Michael O'Brien resides in Cape May, New Jersey, where he leads identification workshops and serves as a naturalist for Cape May Bird Observatory. An expert in shorebird identification, he is lead author of The Shorebird Guide, a book I find myself returning to repeatedly for advice. O'Brien's art has been published in several field guides including the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. He has been a leader for past ABA Young Birder’s Conferences. I know you will enjoy the following interview as O’Brien provides insights into night flight calls, shorebird ID, and the life of a professional birder. Many thanks to Michael O’Brien for his time and answers.

Michael O'Brien and King Penguin 

O'Brien photographs a King Penguin at Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

How and where does your birding story begin? Did you have any childhood mentors?

My father, Paul O’Brien, got me interested in birding when I was a little kid living in Rockville, Maryland. I can just barely remember not birding, and my first year list was from when I was six. I have many wonderful childhood memories of birding trips with my father and brother, John, who started birding about the same time I did. I especially enjoyed fall trips to Cape May and Hawk Mountain, winter trips to OceanCity and Newburyport, and countless spring trips to the C&O Canal along the Potomac River.

Aside from my father, I had a few important adult mentors when I was a young birder. I always had great admiration for Claudia Wilds for whom I illustrated monthly ID articles in the Audubon Naturalist Newsletter while I was in high school. She was the most meticulous observer I knew, and she taught me the value of looking at details and taking careful field notes. I also learned a great deal from Chan Robbins who I worked for during summers while I was in college. I don’t know anyone who cares about birds more than Chan. He instilled in me a strong conservation ethic, and taught me the conservation value in monitoring bird populations.

Where did you attend college and what was your area of study?

I went to Long Island University and studied art and biology. I waffled a bit deciding which of the two would be my major, but that turned out to be a good thing. I graduated with an art degree and must admit that at the time, I had no idea what I would do with it. But I gradually realized that my background in both art and biology prepared me well for the diverse career that I enjoy today.

How did you develop an interest in night flight calls and how did you become so familiar with them?

When I was a kid, I delivered newspapers in my neighborhood, which required getting up before dawn every morning. On countless spring and fall mornings, I would hear hundreds of migrants calling overhead and I quickly became fascinated by nocturnal flight calls. The old Peterson Guide had excellent descriptions of thrush nocturnal flight calls, so I was able to work those out pretty well. I also quickly learned that these “nocturnal flight calls” were also given regularly during the day by birds on the ground, so I was able to confirm the identity of various call types that way. It helped that the woods in my back yard was an excellent place to see thrushes during migration, so I was able to see and hear a lot of individuals. My interest extended well beyond just listening as I delivered newspapers, so on good nights I often sat outside on a lawn chair and listened for hours to birds going over late at night. In the early years, I couldn’t identify much other than the thrushes and a few other species, like Indigo Bunting and Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, but I did hear some really cool stuff at times. For example, on numerous occasions I heard Long-tailed Ducks (at the time they were “Oldsquaw”) flying over my landlocked home on warm, overcast nights in April. I also discovered that some species, such as Ovenbird and Scarlet Tanager, occasionally sing as they fly over in spring migration. For some reason, nothing conveys the sheer energy and urgency of migration quite like hearing a Scarlet Tanager sing from hundreds of feet overhead in the night sky!

As I got older and gained more experience as a birder, I was able to identify more species at night. But one day I received a package in the mail from my father, and in it was a cassette tape entitled “Flight Calls of Migrating Thrushes” by Bill Evans. I listened to that tape over and over, realized that I was probably misidentifying some of the calls I heard, and was absolutely thrilled that there was someone else out there who was at least as interested in nocturnal flight calls as me! I contacted Bill right away, and we eventually decided to collaborate on “Flight Calls of Migratory Birds”. This project spanned a full decade and was one of the most rewarding experiences of my birding career. In the process of collecting recordings of each species, I not only learned many new flight calls, but I also fine-tuned my listening skills in general. I now listen to birds in a much more analytical way than I used to. As a result, I hear songs and calls in more detail and I remember new sounds more easily than before.