Edmonds woman’s passion for bird watching spans the globe

EDMONDS — When Susie Schaefer first sparked her interest in bird watching more than 30 years ago, she never imagined the places it would take her.

Today, her hobby and the volunteer work that comes along with it, consumes much of the 73-year-old Edmonds woman’s time.

Schaefer, a retired social worker, started the Puget Sound Bird Fest 10 years ago alongside Sally Lider, environmental education coordinator for the city of Edmonds Parks, Recreation and Cultural services Department.

Schaefer also spearheaded the Edmonds Wildlife Habitat and Native Plant Demonstration Garden.

Schaefer first picked up the hobby as a way to pass the time while her then husband was fly fishing.

“I don’t really like fishing,” she said. “I got much more interested in birds.”

Soon after the couple moved to Edmonds in 1980, Schaefer joined Pilchuck Audubon Society to make friends. She immediately began learning about birds through group field trips.

“What I love about birding is you can do it anywhere,” Schaefer, who now guides trips, said. “Never leave home without your binoculars. That’s my rule in life.”

Schaefer and her friends started traveling to bird festivals, collecting ideas.

“We wanted to have our own bird fest,” she said. “Some of the bird festivals have gotten very expensive. We thought we’d keep ours cheap.”

She started the Edmonds festival. Admission remains free for the annual event that takes place in September. Over the years, Schaefer has added art displays, field trips and she’s enlisted the Edmonds Yacht Club to take people birding on the water.

“We’ve always wanted it to be kind of like Edmonds,” Schaefer said. “It has always drawn a crowd.”

In addition to her volunteering at home, Schaefer works with Earthwatch, an international group than enlists people to help with scientific research projects.

“You get to be a grunt worker and help the researchers,” she said. “I have loved my Earthwatch trips. Some people don’t like them because you work.”

With Earthwatch, Schaefer has slept in a hammock in a Colombian jungle and camped in Cameroon while researching endangered birds.

“My interest in birding has opened the whole world to me,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun, frankly.”

Schaefer studied cranes when she stayed in the Communist Party Headquarters in Vietnam. She visited Poland to examine predator and prey relationships, such as weasels and owls. On another adventure, she worked to return wildlife to an Israeli desert.

Through her travels, Schaefer said, she’s seen the effects of environmental problems first-hand.

“I believe birds are a very good indicator of what is happening to the environment,” she said. “We really have to be aware of what we’re doing and how it affects birds and wildlife.”

To encourage environmental stewardship at home, Schaefer started the Edmonds Wildlife Habitat and Native Plant Demonstration Garden. It includes more than 50 native plants and was designed to attract animals. She continues to maintain the garden today.

“I didn’t know having a demonstration garden was going to take over my life,” she said with a laugh. “It’s to try to encourage people to have a nice garden so critters can use it too.”

Last week, she organized a training session at the garden for people who want to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

“It’s an important citizen science project,” Schaefer said. “Everybody is counting their resident birds. You don’t have to leave home to do that.”

People all over North America are expected to participate in the count this weekend.

“There’s always lots of work to be done to conserve our environment, I tell you,” Schaefer said.

“Once people get hooked like me, we find lots of things worth doing.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com.

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