We spotted Brendan Murtha and a small group in the woods near Bowdoin College, binoculars at the ready, and stopped to talk. It turned out they were members of Bowdoin Naturalists, a new group. One of the co-founders, Zoe Wood ’18, was with Murtha, walking slowly through the woods observing everything from the birds to tree bark. After Murtha told us he was 18 and already has a life list of 700 birds he has spotted or heard, we wanted to know more. When we called him to talk, we learned about his plans to spend the summer on a remote island doing climate change-related research, his love of “Big Days” and how his father inspired his passion for birding.

START THEM YOUNG: Murtha is from Norwalk, Connecticut, and accumulated many of the birds on his life list in that area. Nearby Westport is “one of the best birding towns in the state.” His early interest in birding had much to do with his father Sean Murtha’s work as a bird artist. When Brendan was little, his father worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Brendan would tag along on birding adventures with his dad and his colleagues. “He was surrounded by a lot of phenomenal birders and scientists.” In the course of interacting with them, Murtha came to a realization: “That birding was kind of a super cool way to make nature a daily part of your life.” Age didn’t matter; “you could be old and crotchety and still have this fire for seeing new birds.”

UP THERE: Murtha’s recollection is that he didn’t start keeping a list until he was about 8 or 9. Now he’s up to 700 on that life list. Will he add more in Maine? Unlikely, Murtha said, or at least not while he’s without a car (freshmen at Bowdoin aren’t allowed to have cars). “I’m at the point where I kind of have to travel to see new birds. It would have to be an unusual migrant or something like that.” He loves the chase, but is not a completist. “I don’t like the idea of having seen everything. That is not my goal. It is the thrill of the chase that matters.”

LIKE FATHER, KIND OF LIKE SON: Murtha and his dad still like birding together, but don’t get to do it that often and take very different approaches. Brendan keeps careful track of everything he sees, keeping lists for individual counties, states and so forth. Sean does not. If they go to a preserve together, he runs around seeing everything; his dad sits with his sketchbook. “He is content to sit in one spot for hours. In doing that he really gets to know birds, painting them and sketching them. It is a really intimate relationship. I don’t know if I have the patience for that.”

Brendan Murtha, a freshman at Bowdoin, used a birding app to help him in his college search – he wanted to go to school where he could still get out in nature and bird-watch. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT: For keeping lists, Murtha is a big fan of eBird, the online database created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He’s been tracking his numbers on it since 2012. “It is a really phenomenal site revolutionizing birding… you can look up any species online, and it will show you pins for wherever it has been seen, with different colors to show you how long ago.” He also used eBird during his college search.

COLLEGE CHOICE: Really? “I did a lot of research.” He wanted to make sure he’d be in a good position to keep birding. Friends of his from the Connecticut Young Birders Club (of which he was once president) who had gone on to very urban schools lamented how little connection they now had with the natural world. “I knew I didn’t want that.” He had considered studying ornithology, but decided that might be too limited. His family did a lot of camping in Maine when he was growing up, and he loved the place. Bowdoin, where plans to major in ecology with an eye to a career in environmental conservation, was well situated, especially given its proximity to the coast. Murtha loves birding everywhere, but particularly in coastal communities. He regularly rides his bike through Brunswick to Simpson’s Point to bird-watch.

WINGS OF MIGRATION: One big difference between his temporary home in Maine and his childhood home in Connecticut is the timing of migration. Murtha said he knew Maine was behind Connecticut in terms of arrival time, but he didn’t realize how stark the contrast would be. During Maine’s April he said he saw 30 to 40 species a day, in May, more like 60 to 80. Connecticut would have had the May numbers in April, he said, because it is about two weeks ahead in the migration -schedule. “It kind of puts into perspective just how much distance they are actually covering. And how different the ecosystems are.”

BIG DAY ON CAMPUS: Bowdoin is heading into finals, and Murtha had a plan for decompressing during reading period with a “Big Day.” That’s the birders’ term for devoting a day to seeing how many bird species you can see or hear. “They are really invigorating.” (People also do Big Years, and yes, Murtha knows about that movie “Big Year,” in which Owen Wilson plays a hardcore birder.) First stop on his Big Day will likely be the Bowdoin Pines to look for family of barred owls he’s heard live in the area. “I am going to start at around 3 a.m.,” he said. He’ll also bike out to Simpson’s Point. Does it count if he just hears, rather than sees a bird? Absolutely. But even with his impressive life list, Murtha says he still has work to do in that department. “I am by no means an expert on all bird songs.”

SUMMER BIRD LOVING: Murtha is spending the summer working out at Kent Island, Bowdoin’s Scientific Station at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. He’ll be working with Bowdoin professor Patty Jones. “She is a powerhouse.” His hope is to focus on researching Black Guillemots, which breed there. “My project plan is going to be looking into their diet and look at how climate change might be changing that.” As Murtha points out, the Gulf of Maine is warming at frightening rates (99 percent faster than any other of the world’s waters) and as a result, the Black Guillemots, who eat fish, are likely to be encountering warm water fish. And they may be missing some Northern species that have withdrawn.

BEYOND THE BIRDS: If not enough guillemots are around to create a good data set, his fallback plan is to develop a full bio blitz of Kent Island. That’s a full ecological assessment. Beyond the birds even? “Yes. Bird identification is my greatest passion, but my shelves here and my shelves at home are filled with field guides for various things, from butterflies to reptiles and amphibians.” He might just count it all.

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