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For the Birds; Grad Student Shares Her Passion

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
March 2, 2011

Photo by Jessie Knapp @ Moore Fields.

By the time you finish reading this story you will find this statement hard to believe: Lauren Kras used to hate birds. Hated them. They moved around too much. They were too fast. Plants (rare plants, more specifically) are much easier to study.

She’s mad about them, rare plants, and says she can go on talking about them endlessly. But birds—Kras didn’t want anything to do with them. And then a Kirtland’s Warbler changed everything.

The rare songbird is found almost exclusively in the jack pine stands of northern Michigan. Kras, who is getting her master’s degree in plant biology, spent the summer there in 2007.

“Someone said to me, ‘you have to see this bird because it’s the only place you can see it,” Kras says. And the excitement builds.

She leans forward as she talks. Her hands move. Her voice goes up. After seeing the Kirtland’s Warbler, she learned that protecting the federally endangered bird had led to protecting an entire habitat. And that meant protecting more habitats, and more species. She says how great that is—that a tiny yellow-bellied bird could be responsible for saving whole populations.

And, for turning her on to birding.

“Rare things get me excited,” she says.

She edits herself, saying that was how she felt when she started “dabbling in birding” but now she is “way more excited; more like obsessed.”

That obsession burst open after she moved to New Hampshire in 2008.

Photo by Jessie Knapp @ Moore Fields.

She talks about keeping track of ‘life birds’—birds of a specific species seen for the first time. She came to New Hampshire with a life list of slightly more than 300. Now it tops 500.

During her first week in the state, she headed to the beach to check out the sandpipers. She met a couple of fellow birders who shared their spotting scope and led her to a prime spot in Hampton. There she met Steve Mirick and recognized his name as one of the expert birders in New Hampshire. He was so excited to find out Kras was becoming an avid birder (“There aren’t a lot of younger birders in the state”) that he invited her to a meeting that night of the N.H. Audubon Society. Kras accepted.

The meeting was in Rye. On their way up the coast, they stopped at some of Mirick’s favorite scouting spots.

“He got me 10 life birds on the way,” Kras says. 

At the meeting, people talked about breaking New Hampshire’s big year record, set at 280 by Mike Harvey in 2003. (A big year is when you try to see as many different species as possible in one year. Birders also keep track of big months and big days.) At the end of 2008, Mirick ended up falling short by two birds. The question on everyone’s minds then became: would he break it in 2009?

The answer is no; Kras did.

“I thought, ‘well, maybe I’ll do it’ just to see how hard I could push myself. I figured I was young, I had a lot of energy and if I worked at it, I could end up right below the best in the state,” she says. “I came up with a list and figured, if I did everything right, I would reach my goal of 280. By the end of May, I had 250.”

After that, she spent every free day—every free hour—birding.  She knew Mirick and others were right behind her. Then, one day in August while she was at the Laundromat, Kras got a call that Harvey had spotted a Franklin’s Gull at the Rochester Wastewater Treatment Plant. She had tied the record two weeks before.

Kras threw her wet clothes in her car and took off. When she got there, Harvey was “on the bird.”

“He was really excited for me. He knew I was trying to break the record,” Kras says.

She ended the year having seen 309 birds. The next closest birder logged in at 295. (Ten people broke the record that year).

Since then, Kras says she has “toned down a little.”

“I’m still incredibly insane but I have calmed down some,” she says. “I’m just so excited to learn, to see everything. And I’ve made all these new friends. It’s incredible. One of the things I love most about it is, you can go anywhere, and you don’t need a lot of stuff.”

In 2010, Kras began leading bird walks as a way to give back for all the guidance she had received. She is president of the Seacoast Chapter of the N.H. Audubon Society where she helps organize field trips and events. (All trips and programs are free and open to the public- http://www.seacoastchapter.org/.) 

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