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AU students connect with nature through new birdwatching club

Birders of American University is hosting birdwatching trips during its first semester

Bird-watching is a fun and educational hobby for D.C. residents, and the spring 2024 semester marks the debut of American University’s own bird-watching organization. 

Birders of American University is a bird-watching club that focuses on bird conservation and educating members on ornithology.

The club’s mission is conserving, observing and educating members. In addition to bird-watching trips, the club hosts movie nights and guest speaker events with bird experts. 

The organization is led by AU sophomores Dante Arminio, Kayla Millheim and Philip Maxson. The trio became friends during their freshman year at AU. 

Christopher Tudge is the club’s faculty advisor. Tudge is a biology professor who specializes in bird biology and reproductive biology.

As club president, Arminio, a student in the School of Public Affairs and the College of Arts and Sciences, emphasizes bird conservation during the club’s activities. 

“Our mission has to do a lot with our education about birds and bird habitats and how important bird conservation really is. Because as fun as bird-watching is, it’s also very important,” Arminio said. “You’re helping to add to this body of science that is making sure bird populations are healthy and making sure that an integral part of our local ecosystem is thriving.”

As club vice president, Millheim, a student in the School of Public Affairs, ensures that club events offer a welcoming atmosphere to new birders. 

“They [club members] don’t have to feel as though they have to have some experience in environmental causes or work.” Millheim said. “I know sometimes people can feel intimidated joining environmental groups on campus if they have less of a background or experience in that and we’re trying to make it so anybody can come, maybe learn a little, have some fun.”

The club aims to protect local birds and educate members on bird-watching etiquette. Arminio believes that the manner in which members birdwatch is especially important.

“We’re all sort of learning here how to identify birds, how to be respectful of your surroundings while you're watching,” Arminio said.

Maxson, the club treasurer and a student in the School of Public Affairs and the College of Arts and Sciences, views his role as an opportunity to learn more about bird-watching and to support his friend, Dante Arminio. 

“I think I’m in kind of in an interesting position where I actually don’t know that much about birding entirely,” Maxson said. “So, it's been nice to get to kind of learn alongside everybody else in the club.”

On Sunday, Jan. 28, the club held its first bird-watching trip at D.C.’s Battery Kemble Park

Attendees used binoculars provided by Tudge, who participated in the trip. Tudge said that around 17 students met at AU’s Letts-Anderson bus stop in the morning, eager and ready to bird-watch. During the trip, Arminio and other AU students enjoyed walking around the park and identifying local bird species. 

“We saw some woodpeckers and we saw some blue jays,” Arminio said. “So, it just goes to show how many birds are here around this campus and how important they are and how important of a role they play in sort of our ecosystem at AU.”

Millheim appreciates how bird-watching trips to places like Battery Kemble Park connect members to nature.

“I think it’s also just a really good opportunity to get outside. I think you see a lot of college students [who] want to be outside and want to be in nature more, but it can be hard to figure out how to do that,” Millheim said.

For some AU students, the trip to Battery Kemble Park served as an introduction to bird-watching. Kelsey Mackert, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, said that she learned a lot from the trip.

“I actually didn’t know it was an actual thing, bird-watching,” Mackert said. “To be honest, I thought this was like a silly little goofy thing, but no, it’s like an actual hobby people have and it’s actually pretty cool.”

Arminio’s interest in birds began during his high school years in San Diego, California. Despite his previous interest, he didn’t start bird-watching until he got to American University. In D.C., Arminio attended some D.C. Audubon society events, and soon wanted to bring his passion for bird-watching to AU.

“I think I just felt like I wanted to find like-minded people that also care about birds,” Arminio said.

Arminio initially planned to establish the club in spring 2023. However, the AU undergraduate student club application deadline passed, so he refined his plans over the summer and fall. Arminio sought advice from Tudge, his biology professor, on shaping the club's direction.

Tudge is a member of the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. As the club's faculty advisor, Tudge is helping the group organize guest speaker events with bird experts.

“I'm happy to be a liaison for him if he’s interested in trying to get local ornithologists to come to speak on campus,” Tudge said. “I know people at the Smithsonian. I know people at the National Zoo. I know ornithologists who are on campus at Georgetown.” 

The club’s movie nights feature animated movies about birds. The organization had its first movie night on Friday, Feb.16, where they watched the 2011 animated film, “Rio.” 

With spring and warmer weather approaching, the club is planning more outings to places like the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and its bird house. Maxson is excited to continue connecting with other AU students through bird-watching.

“It’s kind of silly when I say it, but people like to bond over their favorite bird and it’s nice being able to see people do an activity that has previously gone underrepresented on the campus,” Maxson said. “It’s nice being able to find people who are also passionate in it and get to meet them and have a space for that.”

This article was edited by Marina Zaczkiewicz, Sara Winick and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks and Charlie Mennuti.

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