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‘Brown Boobies’ brings together campus bird enthusiasts

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Seven Brown students ventured out to Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge Nov. 20, binoculars in hand, for the first outing of Brown’s new bird-watching club, the Brown Boobies.

Scott Winton ’07, the club’s president, said that of the 62 birds he and the other birdwatchers saw, his favorite was a short-eared owl.

“He’s big, he’s got sharp talons and he wants to eat something,” Winton explained.

Winton said he started the club mainly as a way to get outdoors and meet more people at Brown. Fifteen people showed up to its first on-campus meeting Nov. 15, he said, despite the fact that it only advertised within the Department of Geology.

Secretary Boris Khomut ’07 named the club after a bird that lives in Central and South America. Brown Boobies is open both to those who can identify hundreds of birds at a glance and to those who simply think owls are cool.

Winton credits Peter Capobianco ’07, the club’s vice president and Winton’s first year roommate, with introducing him to birding. Capobianco, who has pursued the pastime since childhood, was himself introduced to it by a Brown graduate and family friend, Hugh Willoughby ’53.

Capobianco said that bird-watching can be competitive, since many birders keep online lists of the different species they see. One way of keeping track, he said, is to list all the birds seen in one state. Capobianco has seen 315 species in Rhode Island alone, which means that he is ranked 10th-best bird-watcher in the state.

Capobianco has seen so many birds, in fact, that he now has a hard time finding ones that are new to him. He will even go out in the middle of storms, hoping that the hurricane winds farther south have driven some birds north of their usual habitats.

News spreads so fast among the birding community, Capobianco said, that crowds will almost instantly gather wherever a rare bird is sighted. In August 2004, Capobianco said, the first red-footed falcon ever seen in North America made its appearance at an airport in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. By the time Capobianco got to the airport, there were hundreds of people watching for the falcon, some of them from the West Coast.

Winton said that Capobianco is the best birdwatcher in the club, but that most of the Brown Boobies have done some bird-watching before.

Not all of the club’s members are there entirely for the birds, he said. Some are photographers, like Gabrielle Salazar ’09, a nature photographer who went on the Nov. 20 outing. Capobianco himself has had several photos published, including one in the latest edition of Birding Magazine.

Winton hopes that word will continue to spread, because the Brown Boobies have big plans for the future, including creating an on campus bird garden complete with flowers and bird feeders.

Another idea is to create a list of birdwatchers at Brown, so that birders can keep track of all the species that have been sighted on campus.

One of the Brown Boobies’ most important goals, according to both Winton and Capobianco, is to get the University to offer an ornithology course. Capobianco said he has taken every animal behavior class offered, and he hopes that the number of students interested in birding will prompt the University to offer an ornithology class as well.

Despite his early flair for it, Winton insists that birdwatching for him is not the passion that it is for Capobianco. “I don’t like birds any more than I like mammals,” he said, “but they’re easy to see. You can’t really go mammaling.”

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