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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Albuquerque Dentist Discovers Joys of Birding During Pandemic

blue bird with black and brown wings sits outsideOne of the birds David Duniven has seen is a blue grosbeak. Photo by David Duniven 

A 38-year-old dentist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, David Duniven spends much of his time examining the inside of mouths, cleaning teeth, filling cavities, and administering the occasional but always-dreaded root canal surgery.

 

Recently, he began turning his gaze elsewhere – to birds.

Like countless others throughout the country and across the globe, Duniven discovered the joys of bird watching during the onset of COVID-19. (In April 2020, when some 90 percent of Americans were under stay-at-home orders, more than 150,000 people downloaded the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s free bird identification app.)

“Everything was closed, and the only thing I could do outside my apartment was walk through the bosque [the forested riverbanks],” says Duniven. “I walked the same paths every week, noting all of the different things I saw each time. I’d never before noticed the differences from week to week, the different plants flowering, the subtle changes in bird activity.”

Duniven’s leisurely strolls eventually morphed into daylong outings in the Sandia Mountains that loom over the city, and at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a 57,000-acre preserve straddling the banks of the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico, renowned for its perennial draw of migratory waterfowl.    

  man looks into his camera off frame, while woman with sunglasses smilesDuniven and friend birding. Photo courtesy David Duniven

“I realized that one of the great things about getting into nature is getting away from the stimulation of the city,” Duniven says. “While I love the hustle and bustle, hiking around looking for new birds is both engaging and relaxing.”

The dentist-cum-birder also began bringing his camera on his outings, capturing images of avian species on his checklist, from western and summer tanagers, to Townsend's warblers, blue grosbeaks, white-breasted nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers.

While Duniven says his most memorable birding experience occurred in Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest, where he beheld a pair of quetzals, what he calls “the holy grail” for many birders, his time at the start of the pandemic opened up a whole new world, right in his own backyard.

“I didn’t realize just how great the wildlife was here within Albuquerque city limits until I started walking around the bosque last year to get some fresh air,” Duniven says. “When I’m at home, I invariably pull out my phone or iPad and ‘doom-scroll.’ In nature, something real captures my attention – and now I’m beginning to pay attention to other parts of the environment that I used to overlook.”

This sentiment precisely reflects the mission of a campaign established during the pandemic by a partnership including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Klamath Bird Observatory, and Partners in Flight, a broad network of more than 150 organizations devoted to bird conservation in the Western Hemisphere. Making the best of the circumstances surrounding a global pandemic, the #BigYearAtHome campaign is an interactive and collaborative call to communities of all kinds, touting the rewards of bird watching and promoting bird-related conservation efforts.

“Since 1970, nearly 3 billion birds have been lost in North America,” says Kristin Madden, a chief with our Division of Migratory Birds in Albuquerque. “These are species that provide critical ecosystem services, such as seed dispersal, pollination, and eating insects that carry disease and damage crops. They are vital to many cultures and bring joy to our lives. It is imperative to connect communities to their surroundings, to the importance of conservation, and the myriad ways we can work to help bring them back.”

Certainly, Duniven, through the lens of his newfound interest in birds, appreciates the importance of conservation. And he’ll continue looking for more species on his birding checklist.

“The seasons are starting to change and you never know what you may get to see,” he says.  

-Ben Ikenson, Freelance Writer, Arkansas-Rio Grande-Texas Gulf and Lower Colorado Basin Regions

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