Katrina Venhuizen takes time to stop and spot the birds.
Katrina Venhuizen is distracted by nature. She might be telling a story about the first time she saw a snowy owl or how she likes to walk down by the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal to look for seals, and—mid-sentence—her attention will be drawn to the chirps emanating from a nearby shrub.
“Bird!” she’ll blurt out.
Her head will turn to get a look at the source—”It’s a sparrow,” she might say—and after she watches it for a few moments, her attention returns to the topic at hand (the owl, the seals).
It’s a habit her friends and colleagues sometimes joke with her about—this gift for noticing a bird song from a distant treetop or a flash of wings overhead.
“Every time I hear a bird I’m like, ‘Where is it?’” she says. “When I’m sitting somewhere, I like seeing them. I’ll see a seagull and wonder, ‘Where’s he going?’”
Her natural distractions aren’t limited to birds, either. Born and raised in Texas, Venhuizen, 31, has worked in nature conservancies around the country, including the environmental education camp on Orcas Island in the San Juans, Washington, Sharon Audubon Center in Connecticut, Maine Audubon, and The Ecology School at Ferry Beach in Saco.
In her role as educator, she grew well-versed in topics like native trees and plants, the particulars of wildlife habitats and climate. But birds had a way of getting her attention.
“I had only seen two bald eagles in my entire life. In the first week in Washington, I saw two,” she says. “My mind was just blown that there were so many birds in different parts of the country.” She got up close and personal with some of New England’s birds of prey during her time at Sharon Audubon Center, which was home to 23 non-releasable birds of prey at the time (including a great-horned owl, bald eagle and an American kestral). “I’d teach students about wildlife and maple syrup and I’d have a bird on my arm,” she says. “A turkey vulture was one of them. I never thought of them as beautiful before, but they are. They’re like the sharks of the sky.”
After she moved to Maine, she saw shore birds and explored the beach and wetlands. “I fell in love with Maine when I first got here. And then I discovered the osprey. It’s one of the coolest birds,” she says. At Portland’s Fore River Sanctuary, she’ll look for them. “At the falls, you can see the osprey diving to get fish, and they’ve got these amazing little calls. You often hear them before you see them.”
Her memories seem tied to bird sightings, too, the same way certain smells trigger memories for some people. Mention the city of Bangor and she’ll recall that it was en route to that city that she saw a snowy owl for the first time.
Trips back to Texas to visit family are peppered with bird sightings, particularly on bike rides she goes on with her father. While he might prefer to cruise along and pack on the miles, Venhuizen will stop to watch a crested caracara, so he’s learning the perks of going slower, too.
And magpies will always make her think of her aunt, who passed away from cancer last year. The first time Venhuizen saw a magpie was at her aunt’s wedding. At her aunt’s memorial service, she saw two more. It made her feel like her aunt was still around—in the birds, in the bees, in the flowers.
While she no longer works directly with birds—she’s an environmental educator at ecomaine—Venhuizen still wanders through Evergreen Cemetery in Portland, casually spying for kingfishers near the pond. She’ll keep her ears and eyes on alert for bird calls or the hammering of a woodpecker when on the trails on Mackworth Island or Bradbury Mountain State Park. When she sees a bird she can’t identify, she’ll make mental notes about it—its size and coloring, the shape of its tail and beak—and look it up later in one of her bird books or an app on her phone.
She doesn’t set out with hard plans to spot specific birds, though. (Maine is home to nearly 300 species, according to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.) Instead, she relishes the unexpected sighting. “I don’t want to put that pressure on myself to see all these birds,” she says. “You go out to see the bird, and if you don’t see it, you’re sad. I’d rather be pleasantly surprised.”
Taking the time to look around, wherever she happens to be, means she’s pleasantly surprised more often than not.
“It’s really easy to be distracted, to be looking at your phone,” she says. “But if you notice what’s around you, you’ll notice the different types of birds … and the way they fly around, and that will get you more interested.”
Just go for a walk, she says. Be distracted by nature.
Maine Birding Trail
385 miles of birding, with 82 official sites and hundreds of hidden hot spots.
Bird guides by region, field checklists and bird walks.
www.allaboutbirds.org allows searches by family, name and shape, and has audio of bird sounds. For mobile phones, download the Merlin Bird ID app.
Shannon Bryan is the editor of Maine Women Magazine. She lives in South Portland and is hopefully on a paddleboard right now.