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Taking Flight with Woody Keesee

This week, as part of our focus on birds, newsletter editor Georgina Schaeffer sat down with DLC Board member and bird enthusiast, Woody Keesee, for a fascinating discussion ranging from bird conservation to tips for bird watchers from beginners to experts.

GS: How did you become interested in birds?

WK: Both of my parents were great birders, and I grew up having breakfast each morning watching all sorts of birds at the feeder outside the window of our kitchen. My father and mother were long-standing members of the Audubon Society, and my father for several years served on the Board of National Audubon, finally as its Chairman. One of the things that he did at that time, together with the Executive Director and the Editor of the Audubon magazine, was to create a limited-edition reproduction set of John James Audubon’s original elephant folio produced in 1833 of the Birds of America. I was fortunate as a young man to spend many hours flipping through its pages, or better said, because of their size, carefully turning them over.

GS: May 9th was World Migratory Bird Day. What are you most excited to see during the migratory season?

WK: Usually, each year I participate in a birdathon organized by Audubon New York in Central Park and that is the way we celebrate the arrival of the migratory birds. This year, due to Covid-19, we regrettably will not be able to gather together in the park to do this. But that will not stop this group of dedicated birders. We have decided to do our birdathon virtually on May 15th, with each member going out on their own and reporting back the birds that they spotted or heard. I plan to do this, but unfortunately without the assistance of the expert staff of Audubon New York at my side, I expect that my count at the end of the day will not be what it usually is. I can identify a warbler, but to distinguish between the 37 varieties that make up part of the Eastern warbler family, requires the help of a birder far more expert than me. But I plan to do my best.

GS: Have you had any notable sightings already this season? Do you have any particular highlights over the years you’d like to share?

WK: Our two sons and daughter-in-law have been staying with us in Millbrook since mid-March, and my older son, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, has developed quite an interest in the birds that come to our feeders. We have five of them set up around the house all visible from either the kitchen or the sun porch. He spotted a Baltimore Oriole, which is a migratory bird that you don’t see that often. So far, he has seen this, plus a cardinal and a blue jay, so he has spotted all his favorite baseball teams. Other birds we have seen frequently, besides the relatively common sparrows, finches, doves and blackbirds, are the red bellied woodpecker, the red-winged blackbird, the red-breasted grosbeak, the brown-headed cowbird and the goldfinch. My favorites are the red-tailed hawks and the great blue herons that we often see on the property. And probably the two most memorable sightings that I have had over the years in Millbrook were a snowy owl that alighted on the railing of the porch off our bedroom one morning a few years ago and then more recently, a pair of bald eagles that I saw at the entrance to our driveway, each perched in a different tree.

GS: As with any new hobby, the first steps can always seem the most daunting. Do you have any recommendations for beginners?

WK: Sure. Start by buying a copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide on Eastern Birds. He produced one for each region of the country, but if you are in Millbrook, you want this one. They are all pocket sized and easy to carry and have wonderful illustrations of each bird, together with background information on their migratory patterns, preferred habitat and other details that you would want to know. Then, buy a bird feeder. While it is fun to go out on bird walks, the easiest way to start watching birds is by sitting at your own breakfast table and watching them as they come to the feeders. This way you get to see them from up close, which is preferable in my mind to looking at them through a pair of binoculars, which would be the next thing that you need to buy. And then join the Audubon Society or any other group of bird watchers, as it is both more fun to go out on bird walks together with other people, and you can learn a lot from some of them. I consider myself an amateur compared to most of the people with whom I have gone on bird walks. Another fun thing about birds is that you can always learn new things about them, no matter how long you have been watching them.

GS: If you keep a bird feeder at home, is there a kind of feeder or seed or other habits you find particularly effective for bringing birds into your own yard?

Photo courtesy Woody Keesee

WK: The first and most challenging thing you need to do is to find a squirrel-proof feeder. If you don’t, you will wind up watching large, bushy-tailed squirrels more often than birds, and you will buy several times as much birdseed as you need. Keeping the squirrels away can be a lifelong challenge. My sister actually wrote the eulogy at my father’s funeral about his continuing battle against the squirrels. Alas, he never won that one – to this day, they still manage to get into the feeders at his home which my sister now lives in.

The second thing is to buy good bird seed. This can easily be found at Tractor Supply or any good hardware or feed store around here. The mixed bird seed is better than the sunflower seeds, in my opinion, because it attracts a larger variety of birds. And in the winter, you want to have a feeder that will take suet cakes, as these attract certain birds that can be fascinating to observe.

Other than that, just keep the feeders full, and the birds will come.

GS: Can you talk a little bit about how you became interested in bird conservation?

WK: My father used to say that bird conservationists come in two varieties – those who like to watch them and those who like to shoot them. For the latter, he was, of course, not talking about songbirds, but upland game birds. But it is absolutely true that hunters are some of the most ardent conservationists, and this was my father’s case as well.

When he first moved north from Arkansas, he used to go duck hunting in the New Jersey marshes. And as he waited for the ducks to come in, he became interested in the other species of birds that inhabited the same marshes. In my case, upland bird hunting has also been part of my life and has sparked my interest in conservation. The more you observe birds in the field, the more interested you become in them and the more you realize the importance of protecting their habitat and flyways.

Anyone who has awakened at 4 am in early May to go out into the woods for turkey hunting will tell you that there is a moment about 20 minutes before sunrise when the woods come alive with the sound of birdsong. It is so loud that you cannot believe it does not wake up the whole neighborhood. It is a truly marvelous experience. Then they all go quiet as the daylight breaks.

I hate to think what the world would be like without them.

GS: Recent reports about the current and predicted decline of songbird populations are dire. Can you talk a little bit about the larger picture of bird conservation?

WK: I think that the report to which you are referring is the recent study released by the National Audubon Society entitled Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink.

Audubon scientists studied 604 North American bird species using 140 million bird records—including observational data from bird lovers across the country. They plugged this data into the same climate models used by more than 800 experts in 80 countries to map where each bird might live in the future under a changing climate.

The results show that two-thirds (64%) (389 out of 604) of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change. The good news is that the science also shows that if we take action now, we can help improve the changes for 76% of species at risk. By stabilizing carbon emissions and holding warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, nearly 150 species would no longer be vulnerable to extinction from climate change.

The report shows the places that it’s critical to protect. Safeguarding swaths of boreal forest, for example, to protect breeding warblers and waterfowl. This also locks up carbon in trees and soil, helping to further stall warming. For coastal birds threatened by sea-level rise, conservationists can create conditions so that beaches and marshlands can migrate inland, and in the same action buffer coastal towns and cities from storm surge. Great Plains areas projected to persist through climate change, known as strongholds, can be managed to sustain habitat for grassland birds and pollinators. Connecting fragmented forests by protecting or restoring corridors can guide wildlife to safer areas.

GS: What would you like to see in the future to aid in these conservation efforts?

WK: Conservation has to start locally. We are fortunate here in Dutchess County that we live in a place surrounded by beautiful grassland and woodlands with abundant water and wildlife. So, if we work to protect our backyard, we can make a major contribution to protecting the habit in which not only birds, but other animals thrive.

The two easiest examples of what DLC members can do are creating bird friendly forests and planting native plants.

Photo courtesy Kirsten Edlund

The DLC has more than 43,000 acres under easement, probably half of which are forest land. If all easement donors put this land in the forestry management program and ensured that their foresters followed bird friendly management practices, this would preserve a large amount of forest in an important part of the Eastern Flyway, which is critical for migratory birds.

Also, by growing native plants in our gardens and around our houses, we can contribute to creating a bird friendly environment in the open spaces. The Native Plant Center at the Westchester Community College in Valhalla is a good place to start for information on how to do this. Even if you are not a gardener, it can be fascinating to explore this area and learn more about the plants which are native to our area.

And finally, you can join a group like Audubon, through which you can not only learn more about birds and how to protect them, but also start a new hobby, bird watching, which can provide a lifetime of entertainment and enjoyment. Or if you are already a birder, join with others who share this common interest.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and Happy Birding!

GS: Thank you, Woody!

Woody’s Expert Picks:

The new forest resource center on the Audubon NY website: https://ny.audubon.org/conservation/working-lands

This includes an article on “light touches” that improve forests for birds: https://ny.audubon.org/conservation/light-touch-forest-management-makes-large-impact-birds

And also has info on priority birds: https://ny.audubon.org/sites/default/files/forest_birds_new_york.pdf.

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