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Birding in Cuba

Local ornithologist on expedition in newly accessible country

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April 24th, 2012

This February, local bird and insect specialist Don Messersmith experienced an opportunity many have been awaiting for almost 50 years. He participated in a two-week bird survey in Cuba, a country that has been mostly inaccessible to Americans for the past 49 years. It s amazing because Cuba s been pretty much closed to Americans until recently, Don says. Organized by the local Audubon Naturalist Society, Don and the group of 14 other bird enthusiasts saw 151 different kinds of birds that s half the number of birds ever spotted in Cuba 31 of them endemic to the country. While on the trip, Don marked a momentous occasion: he saw his 4,000th life bird, meaning he has seen and identified that many birds in the wild. What s more, he surpassed his milestone by 20.

Bird s eye view

Don has dedicated his life to birds and insects, beginning as a 13-year-old Boy Scout. As a professor of entomology and ornithology at the University of Maryland, he encouraged his students to understand both types of fauna and their relationship to the world around us. He s also taught bird courses for the Audubon Naturalist Society, headquartered in Chevy Chase, Md., and Johns Hopkins University. In the 1950s, he began leading excursions for the American Youth Hostel Association in Europe and has since lead birding tours throughout every continent. Since retirement, Don hasn t skipped a beat in sharing his passion with others. For the past six years, he s been an integral member of the birding club at. target="_blank">Riderwood, the Erickson Living community in Silver Spring, Md., where he lives. He leads weekly birding excursions around campus, pointing out field markers unique qualities inherent to different birds. For example, woodpeckers hang on the sides of trees while sparrows remain on the ground. The group learns about markings, shape, behavior, and feeding for different species. There are about 10,000 species of birds in the world, and some birders strive to see as many as possible, he says.

National honor

In 2011, Don received a national award from the American Birding Association. The highest honor he s ever received, the Chandler Robbins Education and Conservation Award recognizes Don s efforts in education and conservation. He says he s honored that a lifetime committed to his feathered friends has resulted in such recognition. Don still teaches weekly. He uses the spare bedroom in his Jackson-style apartment home as his office, where he plans and organizes lectures and the weekly trips for the Riderwood birders group. He feels people of all ages should learn about conservation. It all goes together, Don says. You protect the environment, you protect the birds.

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