By Christina Whiting
Thirty years ago, during a guided naturalist walk on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, Betty Siegel fell in love with birding. From then on, she knew she wanted to pursue it — and pursue it she has.
Since 1991, Siegel has birded all over the world, including Alaska, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand, Bhutan, Antarctica, Africa, India, Panama, Mexico and Guyana.
In Alaska, over the course of 12 consecutive years, she explored the Kenai Peninsula, Denali, Denali Highway, Nome, Dalton Highway to Deadhorse, the Pribilofs, Attu and the Arctic Refuge.
“Attu was a place to see many migrant and vagrant Eurasian birds that are seen nowhere else in Alaska,” she said. “And the float trips and hikes in the Arctic Refuge offered solitude, beauty and magnificent vistas, as well as birds.”
In 2002, Siegel retired from 30 years as a social worker, moved to Homer and set off on her first organized international birding trip. She birded Australia and New Zealand, each for 15 days.
“I loved the Bowerbirds and Fairy-wrens especially,” she said. “Seeing all these new and exciting birds opened my eyes to all the possibilities for birding that were awaiting me.”
For Siegel, birding is about more than seeing birds; it’s about being in special places and appreciating the surroundings.
“When I’m going down a remote trail, I see the birds, but I’m also enjoying the outdoors, like the flowers, the trees and mountains,” she said. “During guided trips, I also learn about the local culture and environment.”
In Thailand, Siegel fell in love with the endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper. In Bhutan, the culture, environment and people amazed her. She loved the Himalayas’ colorful prayer flags and the emphasis on “gross national happiness.”
In Antarctica, she fell in love with the magnificence of the ice.
“Even though I loved the penguins, Antarctica wasn’t like a regular birding trip,” she said. “This was an everything trip.”
During a six-week trip of a lifetime, Siegel birded Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, seeing 750 bird species, 86 mammal species and 24 reptiles/amphibians.
In India, she journeyed to the Agra and Bharatpur areas of India and birded around the Taj Mahal. Later, she joined a small birding group in Northeast India and was guided to remote areas deep in the Himalayan foothills. Locals had recently created the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and Siegel’s group was the second group to visit the small ecotourism business that was just getting started.
A highlight of the trip for Siegel was birding by elephant to see the Bengal Florican in Kaziranga National Park.
“We were also bluff charged by a rhinoceros and I had a momentary fright when what turned out to be a non-lethal spider crawled up my leg in my sleeping bag,” she said.
In Guyana, a country on the northern coast of South America, Siegel fell in love with Harpy Eagles. She had three separate sightings of the eagles, which was a record for the guide. She also saw the second official sighting of White Woodpeckers in the country.
“The people of Guyana, especially the Amerindians, are working hard to develop sustainable ecotourism and are very protective of their unspoiled rainforests,” she said.
In 2009, 2011 and this past January, Siegel was one of 15 to 18 volunteers invited to travel to Midway Atoll. Set in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, this atoll is 1,250 miles northwest of Honolulu, Hawaii and 1,300 miles south of Adak, measures five miles in diameter and includes three small islands.
Midway features the world’s largest colony of Laysan Albatross, as well as other albatrosses and seabirds, totaling nearly three million birds.
Over a three-week period, Siegel and other volunteers counted the active nests of the Laysan, black-footed and short-tailed albatross. There are only 2,000 short-tailed albatross in the world.
“Midway Atoll is home to one nesting pair of Short-tailed Albatross, the third only successful nesting on the atoll since 1962,” she said. “It is a real thrill to see this amazing species brought back from near extinction.”
Siegel loves to share her passion. She has volunteered on Homer’s Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival committee for the past 11 years and at the front desk of the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center for the past 10 years. She is a founding member of and the volunteer coordinator for the Friends of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, is a co-founder of Kachemak Bay Birders, participates in the Kachemak Bay Shorebird monitoring project, monitors birds with the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team and gives community slideshow presentations about her birding trips.
Betty Siegel dreams of seeing unique birds, like the Birds of Paradise in Papua New Guinea and at 74 years old, she is planning many more birding trips; in fact, in August, she will set her sights on the Pantanal and Cerrado regions of central Brazil where she hopes to see Hyacinth Macaws and jaguars.
“Birding is who I am,” she said. “And birding in remote and special places all over the world is what I love most of all.”
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