For 30 years Stan Tekiela has been studying the flight patterns of birds around the world.
Inspired by the work of living English naturalists Jane Goodall, the anthropologist, and Sir David Attenborough, the broadcaster, as well as their forebear John James Audubon, Mr. Tekiela told Global Atlanta, “I haven’t met a bird that I didn’t think was amazing.”
As an example, he cited the Bar-tailed Godwit, which holds the record for traveling the longest distance without stopping from Alaska to New Zealand in only nine days without any breaks for food, water or rest. Another favorite is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which winters in Mexico and Central America and is the only bird that can fly backward or hover in midair and fly straight up or down.
Mr. Tekiela has translated his awe of birds into a career as a wildlife photographer, tour guide, columnist and radio personality. His books include “Bird Migration: The Incredible Journeys of North American Birds,” which describes the migratory driving forces of the need to feed and to breed. While the exact time that birds started migrating hasn’t been determined exactly, he says migrations are considered to have evolved over millions of years.
He also explores the scientific research into the birds’ migratory patterns seeking directional clues from their senses of smell, magnetic sensitivity to the pull of the earth’s magnetic poles and their biological makeup. Those birds that migrate at night may also use for directions the stars and those traveling during the daylight hours may use geographical markers.
Mr. Tekiela has authored more than 175 field guides, nature books, children’s books, wildlife audio CDs puzzles and playing cards providing a case study for anyone who experiences an entrepreneurial itch and seeks to make a living from his or her passion.
Among this outpouring is the “The Kids’ Guide to Birds of Georgia,” revealing not only his commitment to a global perspective, but also to a grounded global one as well. This book highlights 87 birds that can be found in Georgia according to their color including their distinguishing characteristics, where they can be found, what they eat, how they nest and where they stay during the winter.
“All birds have redeeming qualities and I am fascinated by them all. I haven’t met a bird that I didn’t think was amazing,” he said. “But If had to choose a group of birds I would say the hummingbirds and raptors would be my favorites. The hummingbirds are unlike all others and break all the rules in the bird world. I love the power of the raptors (including hawks, eagles, ospreys, falcons, owls and vultures) and their skills of hunting and flying.”
His favorite activity is to witness bird migrations. “Yes, I like the spring migration for all the brightly colored warbler species and hummingbirds. But I specifically like the spring migration of Sandhill Cranes. It is the best time to see a large number of cranes in the grips of the ancient ritual of spring migration. If you haven’t seen this, it is definitely something to put on your bucket list.”
“This is the best part of being a naturalist and wildlife photographer,” he said. “I travel for not only the amazing birds but also for other animals such as bears, jaguar and caribou. I have traveled to the tundra of the arctic and the jungles of Central and South America. I find the different habitats equally fascinating.”
While currently enthralled by bird life, he also fears for their future. Man-made obstacles such as buildings, cell and radio towers, and wind towers along with natural predators kill millions of birds every year.
People, however, he says are the greatest threat to their future. “We are slowly consuming the natural resources and converting natural habitat for our own needs and excluding that of the wild birds and animals. It is only a matter of time before we have overpopulated the planet with people and the results will be disastrous.
To learn more about Mr. Tekiela and his work, click here.
The full transcript of Global Atlanta’s interview with Mr. Tekiela follows:
Are you in awe of any birds specifically?
Well, I have to say that I haven’t found a bird that I don’t think is amazing. But when it comes to migrations you have to think of the Bar-tailed Godwit, which holds the record for traveling the longest distance without stopping. One of these large, long legged shorebirds flew 7,145 miles from Alaska to New Zealand in nine days without stopping for food, water or rest. The Arctic Tern also comes to mind. It flies as astounding 49,700 miles round-trip between breeding grounds in the Arctic and the wintering grounds in the Antarctic.
What sorts of global voyages as a naturalist and wildlife photographer have you made to track these incredible voyagers?
This is the best part of being a naturalist and wildlife photographer. I travel for not only the amazing birds but also for other animals such as bears, jaguar and caribou. I have traveled to the tundra of the arctic and the jungles of Central and South America. I find the different habitats equally fascinating.
What do you consider the best times of year and the best locations from which to view bird migrations? What makes these locations so special and do you organize tour groups to witness them?
I would say the fall migration has to be my favorite because its more concentrated, predictable, and easier to observe. However, there are a couple springtime bird migrations that are amazing to witness, such as the Sandhill Crane migration. Hundreds of thousands of cranes gather during this annual migration. It is something you need to experience to fully appreciate. I have been leading birding and photo tours to see the spring crane migration in Nebraska for 30 years and I still am thrilled when I am there.
In your book, you have a small chapter titled “It’s Not Easy” that details some of the most difficult things that can interfere with a bird’s travels. You list man-made obstacles such as buildings, cell and radio towers and wind turbines as well as natural predators. You say it is estimated that up to one billion birds die annually from hitting windows. Another seven million perish after striking cell and radio towers and wind turbines. Domestic cats also kill millions. Do airplanes add to this carnage?
Yes, airplanes do kill birds but as you know it often results in disasters for the aircraft. It’s a negligible amount of bird kills.
You also have referred to “pet trade.” What are some of the results for birds of this trade? And when domestic birds are released what happens to them and is their freedom a positive or a negative for other birds in their neighborhoods?
Thankfully in the U.S. wild bird pet trade is not very common. Birds are not taken from the wild here but wild birds are taken from the wild in many other parts of the world and often end up here in the U.S. because people purchase them for pets. This is a huge problem since many times these birds live very long lives and will potentially outlive their owners. I would discourage anyone who is thinking about purchasing a parrot or other wild caught bird to think twice before doing so.
Are you concerned that human beings are not aware enough of the threat to the world’s bird populations? And what measures do you think humans should take to help preserve them?
Yes, the number one threat to wild birds are people or should I say the amount of people. We are slowly consuming the natural resources and converting natural habitat for our own needs and excluding that of the wild birds and other animals. It is only a matter of time before we have over populated the planet with people and the results will be disastrous.
How did you first become interested in birds and bird migrations? Are there any particular naturalists in your field that you respect and follow their work?
I cannot remember a time in my life, even as a young boy, that I wasn’t interested in wildlife, birds, plants and nature in general. It has been a lifelong passion for me. I have always (and continue doing so) admired a couple of naturalists. Jane Goodall has always been an inspiration to me because of her not unceasing commitment to the environment, and to me, Sir David Attenborough is about the closest thing on planet earth to a living god.
What would humans lose in a world where bird populations are vastly reduced? Could you even imagine such a world and would you want to live in such a world?
I once did a study of a single pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers as they collected insects to feed their babies in a nest. I took pictures of each time they visited the nest and later used the pictures to zoom in and estimate the number of insects they brought to their babies. I then counted the number of visits per hour and how many hours in the day. I then calculated how many days they would be feeding their babies. The results where these two adult Red-bellied Woodpeckers brought over 10,000 insects to their babies just for the time the babies were in the nest (a very short amount of time). If this one couple of woodpeckers fed this many insects to their babies, how many insects are the rest of the millions of birds eating? The point is, birds eat millions of insects. I then asked the reader to try and imagine a world where the number of birds is reduced or eliminated. The results would be a world overrun by insects. Nature is always trying to seek a balance and when people destroy parts of nature the results are a world out of balance.
In your book you discuss some of the scientific research into the bird’s migratory patterns including an investigation of their sense of smell, magnetic sensitivity to the pull of the earth’s magnetic poles as well as other innate senses and biological makeup. Those birds that migrate at night also can use the stars while those traveling during daylight hours may use geographical markers. You say that these skills have developed over millions of years as birds have been motivated by their need to feed themselves and propagate. What adaptations do you think birds are making today to survive in these times?
Birds are very quick to adapt and have done so many times over millions of years. The big concern is the rate of change that humans are causing in the environment is way faster than any other time in the past and it is unknown if the birds can change or adapt quick enough. We are already seeing birds migrating earlier in the spring and delaying their migration longer in the fall due to climate change. In just the past 25 to 30 years the studies show a clear change in the times that the annual migration takes place.
As a naturalist, photographer and speaker, how concerned are you about the impact of climate change on the world’s fauna and flora. You have studied a wide range of animals including amphibians such as frogs, toads and salamanders, and mammals such as wolves, coyotes and foxes, bears and elk. You also have focused on wildflowers. What evidence of the effects of climate change have you detected through your work? Are there any organizations that you particularly respect and support dealing with climate change?
Yes, I am very concerned with climate change and the negative effects that overpopulation has on our planet. There are many organizations that are doing amazing work. No one organization, government agency, or group can do what is needed alone. It will take all of their efforts to solve our problems and get things done.
Aside from tracking the global travels of birds, you also are very much aware of their local presence and you have a series of books including “Birds of Georgia” that helps their readers identify birds which may show up in their backyards by their colors. How much time have you spent in Georgia identifying the birds most likely to be found in the state?
When I was writing the Birds of Georgia field guide, I spent many weeks in Georgia in the different seasons capturing images of the birds. I also traveled throughout the state to visit the different habitats.
Can you choose from among all the varieties your favorite birds. If so please explain why. What makes them so special to you?
This is like being asked which is your favorite child. I like them all. All birds have redeeming qualities and I am fascinated by them all. In fact, I haven’t met a bird that I didn’t think was amazing. But if I had to choose a group of birds I would say the hummingbirds and the raptors would be my favorite. The hummingbirds are unlike all others and break all the rules in the bird world. I love the power of the raptors and their skills of hunting and flying.
In what ways have you been affected by the career of John James Audubon?
I find the work of JJ Audubon remarkable and unmatched. He laid the foundation for others like myself to stand upon today.