Although the cold, wet weather may drive many away from outdoor activities in Hopkins Forest and the surrounding wilderness, a select few await the advent of spring with bated breath. Because while April might bring showers, it also brings a plethora of bird life. Countless species of birds stop over in Williamstown on their way north for the summer, and the small but active community of Berkshire birders is outside rain or shine, eager to catch a glimpse. I went out on a bird walk led by Hopkins Forest Manager Drew Jones to see what had birders all atwitter.
Luckily, when we went out early Saturday morning, the rain had briefly abated. We were each given hefty binoculars and began to roam around the periphery of the Rosenburg Center, peering into the surrounding underbrush.
At first glance, nothing seemed particularly special. A robin hopped back and forth on the soggy grass, pecking for worms, and a handful of chickadees flitted around a feeding tray that Jones had spread some birdseed on. Jones’ commentary, however, made the experience amount to more than a simple walk in the woods.
Drawing on years of experience, Jones shared with the group interesting facts and remarks and was constantly on the lookout for new birds. The din of morning birdsong that seemed to many of us a chaotic mass soon became an insightful indicator of a detailed list of the species in the area; every new call instigated a new hunt into the brush to find the bird in question. As time passed, we began searching further afield and noticing rare and different birds that would have otherwise flown under our radar.
Jones’ bird walks and his excitement to share his years of birding knowledge with students are part of his broader goal to foster interest in the natural world and passion for its conservation.
“Part of my mission is to help students, and the public as well, with nature education and promoting the forest,” he said. “It’s a nice way to get people out in the forest and interested in nature.” He also has fun at these events. “I enjoy it myself, and I enjoy imparting what knowledge I can about nature to people,” he explained.
The bird walks began as part of alumni weekend programming, but in the past couple of years, he has begun leading walks for students and community members.
In the future, he hopes to make the walks more frequent and better advertised, in addition to organizing some means of transportation to and from Hopkins Forest for interested students, all with the intention of increasing exposure and getting more students interested in the activity. “Birding is something that maybe one student a year is really into,” Jones said. “But I’ve noticed in the last couple of years an increase in student interest, and I find that encouraging.”
One such student is Jonah Levy ’18. Levy got interested in birding in the summer after his first year at the College, when an online video about common birdsongs in Maine sparked in him the revelation that the fascinating world of birds had been sitting right under his nose.
“Something clicked, and I was like, ‘Holy cow, I have literally been hearing that all my life,’” Levy said. “I realized that there was this sort of untapped well of knowledge about the world around me that I had never paid attention to, and I wanted to interrogate that and dig it up and figure out what was going on.”
Levy began birding both around his home in Maine and in Williamstown and has since become an avid practitioner. He particularly values the calming effect of focusing so intently on something other than schoolwork, as well as the spontaneity and excitement of a rare and unexpected sighting. He described one remarkable encounter at the top of a 20-foot pine tree off of Gale Road, where a tiny juvenile parula warbler alit on a branch right across from Levy to investigate him.
“I felt regarded – that he was recognizing me as another curious being,” Levy said. “And because he was a juvenile, and because they usually breed in remote forests up north, I might have been the first human he’d ever seen in his young life. Either that, or he thought I was some strange fruit.”
These extraordinary chance encounters, although certainly rare, are less unusual than some might think. On our brief two-hour walk, we had a number of awesome sightings, including the first red-breasted grosbeak of the migration season, here a week earlier than expected, a pair of male northern flickers fighting over a female with their gaudy yellow tail feathers and a rare breeding pair of wood ducks nestled in a shrub beside a pond. Many of us got a taste of what makes the activity so enthralling.
“It was a wonderful way to wake up and start the day,” Emily Elder ’20, a novice birder who attended the walk, said. “I would definitely go again because I feel like I only scratched the surface of the bird world!”