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A bird in the bush: Sean O’Brien

April 7, 2010
By CAPERTON?TISSOT, Special to the Enterprise

It's 4 a.m. The temperature is 36 degrees. Sean O'Brien - huddled down on the frozen snow-covered ground with his back against the trunk of a black spruce - tucks deeper into his long coat, trying to fend off the damp chill of an April morning.

Ten feet away, a 32-foot parabola dish is mounted on a tripod, ready to catch the first notes of the birds which will soon feather their songs across the vast silent marsh. These sounds will be relayed to a nearby recording machine fueled by several powerful and heavy batteries.

To reach this isolated spot far from the buzz of civilization, Sean had to hike several miles the previous day, lugging the 45 pounds of equipment on his back. It not only filled his pack but stuck out well above his head, leaving no room for a tent, sleeping bag or even much food. It has been a long, cold night with little sleep but as soon as the birds begin to sing, all discomforts are forgotten.

Article Photos

Sean O’Brien
(Photo — Caperton Tissot)

He quietly slides over to the dish and aims it toward the bird whose song he wants to record. One by one, the marsh comes alive as bird after bird tunes in.

Though a lover of a variety of music, whether Beethoven, traditional Irish, or Bob Dylan, it is this music which Sean loves the most - be it wood thrush, redstart or the chuckle of a raven. Some days he climbs to a summit in the High Peaks, spending the night so as to be ready to catch the early-dawn notes of a Bicknell's thrush. Other nights he settles himself deep in the woods and calls in barred owls, favorite birds of his, to record their vocal repertory.

Tramping the wilderness, recording animals and amphibians but especially birds, is Sean's passion.

"I do it just because I love to, not because anyone else wants me to," he said.

However, included among those who value and have used many of his recordings is the Library of Natural Sounds at the Laboratory of Ornithology, Cornell University.

For Sean, jobs are simply a way to sustain himself so he can continue his recordings. "If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would just keep on doing what I am doing, but maybe with a little more comfort," he explains. Love of wildlife and especially birds goes far back into his childhood.

How many can trace a life defining discovery back to the age of four? Sean can. He was just that age when his family, living in Yonkers, bought a house for weekend use in rural Hadlyme, Conn.

When he was seven, they moved there permanently. Right outside the door, woods, fields and swamps full of wildlife and wild sounds invited him to explore. Daily excursions revealed ever new finds. Though frogs, toads and snakes were intriguing, it was his finely tuned hearing that led to the most exciting discovery sounds new to his ears: Bird squawks, cries, hoots and melodies filled the air with music such as he had never heard before. Sean was enchanted.

At age seven, he could identify the local birds by sight; at age 12, he knew them all by their voices. Just as people easily assimilate new languages if exposed to them before age twelve, one wonders if the same doesn't apply to learning the sounds of birds. It may explain Sean's ability to learn so many so well. However, because he was young at the time, few recognized his extraordinary ability.

As he became older, part of every day went into school and part to playing sports, but the best part was reserved for exploring the countryside, his territory expanding as he tramped further and further afield. One day, while in high school, he was watching a wildlife movie. When he heard a particular bird call, he identified it as a magnolia warbler. His natural history teacher was amazed.

After that, Sean made many field trips with this teacher but still his observations were not taken as seriously as they might have been. When Sean was nineteen, this same teacher visited him at his family's home and was astounded to spot a hybrid white-throated sparrow/dark-eyed junco at the O'Brien's feeder.

Grabbing his camera and pointing to the bird, he announced "his find" to Sean who simply shrugged and replied, "I know. Remember I told you that he's been coming for the last 6 years." The photograph was sent to Roger Tory Peterson and led to the Sean's first meeting with this famous ornithologist and many birding trips with Peterson's secretary.

When he was a teenager, one of Sean's favorite activities was to climb some 40 feet high into a beech tree and call in owls. Along with the owls came all the birds which chase the owls. He became known as the "owl guy."

When Julio De La Torre, author of "Owls: Their Life and Behavior," heard about Sean, he invited him to travel along for a year and help with his presentations.

After finishing high school, Sean took a series of odd jobs, not the kind that would help promote him in the business world but rather less ambitious work, the kind that allowed for time off to carry on his study of wildlife, particularly of birds and their calls.

Back when he was 11, Sean had accompanied his family on a camping trip to the Adirondacks and declared that some day he would return to live here. The opportunity finally came in 1997, when he moved to Saranac Lake where he lives today. He particularly loves the boreal bird population here and has spent years recording them. He got his start in recording when he was twenty-three and realized that nobody had ever recorded a particular song of the blue-winged warbler. He soon changed that.

Today, his favorite bird vocalizations are produced by barred owls and playful ravens.

Sean's life is all about the world of birds. His North American life-list (the number of different birds observed) numbers over 600. He has made birding trips to New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, Florida, Texas, Delaware and Arkansas where, after a five-month study (and much to the dismay of many), he ruled out the existence of the ivory billed woodpecker. He has led bird trips for Connecticut Audubon, the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club, the Federation of New York State Bird Clubs and the Adirondack Visitor Interpretive Centers.

Though lacking material possessions such as a car or house, Sean has nevertheless achieved his goals, leading a life awash in new discoveries, good fun and contentment.

How many can say they have managed that?

 
 

 

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