Birding In The National Parks: A Conversation With American Birding Association President Jeffrey Gordon

American Birding Association President Jeffrey Gordon has close ties with the National Park System -- he worked for a year as a ranger in Acadia National Park. Photo by Liz Deluna Gordon

Birding can be a hobby of solitude, but like any other pursuit, people of like minds eventually band together for a common cause. Thus we have the American Birding Association, an organization uniting birders all over the United States and Canada.

I had a chance recently to talk about birding in the national parks with ABA President Jeffrey Gordon. Fresh off of trips to Alaska and Brazil, I managed to catch him on what was probably one of the few days of the year he’d get to relax at home in Colorado.

Kirby Adams: Jeff, I hear you did some interpretive work at national parks on both ends of the country back before your days as ABA president?


Jeff Gordon: I was an interpretive naturalist through the Student Conservation Association at Yosemite and Acadia. Following that, I worked a summer season at Acadia as a full-fledged NPS employee. It's a cliche, but I'll say it: those summers were easily some of the very best of my life. Being in those spectacular places and part of a community of people who were working creatively and very, very hard to help visitors enjoy, understand, and protect them was wonderfully satisfying. Good times.

KA: Any favorite birding moments from the National Park System you’d like to share?

JG: In the winter of 1976-77 I took a canoe camping trip to Everglades National Park with the Delaware Nature Society's Junior Naturalists program. I was 12, rabidly interested in wildlife, but not so much birds, which I regarded as too small, flitty, and confusing to truly interest me. The Anhinga Trail, Mrazek Pond, and Florida Bay really turned my head around. Seeing so many big, spectacular species so close--spoonbills, gallinules, bitterns, storks--the procession seemed endless and it was all so exciting.

Though I count the Pine Siskin I saw at my backyard feeder a couple months after that trip as my true "spark" bird, there's no doubt that the Everglades trip set the stage for a true conversion experience, one that certainly altered the course of my life for the better!

KA: I had a feeling you’d mention Everglades National Park. I’d like to do a survey sometime to see how many birders had their hobby spawned by a walk on Anhinga Trail. I’ve heard that same story so many times. I’ve even told it about myself. Truly a magical place. So, if I could give you a free birding trip to any park in the U.S. National Park System, where would you go? And what time of year?

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Everglades National Park, which is home to wood storks, has a strong pull on almost all birders. Kirby Adams photo.

JG: Ouch. Tough question! My wife, Liz, and I just went to Yellowstone and Grand Teton last Christmas/New Year's. I'd only been there in summer before, Liz had never been. The trip was something I really wanted to do and that lived up to or exceeded all my expectations. Just fabulous. Now, with your magical assistance, what should I do? I'd love to backpack into the wilder areas of Haleakalā National Park on Maui. I was in that park for just a day some years ago and I'd like a more in-depth experience. And I'd like for Liz to see Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, if we can work that into this dream trip. And if your offer includes a bit of time travel, I'd like to visit the recently-announced national park in my home state of Delaware, once it's fully established.

Delaware, ironically the first state to ratify the Constitution, is the last of the 50 states to get a national park. I'll be proud as a peacock to have the First State's heritage, both natural and cultural, given the NPS treatment. Oh, you asked time of year...Hawaii could be just about anytime. In Delaware, I'd pick early October, if forced. Best weather of the year.

KA: You’re the president, so the time machine is fair game. Speaking of being president, tell us a little bit about why a casual but well-traveled birder should get to know the ABA.

JG: The American Birding Association, more than anything, is a community. It's a social network that existed long before anyone heard of Facebook or Twitter. And joining the ABA is still a way to join a tribe of people who, like those NPS staff I enjoyed working with so much, are just really fun, smart, caring people, with birds and birding being the focus of all that energy. And though I know just how smart and dedicated NPS staff are, there aren't enough of 'em to be everywhere, all the time. The ABA can help you get more out of your travels, both within and without the boundaries of our national parks.

KA: Reading and joining in on the discussions on the ABA’s blog and Facebook page is a lot of fun. Smart and caring are understatements for the wonderful people there. But who has time to read when there are so many birds to be seen? I’m sure you have some serious birding to get back to. Thanks for sharing some time with us.

JG: Good birding, everyone! Enjoy our national parks, truly one of the greatest ideas America has ever had.