Nathan Goldberg '14 is a professional bird-watching tour guide for Red Hill Birding, a local bird-watching tour company based in Chicago. His "life list," which is the total number of birds seen in a lifetime, spans about 1,230 species. Listen to his adventures of traveling the country to spot some of the rarest species of birds.
What is your favorite memory at Latin?
My favorite Latin memory was probably going to Iceland or south Florida for Project Weeks. And we went snorkeling and played with dolphins and it was an amazing experience.
How did you get involved in birding?
When I was about 13 years old, I actually saw this bird called a wood duck at North Pond, which is right near Latin actually. And it blew my mind and I realized that there were way more birds than I had ever recognized and started sort of honing in on that and was really fascinated by that and decided to dive in, buy a field guide and explore the birding world.
Nathan Goldberg '14 I got involved in the birding world through a variety of different avenues. I began when I was really young having an interest in collections. So Pokemon, cards, coins, you know, mini vinyl art figures, and all of that sort of compartmentalized on one side and then a passion for the outdoors was on the other. But I never really had a bridge between the two that made sense to me. And when I was about 13 years old, I actually saw this bird called a wood duck at North Pond, which is right near Latin, actually. And it blew my mind and I realized that there were way more birds than I had ever recognized and started sort of honing in on that and was really fascinated by that and decided to dive in, buy a field guide and explore the birding world.
What’s the farthest you’ve traveled to see a bird?
The farthest I've traveled to see a bird is a tough question because I've both driven sometimes over 10 hours, one-way to see a bird, but I actually flew down to Tucson to go see, including a quetzal and a rare bird called a crescent chested warbler, and was able to see both, which was amazing.
What are some highlights from your career in birding?
Over the last 12 years, I've worked on a variety of different projects through the avenues of birding. One was in college. I ran down to New York City to see a rare bird in Central Park and it was there. I looked at it. It was great. Unfortunately, though, it's a very difficult species to identify and often requires genetic material. And though the bird was cooperating, there was no way that we would have actually been able to catch it, sequence its DNA, et cetera, but I opportunistically, I collected a sample from it. It deposited a fecal sample for us. For those that aren't aware of what fecal samples are, the bird pooped. And I collected the bird’s poop, put it in a bag, took it to a freezer. Long story short, ran the poop through a DNA sequencing project and actually was able to figure out what species it was and got published and helped contribute to the record of New York bird knowledge. It was the first record confirmed of what is known as a Pacific-slope flycatcher. And that was really cool.
Additionally, outside of that sort of scientific project, I did do what's called a “big year.” I set out in 2020 to see the most species of birds possible in a given year in the state of Illinois, which required 52 weeks of focus and intense driving and stamina, et cetera. But I was fortunate enough to be able to break the record and set an all-time high record for the state. And that was really, really fun.
What’s the craziest place you’ve gone to see a bird?
Craziest place I've gone to see a bird is a tough one. I've been to a lot. Uh, the classic birder answer here would probably be that we'd gone to sewage ponds, sewage lagoons and garbage dumps. Those smells attract birds and they push away humans. Birds are often there. So that's always fun.
Tell us about your life list.
What a life list is, is the total species of birds that you have seen in your life over your entire lifespan. We do have life lists as birders for smaller regions and larger regions. So my life list would be the world. Then there's my United States list, my lower 48 list. I have an Illinois list. I have a Cook County list. Some people I know have a zip code list. My life list is 1,230 species total, which is only what I would argue a fraction of the world's birds. There are over 10,500 species, and that list is ever-growing.
Tell us your best bird story.
I'd say my best bird story happened very recently in May. I was out birdwatching on the Northwest side of Chicago at what's called LaBagh Woods. It's a forest preserve in Cook County. And I was with a client looking and photographing various birds. And out of nowhere, spotted this hummingbird; and a hummingbird in May is expected. We have what's called the ruby-throated hummingbirds in Chicago, but the moment I got my binoculars on the bird, I immediately lost my mind... I could not control myself. I freaked out. The bird that I saw in my binoculars had a bright red bill, blue green body, and was like this deep sort of almost purple-y color, which none of these characteristics fit a ruby-throated hummingbird, but they do fit what's called a broad-billed hummingbird, a species found in Southeast Arizona into the mountains of Mexico, 1500 plus miles away from here. So very, very unexpected, off our radar. And what was even more fascinating was the bird wasn't coming to a hummingbird feeder. It wasn't coming to flowers. It was just flying around this forest preserve. And unfortunately, when I first saw it, I identified it and then I failed to get a photo and the bird flew away and, you know, talking about being prepared, I was not, and really started freaking out and I didn't know what to do. I I called some friends and said, “You're not going to believe what just happened, but I saw a broad-billed hummingbird and the answer almost always was, ‘What, what are you sure? Are you really sure that's what you saw?’ I was like, yes, but it's gone. I don't know what to do.”
Nathan Goldberg '14 called some friends and said, “You're not going to believe what just happened, but I saw a broad-billed hummingbird and the answer almost always was, ‘What, what are you sure? Are you really sure that's what you saw?’ I was like, yes, but it's gone. I don't know what to do.” Long story short, the bird ended up coming back, got some photos, got the word out. Everyone shows up. I left, but I heard that over 400 people showed up within three hours. By when I actually put the message out that we had, we found it and it turns out we found the flowers, the bird was feeding on and it stuck around for eight days. And I had friends that came up from St. Louis from Southern Illinois. People came in from all over the state to see this bird. And it's actually only the second time one's been available for us to look at in the state as birdwatchers, it's the third ever record. But the only one that anyone ever could go see was in 1996 in November. And mind you, I was born in May that year. So like, I don't think six months old Nathan was going to look at a broad-billed hummingbird. But aside from that, there was one that showed up at a feeder and a yard and the homeowner didn't let people go. And so this sort of reopened that opportunity, and it was amazing to share that sighting with so many people. And it was so cool.
Can you share some tips for bird watching?
I would say to always be prepared for birding. And I guess what I mean by that is have your camera ready to go, charged batteries ready. Camera cards, in case you take too many photos, have your binoculars ready, your telescope ready. Your car should have gas in it. I always have hiking boots in my trunk. I have rain boots in my trunk. I have a shovel, I've got jumper cables. You know, anything that you could imagine you may need. I've legitimately gotten news about a bird while I've been asleep in bed and out the door in 10 minutes.
What is a skill that you’ve learned at Latin that you use today?
One skill that I really learned through my time at Latin was the skill of communication and perceptively understanding that other people may be coming at something from a different angle.
Nathan Goldberg '14 One skill that I really learned through my time at Latin was the skill of communication and perceptively understanding that other people may be coming at something from a different angle. Everyone has their own approaches to how they do things, but if we're all in the field together, or let's say I'm guiding a tour and people are feeling some type of way about something that we're doing, making sure that they feel comfortable communicating that to me and ensuring that they feel like they're being listened to and that I'm responding appropriately to them. Well-mannered but also with direction, if you will, is something that I've definitely found really useful. And that I've honed skill-wise for a long time.
What’s one thing you would say to your high school self?
I guess one thing I would say to my high school self would be when you think that you need to have an answer for what you want to be when you grow up or what you want to do in your future, whether it's college or afterwards recognize that that pressure is often not self-created that it's coming from external factors, whether it's, you know, family and friends or just societal pressures. And that's not to say that you shouldn't think about them, but that the time that you spend reflecting about what makes you happy will always be more important and gets you further than just following this endless chain of instruction that you think may be helpful, but may actually just be there as a stepping stone but not actually forming a path.
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