The Bird Diva dishes on our feathered friends
Every birder has a gateway bird — that one winged beauty that gets a person hooked. Bridget Butler’s is the indigo bunting.
She remembers the moment she fell in love with the flashy, aquamarine bird. It was years ago, during a 24-hour birdathon, and Butler, who at the time worked at the Green Mountain Audubon Society doing conservation education, had camped out overnight so she could get an early start.
While Butler was in her tent, she heard a bird calling overhead. She unzipped the tent and went to investigate. Right in front of her was the source of the caterwauling.
“It was the most incredibly brilliant turquoise bird,” she recalls. “I thought, Damn, this is cool. It was just crazy eye candy.”
After that, Butler was hopelessly addicted to anything avian. She was so smitten, she developed her own alter ego: the Bird Diva. That sassy little indigo bunting never knew what he had started.
Butler, now 40, works as a conservation-education specialist at ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington. She also serves as a conservation correspondent for WPTZ and a bird expert for Vermont Public Radio. In all those contexts, she’s the Bird Diva, a role that is equal parts birding teacher, cheerleader and groupie. If you don’t like birds after talking with Butler, there’s something wrong with you.
Like the birds she loves, Butler is quirky and vocal, with impressive plumage — her bright red hair helps her stand out in the woods. But she didn’t always care about the creatures, or the people who follow them.
After graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in marine and freshwater biology, Butler took a job working for the Massachusetts Audubon Society on Cape Cod. She had a passing interest in birds — she could identify the species that came to her feeder — but was by no means a birder. And life in Massachusetts didn’t give her a good impression of those who were.
“They were snooty and obnoxious and really guarded and pretentious about their knowledge,” she says of the birders. “That’s where I got my disdain for birding. It just seemed so much more competitive than it did fun.”
Some years after her time on Cape Cod, Butler took a job at the Green Mountain Audubon. There, she continued her work in conservation education and helped foresters protect important bird habitats.
Still smarting from her bad experiences with hypercompetitive birders, Butler wasn’t converted ... until her run-in with that indigo bunting.
At the time, she was living in the Mad River Valley, home to a dedicated group called the Mad Birders. Member Pat Folsom remembers Butler being welcomed into the fold. “We loved her enthusiasm and her energy,” Folsom says.
It didn’t matter that Butler was half the age of many of the Mad Birders; she fit right in. Soon, birding became for her as much about the people as it was about the birds.
About three years ago, Butler moved on from the Audubon. Before she did, she decided to create a persona to keep her name in the air and build on the notice she’d gained with her bird walks and educational tours, as well as her spot-on owl calls. She thought about calling herself the Bird Chick, but someone had already claimed that on the web. She entertained Bird Girl, but it sounded too cartoonish.
Then it hit her — the Bird Diva. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but it stuck, and it works, and I’m kind of amazed by it,” she says.
As the Bird Diva, Butler has created a small media franchise. In her early days with Green Mountain Audubon, she hosted a radio show and created a podcast; a few years ago, she moved to television when WCAX came courting. Recently, Butler switched to WPTZ, where she is a full-fledged correspondent responsible for two conservation-themed stories a week. She splits her time between ECHO and her TV gig.
Though no longer new to birding, Butler still has a beginner’s enthusiasm. Jim Shallow, conservation and policy director at Green Mountain Audubon, calls her zest for birding “infectious.”
“For her, every bird is a good bird. There’s always something you can learn from the millionth robin,” Shallow says.
Go out birding with Butler for an afternoon, and it’s easy to see how she’s turned her passion into something marketable. With apologies to Fleetwood Mac, Butler makes birding fun. Like, the kind of fun you didn’t think you’d have traipsing through the woods listening for cheeps and chirps.
Plus, Butler knows what she’s doing. “She’s focused when she’s out birding,” Folsom says. “She’s got her ears open and her eyes searching.”
“Have you ever pished before?” Butler asks me during a recent walk through Burlington’s Red Rocks Park. The flat light glints off her Bushnell Legend 8x42 binoculars.
I reply that I have not, and Butler goes on to explain what pishing is.
“It’s a little trick to bring birds close to you. You’re making alarm sounds to get the birds interested,” she says, then launches into a full-blown pishing session.
“Psshhh, psshhh, psshhh,” she pishes. “Psshhh, psshhh, psshhh.”
She stops and looks up at the canopy. A squawking crow turns figure eights overhead.
“Knowing me, this time when I’m with you it won’t work,” Butler says, though the crow seems to like the pishing. “Sometimes, when I’m especially magical, the birds will just drop down from the trees and come close.”
This happens later, during another pishing stop: A few chickadees descend from the tops of conifers to investigate the ruckus. Butler likens it to rubbernecking at a car accident.
This is the time of year, she says, when birders are starting to “freak out.” Many migratory birds will be arriving in the coming weeks and months, and birdsongs have already started to change. Chickadees have begun singing their mating tunes — “Hey, sweetie, hey, sweetie,” Butler mimics.
Male cardinals are getting musical, as well. Butler says her fiancé likens the cardinals’ call to Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin: “Pwew, pwew, whit, whit, whit. Pwew, pwew, whit, whit, whit.”
Those bird sounds aren’t the only ones Butler can produce. She’s famous in bird circles for her aforementioned owl calls. As with many good human tricks, Butler discovered her ability after downing a few beers. She and some friends heard the call of a barred owl in the woods. Butler thought she could do one better. She let out a call of her own and was shocked to hear the owl respond.
Years later, when Butler was leading an owl prowl — a bird walk focused on the nocturnal creatures — the battery died in the tape player she used to play calls. Out of batteries, she tried her own call. Again, an owl hooted back.
When Butler shared this talent with some colleagues at a birder camp, an attendee from the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology heard her. “He comes shooting across the room and goes, ‘Who just did that? That’s the most amazing call I’ve ever heard,’” Butler recounts.
The ornithologist invited her to the lab’s library of sound to record her calls and compare them to real owl calls on a spectrogram. The notes were nearly identical. Butler is either part owl or an incredibly adept student of avian vocal mechanics.
While she’s happy to tout her bird-call mimicry (she can also do puffins and hooded mergansers), Butler is less keen on talking about her favorite birds. Favorites shift, and it’s impossible to have a single one, she says. Butler often describes birds with playful innuendo — some birds are hot, others are saucy, still others she has crushes on. Right now, she’s crushing on the Nashville warbler.
But the bird Butler really wants is eluding her: the rusty blackbird, a grackle-like wetland bird. These move quickly through Vermont on their way to summer in Canada, and Butler’s never once spotted one. “I want to see one so bad,” she says.
But she’s determined: This spring will be her time. It’ll be like the indigo bunting all over again.