Something Wild: Falling in Love with Nature ... and Others

Feb 16, 2018

Love stories abound this time of year, so what better time to revisit Something Wild’s First Bitten series where we explore the story of what made biologists fall in love with biology? This story is about a boy and a girl, and the great outdoors.

Julie Brown loves birds. She loves them so much, she made a living out of them. As the monitoring site coordinator for the Hawk Migration Association of North America, she counts birds, she tracks population and migration trends, she even plans raptor tours. And as with so many biologists, Julie Brown was first bitten by the nature love-bug at a young age.  

Julie grew up in coastal Massachusetts and was drawn to nature, she seemed to be always “exploring and crawling around tide pools and dissecting roadkill.” She even made close study of house sparrows in her field notebook, “sketching them and making observations of what they liked to eat. So I was always very curious about the natural world.”

But the bite she remembers best actually came when she was in college at the University of Maine. Just outside the library one day, there was “this beautiful bird with a rusty orange-red on the breast. And this big, beautiful bill. It had this crab apple all over its face and it didn't care that I was watching it. I thought, 'I don't even know what this bird is. I've never seen it'.”

a pine grosbeak.
Credit Courtesy Andrea Pokrzywinski via Flickr/Creative Commons.

A passing librarian helped identify the bird as a pine grosbeak, a chunky finch that spends most of its time in the northern boreal forests. Northern New England is at the southern edge of its range, but some years when food is scarce farther north they come our way in large numbers, including the one that Julie found perched on a crab apple tree.

“I said I need to learn more about the species. I need to learn more about migration, where this bird was coming from, how did it get here, where is it going to go? And that set me on my path towards studying migration and Raptor Research.”

The sense of wonder present in her voice as she remembers that moment is a commonality when biologists recall their moments of discovery. That moment imprints on your memory; you remember the light in the sky, the smell in the air. Phil Brown could tell you the date, too: April 10th of 1992. 

Phil is the director of Land Management with New Hampshire Audubon, and was first bitten in 1992 in, of all places, Staten Island! “There was just enough green space at the end of my parents dead end street. And I would go off into the woods, and climb trees, and flip over logs to look for salamanders and frogs and snakes.” But he always had a connection to birds.

A northern flicker.
Credit Courtesy Jerry McFarland via Flickr/Creative Commons.

That Spring of ‘92, Phil was looking out his window as he did every morning, every spring, watching for birds returning from their southern wintering grounds. All of a sudden, a bird he’d never seen before alighted on a dead stump in his front yard. In fact, it was a northern flicker.  “And I got to study this bird all spring long as it decided to make a nest hole and I watched it. I waited by the side of this tree just waiting all day long for woodpeckers to come and go; waiting for the young to stick their heads out of the hole.”

Moments like this can turn a hobby into a vocation, like it did for Julie and Phil. But it can also spark a very different type of love affair, like it did for Julie and Phil. Turns out Julie and Phil Brown are married...guess how they met.

Julie was working as a hawk counter at a hawk watch in the fall of 2006 at Pack Monadnock. “And Phil came up hoping to see a late season Golden Eagle.” Phil remembers there were three of them at the hawk watch, and that the third wheel quickly realized her position and backed away to let the bird-lovers have some time together.

Phil and Julie show off their wedding rings.
Credit Nick Capodice/NHPR.

Julie says, “We talked about all or our favorite places where we had been, where we want to go our love of the boreal forest and golden eagles and then a golden eagle appeared and we now have a golden eagle on our wedding rings with little spruce trees and the outline of the mountain we met on.” 

Love comes in many forms, especially when you step out your back door and into the wild. What life changing events have your wilderness moments led to? Share them in the comments below.