Birding Student, Birding Teacher


Story and photos by Brendan Bane

Birders are as diverse as the species they stalk. Some sit still for hours, waiting for nesting parents to return. Others competitively catalogue birds. But Todd Newberry is different. He practices the art of deliberate observation. He takes time to notice the details of a bird and its environment and uses that information to segue into rich discussion.

“There are different scales out there from ours,” says Newberry. “There are different tempos than ours. There are different perceptions than ours. I think what I’m trying to get people to experience is something Proust said in an early essay: ‘The true voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’”

And quick he is to help aspiring birders find their eyes. When I met Newberry for an early morning bird walk at the UC–Santa Cruz Arboretum in late July, he had spare binoculars handy for those without. As fellow birders gathered round, he preemptively answered the simplest questions first so we would have time for meatier subjects during the walk.

Newberry is a facilitator of inquiry and discussion. After a round of storytelling and before departing in search of birds, he issued a demand: “Ask questions, for goodness sake! This is not a tour of a French chateau.”

The Ardent Birder
The arboretum is Newberry's self-proclaimed patch, and has long been so, for he helped to establish the university in 1965. He was among the first to teach there, and has since taught myriad courses ranging from biology to history. But his birding habit began long before that.

Newberry fell for birds at boarding school on the East Coast. Childhood encounters commanded his passion early on, from chimney swifts overtaking his chemistry classroom to warblers gracing pond-side trees. As he recounts in The Ardent Birder, his 2005 book on the craft of bird watching, “Everywhere that spring, birds seemed to be bearers of astonishment. While my head absorbed classroom lessons, my heart was seduced, bird by bird.” (Todd Newberry spies a loggerhead shrike, a rare find in the area.)

After earning his B.A. from Princeton and his Ph.D from Stanford, Newberry came to Santa Cruz to teach and study tunicates (sea squirts). He focused his attention on undergraduates, taking students into the tidepools and doing his best to shape them into naturalists, as he does with birders today. “It allowed me to get people to crawl into tidepools and really get wet and listen or smell—even for just 15 minutes.”

He still prefers the outdoors to the lecture hall. After all, a naturalist’s skills are best honed in the bush. “I haven’t taught indoors in 20 years,” says Newberry. “It’s always outdoors, no matter what. If it’s raining, bring an umbrella. Better that than go indoors and play ‘let’s pretend.’”

Seeker of Knowledge
On the walk, Newberry was like a philosophical David Attenborough from New Jersey—he narrated the behavior of each bird we encountered, prompting us to question the cause and to mind our interpretations. Where other birders point and identify, he converses and speculates—something his fellow birders have come to expect and appreciate. “Todd is remarkably erudite, with a wide-ranging intellect and a great appreciation of literature and the arts,” says Walter Goldfrank, birder and professor emeritus of sociology at UCSC. “He has to be one of the most artistic and literate birding experts on the planet.”

As a cello player, Newberry often draws analogies through music. Being a prudent observer in nature is much like musicianship. Before a cellist can join in harmony with the orchestra, he or she must listen and take into account the actions of all other musicians. Similarly, to get the most out of an encounter with a bird, birders must listen for and notice all the elements of a scene in nature. (A towhee feeds its offspring at the UCSC arboretum. )

“I believe [guide book author and illustrator] John Muir Laws once said, ‘We’re only on the earth for a short time, and we only have a few encounters with the natural world. We should honor every one.’ That’s a good point—very powerful. But how do you do that?”

When I prompted Newberry to answer his own rhetorical query, he replied, “Just stand still and ask questions.”

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