Positions and Achievements
Fellow of the DVOC
These "20 Questions with Keith Russell" appeared in the Fall 2007 Larus.
At what age did you start birding? What got you started?
I remember being interested in birds by the 3rd grade and having binoculars by the 5th or 6th grade but don’t know how the interest started.
Where did you go to secondary school and have you had formal training in ornithology? If so, when and where?
I attended Germantown Friends School here in Philly and then Cornell University (B.S. Biology) and Clemson University (M.Sc. Zoology).
Who were your birding mentors?
DVOC members Joe Cadbury, Steve Harty, Evie Kramer and Frank Gill
What was it that made you decide to join the DVOC in 1973 and who were your sponsors?
Joe Cadbury (who lived around the corner) took me and other kids to DVOC meetings during the 70s. I believe he (and perhaps Steve Harty?) were my sponsors.
We note that you were part of a DVOC-sponsored WSB team in the late eighties era. Are we correct that you were "the ringer" brought in to give that team extra credibility, causing it to rank in the event's top 10 with 181 species one year?
I think we all provided something unique and valuable to the team. My area of specialty was identifying songs.
You, along with Steve Lawrence are often called the "Master Birder of Carpenter's Woods". How did your long-time interest in that great warbler spot in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park come about? Is it still a top hotspot in the spring?
Carpenter’s Woods is still an extraordinary place to look for migrating birds during both the spring and fall. Because Joe Cadbury and other birding friends birded there a lot, and it was only located a block from where I went to elementary school (C. W. Henry), I wound up getting to know it well. Besides Steve Lawrence, I’ve met Erica Brendel, Gary Seagraves and many other birding friends (who are also “master” Carpenter’s Woods birders) there over the years.
What other birding spots in Philadelphia can you highly recommend?
Besides well-known spots like John Heinz, my favorite publicly accessible places to recommend are Roosevelt Park and Glen Foerd, which are both parts of Fairmount Park. The Bell’s Mill Road section of the Wissahickon was once superb during the breeding season but its now lost Chat, Cerulean, Kentucky, Hooded warblers and many other breeders. The park is currently working on a plan to attract many of these species back to the area.
People say you can do perfect birdsong imitations in the field (for instance, Yellow-throated Warbler and many others). Could this skill be related to your longtime/inherited interest in music, specifically opera?
I guess for there to be a connection between whistling and having a love of music make sense.
For years before the Birds of North America (BNA) project you worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences. What was the nature of that job and your work there?"
From 1982-1992 I worked as the museum’s Collection Manager for Exhibits. The collection manager cared for the museum’s collection of mounted specimens (birds, mammals, fish, etc.), as well as the museum’s dioramas.
You were instrumental in putting together BNA. What were the highlights of that epic project?
It’s always a privilege to work with Frank Gill. In addition to that, the opportunity to meet and work with so many of North America’s top ornithologists and to coauthor the Carolina Parakeet and Atlantic Puffin accounts were unbelievable, once in a lifetime opportunities.
It has been over 20 years since you began the Philadelphia Mid-Winter Bird Census (PMWBC). What have been the most surprising trends in the last couple of decades?
I’m not sure if anything has been that surprising, but since 1987 there have been huge declines in the number of wintering diving ducks (mainly on the Delaware), winter finches, pheasants and bobwhite, harriers, and Barn and Short-eared owls. Birds that have increased include Fox Sparrow, Merlin, Bald Eagle, Black Vulture and Double-crested Cormorant.
How does the PMWBC differ from the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Counts (CBC’s)?
In two ways. 1) The PMWBC is held in early January AFTER the CBC count period ends. 2) The PMWBC covers all areas within Philadelphia County rather than a 15-mile diameter circle. Although Philadelphia is over 15 miles long it contains fewer square miles (land and water) than one would find within a 15-mile diameter circle. In all other respects the PMWBC is run like a CBC.
In the 200+ years since the birth of our nation, what species have disappeared from Philadelphia that were common back then?
Among transients the Passenger Pigeon is probably the only regularly occurring species that’s now completely gone. Among residents there’s the bobwhite. Species that have disappeared as breeders (although all of these still occur as transients) include Blue-winged Teal, Black Duck, King Rail (?), Sora (?), Virginia Rail (?), Broad-winged Hawk, Whip-poor-will, Black-billed Cuckoo (?), Great Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Red-headed Woodpecker, Horned Lark, Purple Martin, Cliff Swallow, Cerulean, Kentucky, Worm-eating and Hooded warblers, Dickcissel, and Vesper Sparrow.
Has there been any bird that has shown up in Philadelphia that you regretted not seeing? If so, what was it, where was it seen and when?
There have been a number of pelagic and coastal species that have shown up during storms that would have been fascinating to see.
You are in the process of writing a book on Philadelphia's storied birding history. How did this project get started, what will the book contain, and when might it be published?
(Can this question be deleted? I am still plugging away on the book but would respectfully prefer to not respond to this question now).
You are one of the few members of our Club to have won both the Stone and Potter Awards, the two highest awards the Club gives. What were your achievements that DVOC recognized in bestowing these Awards upon you?
The Witmer Stone Award was for a Cassinia paper on Birds of the Wissahickon.
The Julian Potter Award was for coordinating the Philadelphia Mid-Winter Bird Census.
A number of people including our club members, not least Jan Gordon, fought to save the East Park reservoir as open space. Can you tell us about your job with PA Audubon here in Philadelphia and what the future holds for the reservoir?
I am an Outreach Coordinator for Audubon Pennsylvania. My job covers two areas. Education and outreach to the Strawberry Mansion community (where Audubon and Fairmount Park are working to build an environmental education center) and promoting bird conservation projects within the Fairmount Park Important Bird Area. Audubon would like to build the education center at the East Park Reservoir and we are currently working on completing the business plan for the project. The Water Department and Fairmount Park are our main partners in creating the center.
What has the New Bins for New Birders (NB4NB) program meant to you?
It has helped me to introduce children from Strawberry Mansion community to the world of birds. Most have never used binoculars before and most know nothing about birding. Having good quality kid-sized optics makes all the difference in this effort.
What is the best way to get Inner City kids into birding?
I think inner city kids are predisposed to be interested in birds just as much as any other kids, but they often lack mentoring and social acceptance from family and friends (especially as they get older). A bird club might be one way of helping inner city kids to sustain this type of interest. There are chess clubs, swim clubs, and other clubs that have helped inner city kids to excel. I think they would make excellent birders too.
What kinds of projects in Philadelphia would you like to see the DVOC involved in?
I’d like to see the DVOC become a bit more politically active. When it comes to problems that negatively affect birds in our region, we birders are the keepers of the knowledge that can identify and combat such problems. We cannot complain about bad things happening to birds and bird habitats if we are not willing to do share our knowledge in meaningful ways with those in a position of power.
Finally I have to ask this. I am certain that you have salivated over automobiles. If you were to ever get one, which would it be and why?
Formally I would have picked a Volvo. Now I think I’d pick a Prius hybrid.