Listening to nature isn’t as simple as people may think, but birding expert Ken Blankenship has developed a good ear for it.
Blankenship is an expert ornithologist with over 17 years experience in birding, particularly in bird vocalizations and species native to the Southeast.
Blankenship is the Bird, Tree & Garden Club’s first Brown Bag lecturer of the season. His talk “Birding By Ear,” at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, June 28, at Smith Wilkes Hall, will teach attendees the basics to identifying Western New York bird species by sound alone.
Birding beginners and seasoned ornithologists alike are welcome to learn while enjoying the jubilant natural music of Chautauqua’s outdoors.
“You don’t need binoculars,” Blankenship said. “Let’s go out and open our ears, walk around and enjoy the sounds of birds.”
Hailing from Atlanta, Blankenship discovered his love for birds after spending time with his sister-in-law, who dabbled in bird watching. Between fishing and camping trips, Blankenship found himself looking up at trees and becoming intrigued with birds, especially after reading The Sibley Field Guide to Birds.
“It was first a generic way to enjoy nature; then when I got the field guide, I kind of got hooked on the idea of identification,” Blankenship said. “(Birding) is a very passive activity that a lot of people can enjoy, and then also it’s a learning experience — it’s never-ending learning.”
After his hobby grew into a passion, Blankenship decided to leave his teaching position of 14 years at Hightower Trail Middle School in Marietta, Georgia. In 2015, he moved to southern Arizona where he eventually began to give tours full-time along the Sky Island mountain range.
Southern Arizona is a temporary home to birds who migrate to Mexico for the winter, and it provides American bird-watchers a unique opportunity to observe certain species without leaving the country.
After becoming well-versed in native Arizona species, Blankenship widened his expertise to southern Texas and the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Blankenship started his company East West Birding Tours in an effort to return to his teaching roots.
“I decided after about a year and a half that I have the personality, I have the educational part,” Blankenship said. “I could engage with people and share my knowledge, educate them and use the skills I brought from teaching to the world of birds.”
As an avian technician, Blankenship has published over 30 notes of research and sightings on birding patterns in Georgia and the Carolinas.
A self-proclaimed “ear-birding addict,” Blankenship has studied bird vibrations through both field work and audio recordings. After 17 years of this work, he has learned communication patterns in birds.
“Just like us humans yell or whisper, birds have the same dialogue,” Blankenship said. “They have the same types.”
In his lecture, Blankenship plans to discuss types of sounds, including “skulls,” “tsips” and “seeks” that indicate how birds are feeling. Understanding these expressions can equip humans in advocating for a safe environment for birds.
“You start to realize there are some stories out there because habitats are constantly under attack with the expansion of the human species,” Blankenship said. “Enjoying birds more means learning about what they need, so we can help them continue to exist.”
Blankenship hopes after teaching Chautauquans about specific bird sounds, they will be able to identify local birds during their walks on the grounds.
“There’s a whole world around you that people don’t think about, and that’s the big idea,” Blankenship said. “The big picture is to get people to explore that world of the bird sounds around.”