Meet Calvin Bonn

Calvin Bonn, a 17-year-old birder from Redondo Beach in Los Angeles County, has been busy since he started birding a decade ago. He serves as a student board member of Los Angeles Birders. He manages LAB’s social media presence, is active in the student group, and leads birdwalks around the LA area. As a volunteer at the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College, he helps prepare bird specimens for the collection. In fall of 2024, he will attend the University of California at Davis to study Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology.—Teresa Connell, WFO Student Programs

How did your passion for birding begin?

I started birding when I was eight years old, after watching a Cooper’s Hawk nest in a park adjacent to my elementary school. I specifically remember one night when the nestlings were starting to fly as the setting sun haloed the remnants of the down on one of the chicks perched on the nest’s edge. It was so gorgeous and I was hooked. I bought a bird guide and started keeping track of what I saw. A chance encounter a few months later with some local birders at another park introduced me to Bob Shanman, who was past president of the Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society and also owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Redondo Beach. I was so excited to meet him and learn that there were other birders in the area. He graciously invited me on all of his future bird walks.

Did Bob become a mentor?

My passion for birds was developed and enriched by two significant mentors.

Bob Shanman became my first mentor. He led bird walks and eventually taught me how to lead my own. He also offered to drive me farther distances to see surprise rarities like a Harris Sparrow that I never would have been able to find on my own. Bob offered me a part-time job at his Wild Birds Unlimited during the pandemic. Three years flew by as I took what he had already taught me about birds and their habitats, and used that knowledge to help his customers.

Bob is now retired, but we still go out birding together. On one special day, we were doing a CBC in some of the canyons on the Palos Verdes Peninsula after a rainy night. The trails were soft and muddy, and birds were not abundant. There was a moment where we started to slide down the trail a bit, and we decided to turn around, laughing together throughout the day. The vegetation sparkled with drops of water on the leaves, and we both agreed it was a really pretty winter day regardless of the lack of birds. That day of connection with Bob is a gift, as well as the three inches of caked mud on my boots when we arrived back to the car. It’s the tallest I’ve ever been!

Who was your second mentor?

Susan Gilliland, my second mentor, is the adult who coordinates Los Angeles Birders–Students, or LAB-S. She is a fantastic leader for young birders. Susan would inspire us by connecting us to other young birders. I have met so many amazing people who I am now lucky to call my friends. Birding with young birders is such a special kind of energy, and she always did a great job of facilitating the trips so that we had the most amount of fun together. She shared opportunities for summer volunteer programs and introduced us to many professionals in the field. Susan and her husband Frank’s passion for birds complemented ours, and we all enjoyed going out with them.

My favorite day with LAB-S and Susan was at Bitter Creek NWR to see the California Condors up close and (very) personal. I even got to hold their feet while the biologists performed the checkup around me. So cool! That day sparked my interest in bird conservation! Watching the biologists taking blood and feather samples to check the birds’ lead levels taught me the importance of bird conservation. The success story with the California Condors is so inspiring, and I was hooked. Watching the birds being released and flying away aligned with the inklings of my own career path beginning to take flight.

How has that experience influenced you thus far?

Since Bitter Creek, I’ve become increasingly interested in coastal bird conservation where I live, especially the protection of Snowy Plovers and Least Terns. Paying close attention to the breeding areas of these species is vital on the popular beaches along the Pacific Coast in Southern California. For me, these birds represent the most obvious human-wildlife conflict, but also the best opportunity to educate the public on bird conservation, with charismatic, easy to see species.

On first look, the fenced nesting areas are off-putting and don’t match many beachgoers’ desired esthetic. But after educating them about the birds’ unique conservation story, and explaining how they are harmed accidentally by running dogs and beach vehicles, people generally start to take some pride in the fact that “their” beach is home to a threatened species. This conservation compromise is extremely inspiring, and I enjoy observing the general public adapt to allow space and safety for these breeding birds in a positive way. My hope is to get everyday people on board with continued funding and dedication necessary to sustain this necessary coastal conservation work for the future.

Among all the places you have birded in your area and species you have observed, do you have favorite hotspots or favorite species that call to you?

Since my birding passion started in my local parks, I have always loved birding at my small local urban parks. Finding birds that no one else has seen is so rewarding, and I love the sense that I’m contributing to a better understanding of the local birdlife. The park that I visit the most right now is Victoria Park in Carson. It is adjacent to the Goodyear Blimp field, and I have found a lot of birds that are uncommon in the Los Angeles Basin, such as Loggerhead Shrikes, Mountain Bluebirds, Vermilion Flycatchers, and even a flyover White-tailed Kite, plus rarities like a White-winged Dove and a Black-and-white Warbler! In terms of larger hotspots in the LA area, my favorites are Madrona Marsh, the Ballona Wetlands area, and Bear Divide in spring. I highly recommend them to any visiting out-of-town birders.

As for a favorite species, it’s so hard to pick, but I especially love warblers, Hermit and Townsend’s Warblers in particular. It’s always a good day when I see one, and I’m lucky to have the latter overwintering in my neighborhood, so that means a lot of good days!

Is there anything you would like to share being a LGBTQ+ birder? Or share to support other birders?

As an out gay birder, I always try to ensure that other LGBTQ+ birders feel welcomed and supported when I encounter them in the field. The outdoors has not always been a safe or inviting space for queer people in general, so I understand the hesitation that some people feel in joining birdwalks or being out in such spaces. I am fortunate to live in a pretty accepting area, and the birding community is also generally inclusive, so with my nearly 10 years of birding experience, I can try to make this space comfortable for others or let other people know that I am a safe person to talk to. This June, for example, I’ll be leading a LGBTQ+ birdwalk for queer birders and allies at Ballona Wetlands to celebrate Pride Month!

How did you hear about WFO? Do you have any suggestions to help WFO bridge the age gap?

I joined WFO in 2018 ahead of the Ventura conference, because I am passionate about ornithology and studying birds professionally, so I wanted to partake of a local conference. It was such a great experience, and I met so many amazing people that I have stuck with the organization. Since then, I was involved in the Student Programs during the pandemic lockdown, helping organize our Zoom programs.

To better bridge the age gap, I feel like WFO could benefit from adapting to new methods to reach young birders, like social media, and connecting young people to adult professionals no matter where they live in the WFO region. In LA, we have lots of professional birders and ornithologists, but WFO can serve as a link to ensure that young people in rural Idaho or Baja California, for example, can also get connected to such phenomenal people and resources. Whether this outreach occurs through an online platform or through in-person events such as conferences or camps for young ornithologists, I am excited to see the directions in which WFO can expand its appeal to young people in the future.

Can you share your experiences of working at the Moore Lab of Zoology?

Preparing specimens at the Moore Lab for the last several months has been such an educational and interesting process. After getting into living birds, I never thought that I would want to be looking at dead birds too! However, having birds in the hand has allowed me to learn so much about their anatomy and physiology in a way that I never would have experienced in the field. Although it is a steep learning curve to get a handle on the process and I’m still not fantastic at it, it is very cool to be in the same space as lots of amazing researchers who are working on the cutting edge of ornithology. Even if I’m not involved with those projects directly, working on the backlog of specimens in the freezer is very rewarding, as I know that someday the birds I am preparing could be useful to future generations of researchers.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

In 10 years, I hope to be actively involved in a bird conservation project or recovery program, preferably in a position where I am both protecting birds and sharing my love of birds with the public. I want to be out in the field as much as possible, doing work that is useful and will have an impact that benefits the survival of declining bird species. We need many people on board with the idea of safeguarding habitats and avian biodiversity ASAP!

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  1. Wonderful! Way to go, Calvin! So gratifying to know there’s a new generation of birders and conservationists out there!

  2. It has been my pleasure to know Calvin Bohn. I have been delighted to follow him since he attended the WFO conference in Ventura. He has a passion for birds and conservation. His enthusiasm is infectious and his participation and contributions to the WFO student programs, Zoom meetings, and annual conferences have helped immensely to direct WFO in how to increase the participation of other young birders in the program.