. He will apply for a summer fellowship to study at the Bowdoin Scientific Station on Kent Island, renowned for its pelagic bird research, and he plans to try to join an Arctic research trip at some point.
On Oct. 13, the Huntington Bird Club headed out on boat to explore Casco Bay to look for seabirds and whales. Besides spotting three finback whales, some harbor seals and a few pods of harbor porpoise, the group saw Canada geese, several kinds of scoters, a great shearwater, a northern gannet, a dark-eyed junco that landed on the boat, a pine siskin, and others.
And the birdwatching won’t stop over winter, when crossbills and possibly snowy and boreal owls will be around, as well as other irruptive birds, which are species that migrate here unexpectedly or cyclically.
For West, birdwatching has an appeal similar to a hunt, and tromping through heavy snow and blizzards does not deter him. “Adventure is part of it,” he said, explaining his zeal. And there’s always the elusive satisfaction of “seeing a rare bird that not a lot of people have seen.”