It was a Christmas present from a former girlfriend — the “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America” — that introduced Incline Village resident Kirk Hardie to the fascinating lives and habits of wild birds. He began studying the book, learning about the complex migration patterns and survival strategies of our oft-unnoticed winged companions. He was hooked.
Who can blame him? From the noted biologist Bernd Heinrich, who has written beautifully about birds in his book “Winter World,” to the lucky hiker who chances upon the red-tipped feathers of a cedar waxwing on a winter day, few can deny the mystery of a creature that can survive brutal alpine winters with little more than an ounce of body weight, and awake to the spring with a song as charming as any stringed instrument.
The secret, said Hardie, a biologist with the Tahoe Institute of Natural Science, is in the downy feathers that some species can don and shed like the coats of a climber making her way from the heat of Kathmandu to the hard freeze of Everest.
”Feathers are amazing structures,” Hardie said. ”Some birds can actually put on 50 percent more feathers to get through the winter.”
Many people are aware of the migratory patterns of birds like geese, which head south in winter, but in a lecture on Tuesday, Feb. 12 at Sierra Nevada College, Hardie will share some fascinating stories about Canadian and other northern species for whom “south” means Tahoe, extending out into Nevada’s Washoe Valley and beyond.
He will also take a close look at raptors, including hawks that nest in the tundra and can only be found in the Washoe Valley during this time of year.
Hardie paired up two and a half years ago with wildlife biologist Will Richardson to establish the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science, a member-supported nonprofit organization seeking to advance the natural history, conservation, and ecosystem knowledge of the Tahoe region through science, education, and outreach.
The pair met in the most unlikely way. On one of his outings, Hardie chanced upon a black turnstone, a stocky, dark-feathered bird with a white underbelly rarely found far from the coast. He raced home and recorded the spotting on his rare-bird listserv, and the posting led to an exchange with Richardson, a Truckee resident, who “had this idea to build up a nature center.”
The goal of the institute is to ”have something for every age,” Hardie said. Part of its mission is directed at children in an effort to open their eyes to the everyday wonder that surrounds them. To that end, the institute will soon be taking sixth graders from Alder Creek Middle School out on snowshoes for an educational field trip, he said, all 180 of them.
Hardie earned his Master of Science in biology from the University of Nevada, Reno, where he developed a four-week high school curriculum on the ecology of the Great Basin. He has worked as an environmental educator in Idaho, Oregon, California, and Nevada, highlighting the beauty of birds in the natural world. He teaches a field ornithology course at Sierra Nevada College.
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