Prove your humanity

When you just start out in birding, you get yourself a good pair of binoculars, a guide to birds, and some sturdy footwear. But something else you want to have is a mentor. A conversation with two members of the Three Rivers Birding Club illustrates this point perfectly.

LISTEN: “Birders Make the Best Friends”

On a cold wintry day at Harrison Hills Park in Allegheny County, Paul Hess sits at a picnic bench with his cane leaning at this side. His gloved hands are folded in front of him, and even as he talks, he’s looking up, scanning for birds.

Members of the Three Rivers Birding Club. Photo courtesy of 3RBC.

“I don’t hear any birds, or see any birds at the moment. They’re hunkered down in the brush,” says Hess, who back in 2001, was one of the founding members of the Three Rivers Birding Club, which now boasts 400 members.

“Soon, they’ll be out. They need to eat the colder it gets. They need to keep their energy going, so they’ll be around,” he says.

Hess has been birding since he was a kid.

“I’m very old,” he says. “And I’ve seen more than 600 different kinds of birds in North America.”

Hess is actually 78. The Natrona Heights resident is the retired editor of the Valley News Dispatch newspaper—but it’s a busy retirement. He’s written more than 300 articles for Birding magazine, contributed two chapters to The Complete Birds of North America, and wrote the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of Pennsylvania.

Hess estimates that he’s birded at Harrison Hills more than 800 times.

“For years, I’ve started out at seven o’clock in the morning, walked up and down the hills in the park until noon or one in the afternoon without stopping to sit down,” he says. “I was so interested in the birds, nothing else even entered my mind.”

But now, due to back issues, Hess has slowed down.

“I don’t walk five miles up and down hills in a row without sitting down anymore, so I’ve had to adapt,” he says, “Shorter walks, and not quite as often, but I’m still out there.”

Now, Hess is passing on what he knows about Harrison Hills Park to Dave Brooke, also of Natrona Heights.

“I respect Paul for all that he’s learned, and all that he’s done in the world of birding,” says Brooke. “He has sort of legendary status in the birding world.”

Brooke is newer to the birding scene. It was just four years ago that he went on his first bird walk at Harrison Hills and saw the hooded warbler, a yellow bird with what looks like a black hood. Brooke says he was shocked to see something that colorful at a local park.

“That was the very first walk I ever went on that sort of ignited my world of realizing that, ‘Wow this is something people do,’” he says. “I mean, I really didn’t know this was something people do. They go out and walk around the woods and look for birds?”

That’s the day that Brooke first met Hess. Now, they’re friends who share a love for birding—and a quick banter.

“We’ve had a chance to go out together, and take some walks and Paul has tried to impart some of his knowledge on me,” says Brooke. “Some of it’s taken…”

“You’re a fast learner,” says Hess.

“I’m just not as smart as him,” laughs Brooke. “There’s too much to absorb.”

When Brooke retired a few years ago, he found he had time and space to fill.  

“I worked for 43 years for the same company, and over that period of time, you develop relationships with the people that you work with, the people you come in contact with,” explains Brooke. “Then you retire, and you very quickly dissolve away from those people, and they quickly are not part of your life anymore.”

But in the two years since Brooke’s retirement, he’s entered the world of birding.

“It’s a whole new world where everybody seems to be just very welcoming and very eager to share their knowledge,” he says. “You won’t find birders trying to hide what they know.”

An Important Bird Area

Opened in 1970, Harrison Hills Park is part of the Audubon Pennsylvania Buffalo Creek Valley Important Bird Area. One reason is the diversity of habitat, including woodlands, vast open fields, meadows and a large pond. The 500-acre park sits on a high ridge above the Allegheny River, providing a steady stream of migrating birds.

“The interesting thing about the park is that it has changed very little in all these years since it’s opened,” says Hess. “It is not heavily used, so the habitat has just remained almost intact.”  

Paul likes to count birds, to see which ones are nesting, when they arrive in the spring, and when they leave in the fall. It’s this kind of dedication that Hess is passing on, and Brooke is more than ready. He’s already at the park three to four days a week, and admits he’s a little obsessed.

“It’s so much fun to go out,” says Brooke. “You can sit at home, and be depressed by the news, or you could come out in nature and really lose yourself in the beauty of nature.”

Both men agree that it is a healthy way to spend their retirement.  

Birding “does keep you young,” says Hess. “I might not be walking around doing anything if I hadn’t had that interest in birds.”

Since his retirement, Brooke has taken up photographing his newfound obsession. He’s posted 982 bird portraits on Flickr. 

“There’s so much to know, there’s so much to learn out there, that I don’t want to waste a day doing nothing. I want to spend the day learning something new,” says Brooke.

Brooke sums up their friendship this way: “It’s just a privilege to get out with Paul and have a chance to get to know him, and pick up some of his knowledge.”

Hess adds that they are “good friends, fellow birders, and fellow birders and friends are the best kind.”

If you find yourself at Harrison Hills Park, stop by the Environmental Center and pick up a copy of the Birds of Harrison Hills, a checklist of the 187 species that Hess compiled.

You might even see Hess and Brooke out there together, searching the sky for that next bird.