Bird Nerd

One day last winter, walking through a grove of campus trees, Will Brooks ’20 encountered a bohemian waxwing.

Rare in Western Washington, this larger cousin to the more common cedar waxwing experienced an "irruption" last year, which, Will explains, is when a species expands into an area where it normally isn’t found. “I didn’t even see the bird, but I heard it—which still counts,” he says earnestly.

The college’s resident birder and a budding evolutionary biologist, Will is the leader of weekly bird walks on the Puget Sound campus. His walks draw five or 10 birding “regulars,” often students or staff members and a neighbor or two, who traverse the lawns and woods with eyes—and ears—alert.

“If you see a group of people with binoculars, that’s probably us,” he says.

At any given moment, we're probably looking at a cool bird."

– Will Brooks ’20

Bird walkers are treated not only to the natural beauty of campus, but to the expertise of a modest, passionate birder. Will’s interest began more than a decade ago, when he and his dad would take trips exploring their native California. He went on to start a bird club in high school. Since then he’s built an impressive catalog of avian knowledge and the ability to identify all of the regularly recurring American species by sight—and most just by sound, like the bohemian waxwing. (That’s about 750 species, if you’re counting.)

More than 100 of those species have been seen on campus, so the bird walkers have much to hope for. Most walks offer 20 or more species, and Will helps even casual observers identify and differentiate the birds by sight, as well as by their calls and songs, and even their flight styles.

“If they flap really frequently, or flap and then glide for periods—little details like that are picked up by spending time out in the field and getting familiar with them, like you might get familiar with somebody that you know. You recognize them just by how they walk,” he says.

Will’s quiet yet irrepressible enthusiasm is most obvious when he talks about showing birds to others. “It’s one of my favorite things to do,” he says. “Having a venue in which to do it is really great. I don’t have to just annoy people with bird facts.”

And he’s making an impact. “I did a bird walk this morning, and the group that I had, a lot of them were regulars. It’s fun to watch them improve,” he says. “They did a lot of the identification and spotted a lot of the birds, and we’re seeing more birds because of it.”

Anyone is welcome to join Will on his bird walks. They begin at Slater Museum of Natural History, Tuesdays at 8 a.m., and Fridays at 2 p.m., and last about an hour.

Even if you don’t go along for the whole walk, Will encourages the curious to stop by for a glimpse of what they’re seeing. “At any given moment, we’re probably looking at a cool bird.”


By Sarah Stall
Published May 3, 2018
Photos by Ross Mulhausen