By Ashley Peele
Sixty-two-year-old Flint Hill School science and biology teacher Fred Atwood likes to joke his passion for birding was established before his first memories. Chatting with former-students, they seem to confirm the idea, claiming that, for this beloved educator, the activity seems less like a hobby, more an element of his personality.
“He had this knack for drawing you into the mystery of the natural world,” remembers Andrew Lucas. One of Atwood’s former students, Lucas is now an assistant professor of pharmacy research at the University of North Carolina Eshelman School of Pharmacy. “It’s hard to explain, but you got the feeling he was letting you in on a very beautiful, very personal relationship. His enthusiasm was infectious. It inspired me to want to cultivate that kind of connection for myself, and ultimately, to become a scientist.”
Introduced to birding by his parents and grandparents, Atwood says he’s been an active ornithologist since at least the age of 8 and had compiled his first scientific survey by the time he was 11.
“There was something marvelously affirming about spotting a particular bird in the woods or in my neighborhood and being able to identify what it was,” he explains. “I was hooked almost immediately. The more I discovered, the more I realized there was to learn. It was a progression, and I was soon swept away.”
The interest quickly became a guiding passion. It led Atwood to pursue a teaching career and develop an interest in photographing wildlife. He became a highly active member of the National Audubon Society, the Virginia Society of Ornithology, and other organizations. He participated in avian-oriented citizen science projects whenever he could, including the first Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas.
The thirst to observe and document rare birds carried Atwood to sites throughout the U.S. and around the world, including Ecuador, Tanzania, Svalbard, New Zealand, Antarctica, Kenya, Costa Rica, Belize, Trinidad and Tobago, Galapagos, and Papua New Guinea. Along the way, he compiled a catalog of wildlife photography featuring more than 60,000 pro-quality images—and 2,051 species of birds—many of which have appeared in major publications such as National Geographic, Nature Conservancy Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and more.
While Atwood says traveling the globe and having his photos featured in prestigious books, calendars and magazines has been rewarding, his true passion was and remains introducing kids to birding. Toward that end, he designed a specialty Natural History and Field Ornithology course at Flint Hill’s upper school, which he has been teaching for more than 20 years. The present iteration of the class is offered in conjunction with Atwood’s efforts as the founder of the Northern Virginia Audubon Society Teen Birding Cluband incorporates his work with the VABBA2. Once or twice a week, Atwood can be found leading groups of teenage students on birding and/or atlas-ing missions throughout northeastern Virginia. Additionally, he chaperones a yearly trip to tropical regions—many of which have been to Ecuador.
“So many amazing people cultivated my interest and went above and beyond to help me along,” says Atwood, explaining his dedication. “That was such a gift. And it is a gift to have the ability and opportunity to pay it forward and do the same for others.”
Foremost among Atwood’s early influences was Miriam Dickey, who worked at the Boston Children’s Museum and led a birding club for elementary schoolers. Atwood joined the club in the third grade and spent the next four years accompanying Dickey on regular birding trips to nearby parks and refuges, or simply around the neighborhood.
“She took us on weekly bird walks and let us investigate museum specimens—including some mystery birds that were always challenging and fun to identify,” recalls Atwood. “She worked very hard to develop our knowledge and skills, but always made it enjoyable. In large part, it’s because of her that I became a teacher.”
In fact, it was Dickey’s loving guidance that inspired Atwood to found his own youth birding club. After hearing Atwood was leading Flint Hill School students on birding trips, interested young birders in the area began to reach out. While many of them loved birds, their parents had a hard time giving up a full day to drive to a remote location and go trekking through forests or along beaches to support their children’s interests.
“I wanted to give those kids a means of getting out to exciting places and pursuing an activity that can become a lifelong passion,” says Atwood, adding that, when people love something and have enriching experiences doing it, they tend to develop a deep care for it and will then strive to protect it. “I want these kids to have the opportunity to take as much pleasure exploring and interacting with nature as I have, and to be able to experience the gift of passing along that passion to the next generation.”
To read more about Fred Atwood’s work with the VABBA2, click HERE.
To learn more about the Northern Virginia Audubon Society Teen Birding Club, click HERE.