Birder Jonathan Dowell Speaks To Local Rotarians

Jonathan Dowell:  Birder Jonathan Dowell, with assistance from wife Tessa, found and photographed the rare Bohemian Waxwing in White Rock just days ago. Courtesy photo

Longtime birder Jonathan Dowell address local Rotarians at their January 10 lunchtime meeting. Photo by Linda Hull

BY LINDA HULL
Vice President
Rotary Club of Los Alamos

Sporting a bright blue t-shirt with “I watch birds and I know things” emblazoned on the front, Dr. Jonathan Dowell, who has been a birder for many years, described his interest in our feathered friends to members of the Rotary Club of Los Alamos on January 10. 

Dowell began by stating that “during the year, of the 1077 species known in North America, 558 species of birds” call New Mexico home even if only briefly on migratory journeys north and south. “It is the Rio Grande marshland that promotes our state’s wide diversity of birds and their populous numbers.”

With a PowerPoint of his extraordinary photos, Dowell showed about 40 of the 65,000 photos he has taken over the years.  They included colorful images of grosbeaks, quail, wrens, flycatchers, hummingbirds, waxwings, titmice, roadrunners, sapsuckers, hawks, owls, and warblers—just to mention a few of the 460+ species he has photographed in the US.

Despite the apparent abundance of birds here, 3,000,000,000 (three billion) breeding birds have been lost in North America since 1970.  Sparrows and finches are among those whose population loss is most startling.  In New Mexico, whooping cranes are no longer present in our skies or waterways.  Much of this loss is due to encroachment on birds’ habitat and climate change.

When asked what birding books he recommends, Dowell suggested the National Geographic selection of field guides to birds of North America.  Sibley field guides are also highly regarded. As an aside, Dowell added that the movie, The Big Year, a gentle comedy about birdwatching starring Steve Martin and Jack Black, will be of interest to birders.

In response to another audience question, Dowell spoke about hot spots, those places that “represent a set of public locations that birds frequently visit, where birders go to find them.”  One of the “hottest spots in the spring” is High Island, a rise of land where there is fresh water among the miles of salt marsh near Beaumont, Texas.  Other hotspots include New Mexico’s National Wildlife Refuges and a number of New Mexico State Parks.  Closer to home, Dowell mentioned Bandelier Burnt Mesa Trail, the Red and Blue Dot Trails, the Los Alamos Reservoir, Upper Water Canyon, Ashley Pond, PEEC, and our water treatment facilities.  Essentially, any area with a water feature has a good chance of being frequented by a variety of birds.  (If you would like a complete list of the hotspots Dowell provided Rotarians, please contact Linda at 505-662-7950.)

For delving deeper into birding, Dowell recommended Cornell University’s eBird.org for hotspots, rare-bird alerts, worldwide sightings and the University’s Merlin cellphone app to identify birds by photo and song, https://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/.

In closing, Dowell acknowledged his wife, Tessa, who accompanied him to the Rotary meeting.  “Without her along to help me, I couldn’t do but maybe half of all of this.”

Jonathan Dowell has been a birder since the 1960s.  Dr. Dowell moved to Los Alamos in 1989 to join Los Alamos National Laboratory where he was employed as a research scientist for 29 years.  In 1997 he and wife Tessa founded ReefNews, Inc., a 501(c)3 charity using “underwater wildlife photography to bring the beauty and mystery of the oceans to inspire appreciation for science education in students of all ages.” 

After he retired in 2018, he and wife Tessa, to whom he credits his success in their outdoor adventures, turned their attention to birding.  Dr. Dowell now has a life list of 507 species of birds, with photographs of 464 of them.  

Dowell received the 2022 First Place Photography Award, Sandhill Crane category, from the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge for this early morning close-up photo of Sandhill cranes with their misty breath wispy in the winter air.

You can find Dowell’s photos on Instagram at SnowyEgretPhotography. 

Dowell is also an award-winning player of the mountain dulcimer.

The Rotary Club of Los Alamos meets in person Tuesdays, 12:00-1:00, in the Community Room, Cottonwood on the Greens, at the golf course.  A Zoom option is available by contacting Linda Hull, Rotary Club vice-president, 505-662-7950.  Hull is also happy to provide information about the Club and its humanitarian service.  The community is invited to attend meetings and become members.