Interview: Laura Whittemore on Her Time at Bird Alliance of Oregon and Her Migration East

Birder, educator, and editor extraordinaire, Laura Whittemore has been a part of the Bird Alliance of Oregon community for more than 30 years. Whether leading bird song walks as a volunteer, teaching classes, leading a Birdathon team, or working closely with our staff to copyedit the Warbler, Laura has long been a member of the flock. It’s with great sadness for us, but excitement for her, that Laura’s time in Portland is coming to an end. In May, Laura will move to Madison, Wisconsin. If she misses us terribly we hope she can be comforted by the over 30(!) warbler species outside her door.

Laura Whittemore leading Birdathon 2022
Laura Whittemore leading Birdathon in 2022

We wanted to catch up with Laura before she left to hear reflections about her time as a part of the community, and what’s next. Although Laura is moving, we’re thankful to say that she’s staying on as our Warbler copyeditor, just from a different time zone. And surely she also leaves behind everything she’s taught us about birds over the last three decades.

You’ve been a part of the Bird Alliance of Oregon community since the early 90s. How did you first get involved and what made you stay?

I graduated from Lewis and Clark College in 1990 with a biology degree and wanted to put myself near birds, so I started volunteering in the store, in the Care Center, and at the front desk. Once I started working at Backyard Bird Shop in 1994 I did my first Gonzo Birdathon with a store team, led bird walks, and eventually started teaching beginning birding when Adult Education Coordinator Dave Helzer recruited me. I was terrified to teach, certain I couldn’t do it, but I remember Dave saying, “You can and you will.” So I did.

I stayed because I found I was pretty good at it, it was personally gratifying, and there was a big demand for beginner classes. Later, Steve Engel helped me diversify, and that’s when the birding by ear classes were born.

You’ve always had a focus on teaching beginner birders and birding by ear. What about those subjects keeps you interested?

Teaching beginners keeps me fresh. They ask really good questions and make me think. I don’t have to know everything about birds to teach new birders, but I’m patient and encouraging, and I’m enthusiastic, all of which have been essential to teaching beginners and building their confidence. Birding can be a little scary to delve into, so it’s been my goal to make birding accessible, because birding is for everyone.

Once I realized I knew just enough about bird voices to teach other people, I was on it. Steve and I came up with a five-session workshop to allow for lots of repetition and reinforcement, the keys to learning bird songs. Those classes filled year after year with waiting lists. When you open your ears to birds, well, you’re never the same. And beginners just need someone to say “That’s a Song Sparrow” over and over until they can say it themselves with certainty. Apps are great, but nothing beats in-person learning outdoors.

Where are you heading when you leave Portland?

I am moving to Madison, Wisconsin, to give this West Coast girl a new experience. I have family and friends in the region and have spent much time there over the years. But the snow…we shall see how I fare!

What will you miss the most about the Bird Alliance of Oregon community?

Leading the Cooper Mountain morning bird song walks. I am very sad that I only got to lead them one spring.

What PNW species will you miss the most?

Bushtits. Definitely Bushtits.

What three birding spots in Oregon are your very favorite?

Winter coastal birding at Barview Jetty and Three Graces north of Tillamook, spring or early summer at Malheur NWR, and anytime on Sauvie Island.

You’ll be in Madison for Birdathon this year but you’re still raising funds for Bird Alliance of Oregon. What’s your Birdathon’s new name?

Cardinal Sins. Feel free to pledge me! I can’t wait to rack up the species! Stay well, everyone, and keep on birding!