From his earliest days exploring the natural world in his native Virginia, Charles Clarkson always gravitated toward birds. They were easy to see almost everywhere he went, and by high school he knew he wanted to dedicate his life to them.
Today, the 38-year-old Middletown resident leads a massive effort involving more than 200 volunteers to document every species of bird that breeds in every corner of the Ocean State. And several times each year, he leads birdwatching tours to Panama and other countries around the world.
“When I see a bird, something emotional stirs inside of me,” he says. “Seeing birds in their natural habitats doing what they’ve done for millions of years seemed otherworldly.”
A member of the board of the Aquidneck Land Trust and the Audubon Society of Rhode
|Keel-billed Toucan (Charles Clarkson)|
“They operate at the maximum of their physiological capacity, they’re the epitome of movement and grace, and it just seems impossible to me that they are capable of surviving and thriving on every continent on the planet and in extremely hostile environments,” he says. “And yet they figured it out. If the going gets tough, birds get tougher.”
As a teen obsessed with birds, however, Clarkson felt a bit like an outsider.
“Every Friday night I would pack my backpack and set out on the Appalachian Trail by myself, birding and camping,” he says. “But I never really got the feeling that I was missing out on anything. I look back at my time spent alone in the woods with a great deal of fondness.”
His passion for birds even made him miss his graduate school commencement ceremony because he was leading a birdwatching excursion to Scotland and Iceland. But again, he claims not to feel as if he missed anything. “Viewing Atlantic puffin colonies definitely takes priority,” Clarkson says.
Luckily, he has a supportive wife who sees the benefits of his ornithological activities. She even joins him occasionally and participates in pre- and post-trip gatherings with his birdwatching friends and clients.
According to Clarkson, Newport County is an ideal place to look for birds at any time of the year. The region has an abundance of warblers, vireos, thrushes, sparrows and other songbirds that breed in the area, and is a significant spot for wintering waterfowl. He notes that Miantonomi Park is one of the best locations in the state to observe songbird migration in the spring, and Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge is “unparalleled” for its abundance of ducks in the winter — as well as for the regular appearance of snowy, short-eared and barn owls.
It’s not necessary to be a scientist to appreciate birds, so Clarkson encourages everyone to be attentive to the winged creatures around them.
“They’re one of the most observable wildlife on Earth,” he says. “Watching birds lends itself well to everybody — to family groups, to children. It’s accessible to a large audience, and there’s not a lot of startup costs. Birding is a gateway drug to learning about the entire ecosystem. Birds are the harbingers of things to come.”
Clarkson’s main activity for the last five years has been as leader of the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, which has documented the breeding status of more than 165 bird species in the state and the habitats each prefers.
“Knowing this information gives us the tools for effective conservation,” he says. “It helps us figure out what we need to do to attract certain suites of species and to manage for overall biodiversity.”
For those interested in learning about birds beyond the local area, Clarkson leads several tours each year to Panama and occasionally to Iceland, South Africa and other destinations through his company, Antbird Tours. Home to more than 1,000 species of birds, Panama’s location between North and South America means it sees huge numbers of migrating birds traveling back and forth each year, and it is one of the best places in the world to see migrating hawks. The resident species are spectacularly colorful, and include toucans, parrots, tanagers and dozens of kinds of hummingbirds.
“All of this occurs in a country roughly the size of South Carolina,” Clarkson says. “It’s easily accessible, and I can cater a trip to whatever you want to see. In five days, you can get a good introduction to tropical birding. And it’s impossible to go there without returning with a good sense of how tropical ecosystems work and the role of birds.”
Clarkson notes that it’s not necessary to be a birdwatcher to enjoy his Panama tours. In addition to birds, his clients also usually see several kinds of monkeys, sloths, anteaters and lots of beautiful butterflies, among a long list of other creatures.
“It doesn’t matter what your interests are; I’m happy to take you there just to show you the magnificent biodiversity of the tropics,” he said. “When I take people to Panama and show them how a healthy rainforest operates, they become changed by the experience.”