These days, most weekends find husband and wife Guy and Susan
Babineau slipping out of bed and hitting the road before dawn. Whether by cycle or by foot, these two love to spend their free mornings exercising in Albemarle County while birding for the second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas.
“Our children are in college and high school, and we typically get home before they’ve made it out of the bed,” says Susan, 53, with a laugh.
The Babineaus’ method came as a creative solution to time constraints. Between parenting, careers and other obligations, their schedule wouldn’t allow for both still-birding and immersive exercise. Rather than forego one in favor of the other, they opted to combine the two.
Initially, the couple thought the merger might lead to sacrifices in quality. Wouldn’t frequent bird stops while hiking be interruptive? Are we really going to be able to spot birds while cycling along a winding mountain road? However, the worries proved unfounded.
“In truth, the approach has afforded us some unforeseen benefits and a few delightful advantages,” says Guy, 54, an engineer with Northrop Grumman Corporation. For instance, hiking and biking enables the Babineaus to cover more ground and reach areas they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. Daily exercise routines mean favorite spots are visited with greater frequency and can therefore be observed over long periods of time. Additionally, like Appalachian Trail birder-hiker Diana Doyle, being in motion has sharpened their ability to bird by ear.
Collectively, these factors have yielded some of the Babineaus’ most memorable experiences.
“In a particular wood we kept overhearing and occasionally spotting hairy woodpeckers, but, try as we may, we couldn’t seem to locate the nest hole,” says Guy. “After about four return trips, we not only found the nest, but were able to watch the parents feeding their young!”
Another favorite occurrence took place while biking in Farmville’s High Bridge Trail State Park. Featuring a 31-mile-long trail, by foot, the trip would have required camping and two days of hiking. By bike, the couple could reach the park’s interior and return, all in a morning.
“We were cycling in the [HBTSP] when Susan spotted a pair of barred owls feeding their young,” says Guy. Hopping off their bikes, the couple stopped to enjoy the show. “Observing raptors like owls or hawks is always special and seeing them with their young or family is even better.”
As an added bonus, when the Babineaus shared their findings on eBird, they connected with a slew of new birders in Prince Edward and Cumberland counties.
Despite the couple’s obvious passion for avian observation, their introduction to birding was late coming.
“We met in grad school at the University of Virginia and some of our earliest adventures together were taking hikes in the Shenandoah National Park,” says Susan. “Before we got married, Guy’s mother gave us a Peterson Field Guide and, though we were not ‘birders proper,’ we’d eagerly identify and record whatever birds we happened to see.”
After marrying in 1989, the couple soon had children. As parents and homeschoolers, in addition to an active outdoor lifestyle, the Babineaus “supported and encouraged” an ethos of “conservation and environmental responsibility.” Thus, they spent “many hours playing in and exploring local parks like the Ivy Creek Natural Area.”
However, it wasn’t until their silver anniversary that Guy and Susan discovered the joy of ornithology.
“It was the summer of 2014 and we’d taken a trip to Acadia National Park in Maine to celebrate,” Guy recalls. While there, the two signed up for a bird walk. “We went together, but something in Susan just clicked. It was obvious she’d been bitten by the birding bug.”
When the Babineaus returned home, Susan started looking for opportunities to continue birding.
“With teenaged and adult kids, I suddenly had time to pursue my own interests,” she says. By the fall, she was attending meetings and joining guided hikes with the Monticello Bird Club. “That December, I convinced Guy to come along on a trip and he fell in love as well.”
Four years later, the Babineaus are immersed: They are active members of the Virginia Society of Ornithology; Susan is the MBC’s current field trip coordinator, Guy, its publicity coordinator and president elect.
In the spring of 2016, the duo discovered the VABBA2 while taking Dan Bieker’s much lauded field ornithology class at Piedmont Virginia Community College. It happened when Janet Paisley — who has, among other things, been instrumental in developing the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club — asked the Babineaus to help with local atlasing efforts.
“We knew right away this was something we wanted to be a part of
and subsequently attended a training session with [VABBA2 director] Dr. Ashley Peele in Albemarle County,” says Susan. Though the remainder of 2016 proved extremely busy, by the following January, the couple was busy plotting atlasing activities for 2017.
“Going in, our motives were principally pragmatic,” says Guy. In short, they wanted to help friends with surveying efforts in the county and thereby gather data to inform conservation decisions. However, the two quickly discovered some not-so-fringe benefits. “We found it deeply enjoyable to immerse ourselves in the behaviors of birds in the county where we live and learn about their preferred habitats… Additionally, in our efforts to obtain permission to bird in various priority blocks, we struck up conversational friendships with some fantastic property owners.”
Moreover, from a listing perspective, adding a coveted Breeding Confirmation offers what Guy jokingly calls a “not so insubstantial thrill.” Combined with the couple’s aforementioned love of exercise, the thrill-factor has given rise to a campaign to tackle under-birded priority blocks in and around Albemarle County.
By the spring of 2017, the Babineaus were routinely visiting blocks within driving distance of their home. For her part, Susan organized MBC fieldtrips to under-birded areas — some in under-birded locations like the south-central piedmont. When planning trips for work, play, or simple errands, the two would check the Atlas map for nearby blocks in need of birding.
“Guy has it so bad, he dropped our daughter off for her SAT test in Harrisonburg and promptly went atlasing,” confides a smiling Susan.
Known among Atlasers as ‘blockbusting,’ the Babineaus’ efforts have inspired Peele to dub the husband and wife duo a team of “Blockbusters Extraordinaire.”
“The really great thing is there are so many (priority) blocks“ that need work, that thrill is available over and over again,” says Babineau. With a wink, nod and grin, he adds: “At this point, atlasing for the VABBA2 has become such a big part of our lives, we won’t know what to do with ourselves once it ends. Who knows, we may have to find another active atlasing project and move to a new state!”
~ Eric Wallace, Atlas Communications