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An empty nest: Closing of Alaska Bird Observatory leaves a void in Fairbanks community

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Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2012 12:17 am | Updated: 12:09 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — When I heard the Alaska Bird Observatory was closing earlier this week, I, like many other bird-appreciative Fairbanksans, was seriously bummed.

Who am I going to call when I have a bird question now?

For the past 21 years, the Alaska Bird Observatory has been the place where Fairbanksans got their bird questions answered.

Whether it was what to do with a baby bird that fell out of its nest, how to identify an unusual bird, or why redpolls were dying at local feeders, folks at the ABO, as it was called in the Fairbanks birding community, had the answer, or they would do their darndest to find one.

The closing of the ABO is a tragedy, in terms of conservation, education and research. The ABO’s mission was “to advance the appreciation, understanding and conservation of birds and their habitats through research and education,” and the ABO did more to educate people in Fairbanks, including me, about birds in Fairbanks than any state or federal agency does.

“It is a big loss to the community,” longtime Fairbanks birder Gail Mayo, who is president of the Arctic Audubon Society, said. “The birding community really kind of rotated around the ABO. There are a lot of things people are going to miss.”

Birds are a big part of life in Fairbanks. Their arrival each spring and departure each fall signals the change of seasons in the North. Their presence at feeders in the winter is a sign that life really does go on at 40 degrees below zero. If a black-capped chickadee can make it through the winter, we should be able to, too.

While the ABO partnered and collaborated with agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, to name a few, to conduct research projects on birds across Alaska, it was the ABO’s education programs that opened the eyes and minds of so many Fairbanksans, young and old, to the world of birds.

From bird identification workshops to bird feeding seminars; from the Fairbanks FeederCount to the Farthest North Birdathon; from teaching kids how to build bird feeders to hosting guest lecturers to talk about birds, the ABO specialized in programs that emphasized citizen science and hands-on involvement, especially among children.

Teaching children

During the past 21 years, more than 25,000 school children visited the ABO’s Creamer’s Field Banding Station, the farthest-north banding station in North America. There, they learned the miracle of migration and the importance of conserving bird habitat. They got to see songbirds like yellow-rumped warblers, dark-eyed juncos and American tree sparrows close up. A lucky few got to hear the rapid heartbeat of a bird or release it gently from their hands.

One of those children was Luke Decicco, who started working as a youth volunteer at the banding station when he was about 10 years old. Decicco continued working with ABO staff every year through high school and went to college to study birds.

These days, Decicco is a 25-year-old biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage. He has migrated full circle, you might say.

“I don’t know if I can say I wouldn’t be where I am today without them, but I was definitely strongly effected by my experience with them,” Decicco said by cell phone on Wednesday. “It’s one of the few places I know of that really gets students and kids involved with research and getting out and being with birds.”

The importance of building an appreciation for nature in kids at a young age cannot be understated, especially in this technological day and age of video games and social media. The ABO knew this, of course, which is why over the years it developed teaching materials and curriculum for school teachers to use in their classrooms.

Needless to say, there are a lot of bummed out elementary school teachers around the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District today whose jobs will be a lot harder next spring in the wake of the ABO’s closure.

“It’s a shame, a real shame,” Ted Swem, a longtime bird biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who served on the ABO board for nine years, said. “Kids, retired people, housewives ... the ABO has exposed a lot of people to birds.”

The ABO also played an important role in education programs at Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. The banding station was one of the refuge’s biggest interpretive components, refuge education coordinator Mark Ross said. About 3,000 students a year visited the refuge to learn about migration and the ABO provided half the lesson programming and staff to teach the programs, he said. The programs were always popular with educators, Ross said.

It should be noted that the reason the ABO is closing is lack of money, not lack of public support, board president Laurel Devaney said.

“It’s never been a question of whether ABO was no longer relevant or people didn’t accept our message or mission,” she said. “I think the ABO is more relevant in the community than ever.”

Ripple effect

Devaney is hoping other agencies like the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service will pick up the torch dropped with the bird observatory’s closure, but that’s wishful thinking at a time when research money is hard to come by.

The ABO’s closure is “going to have a huge ripple effect,” she said. “This organization meant so much to so many people.”

Nancy DeWitt, who served as executive director at ABO for 10 years, said closing the bird observatory is “a huge blow to the North American bird research community.”

The ABO’s banding station research provided valuable data about a host of migratory birds, including the imperiled rusty blackbird and the poorly studied Arctic warbler, she said. The banding station generated one of the longest-term data sets anywhere on Alaska’s birds, DeWitt added.

But an even bigger blow is what the closure will mean to the community. Especially sad is the loss of ABO’s education programs, she said. Birds are the perfect tool for teaching children about wildlife and habitat conservation, DeWitt said.

Just last weekend, for example, DeWitt was the featured guest speaker at an owl program hosted by the bird observatory at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center. Almost 800 people showed up to get a chance to see live great-horned, great grey and boreal owls.

It isn’t just children or tree huggers that are interested in birds, either, DeWitt pointed out. During her tenure as executive director, DeWitt said she talked to plenty of trappers, hunters and miners about birds.

“They wouldn’t support your average environmental organization, but they supported ABO,” she said.

A good run

Back when ABO founder Tom Pogson was trying to get the non profit started in 1991, retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist John Wright, who has been involved with the bird observatory since its inception and was on the most current board, recalled experts from major bird research facilities around the country saying there was no way it would fly in Fairbanks.

“They said, ‘You guys have too puny of a market to do anything like that,’ ” he said. “In some ways, it’s remarkable it got off the ground initially. It flew pretty well for a while. There aren’t many birds that live longer than 20 years.”

Wright is hoping his old employer, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and other groups like the Arctic Audubon Society and Friends of Creamer’s Field, will inherit some of the research and education programs the ABO coordinated.

The Department of Fish and Game now has three biologists devoted to non-game “wildlife diversity” programs, and the agency has expressed an interest in taking over some of the research the ABO has been working on, he said. The research data collected by the ABO during the past 21 years will be archived somewhere and made available to researchers, Wright added.

The closing of the ABO will affect us at the News-Miner, I can tell you that. Who will compile the News-Miner’s spring “Birding Report,” a popular feature that the bird observatory provided free for the past 15 years? Who will we call when we need to identify a bird in a photograph? Who will we call when somebody calls us to report a white redpoll or a Eurasian bullfinch or a rufous hummingbird at their feeders? Where will be go when we need to get a photograph of a black-capped chickadee or hairy woodpecker at a feeder?

“It used to be when somebody opened the phone book and had a bird question they would call the Department of Fish and Game or Dan Gibson (retired ornithology curator at the University of Alaska Museum),” Wright said. “The ABO took over that load when it opened.

“Now the phones at other agencies are going to start ringing, because this one is not going to get picked up,” he said.

In fact, that’s already happening. On Tuesday, a woman from Salcha called Ross at the Department of Fish and Game with a question about beak deformities in black-capped chickadees, one of the research projects the ABO was tracking when it closed.

“She said the bird observatory didn’t answer their phone and she ended up calling me about it,” Ross said.

Sadly, it’s something we’ll all have to get used to.

Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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