For earth scientist Cin-Ty Lee, observing the world includes the view through his binoculars.

Baltimore oriole. Illustration by Cin-Ty Lee

Cin-Ty Lee arrives on campus before dawn. He does not head straight to his office, nor does he stop at the gym. Instead, for an hour or so, he can be seen slowly walking the grounds, peering through a set of large, black binoculars.

“I generally avoid the residential colleges, because I don’t want to look creepy,” he jokes as we make our way through the open space behind Wiess College.

Cin-Ty Lee finds Rice’s campus to be a surprisingly rich birding habitat. To date, he has documented 216 species. Photo by Tommy LaVergne

Lee is looking for birds, and for the last 12 years he has been meticulously noting every species that has touched down on Rice’s campus. The current total is 216, which Lee guesses might be a record for an American university, except for a few coastal colleges in California. It is impossible to know for sure, since most schools don’t keep track of such things.

But for Lee, a professor of earth science, watching birds is more than a numbers game — it is a way of connecting to the natural world. He does it mostly for fun, but he also sees his observations as forming an important set of data about which birds can be found where, and when.

“It’s almost obsessive-compulsive,” Lee admits. “I go out almost every day, and you could say, you’ve seen all the birds by now and every year is the same, but it’s not true — there’s always a little bit of unpredictability.”

The biggest surprises come during the spring and fall, as thousands of birds pass through the Houston area on their way to and from their wintering grounds in Central and South America.

“Houston in general is along the flyway so there are a lot of birds going through, but they don’t necessarily stop if there’s nothing to stop for,” Lee says, referring to the major routes used by migrating birds.

All the trees and shrubs that comprise the Lynn R. Lowrey Arboretum make Rice’s campus an oasis of sorts for these nomads — a green island in a dense, urban sea. According to Lee, Rice is mentioned in guidebooks as one of the best places in the city to watch birds. He is often joined on his morning walks by a handful of fellow birders, and he is very welcoming of newcomers, including nonbirders like me.

As we make our way toward the grove of oak trees in front of Lovett Hall, Lee calls out each bird he sees as if he is naming old friends. Tennessee warbler. Common yellowthroat. Red-eyed vireo. He identifies some based only on the way that they fly; others he does not see at all, but can recognize by their calls. He pays a little less attention to the year-round residents like grackles and mockingbirds. It’s the migrants that really get him excited.

But to fully experience the thrill of the spring migration, Lee recommends that novice birders get outside of the city. He invites me to join him and his Field Bird Biology Lab (EBIO 237) on an excursion to the epicenter of Texas birding — a place called High Island.

The Rookery at Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary, High Island. Photo by Tommy LaVergne

A Bird Sanctuary

Leaving campus before dawn on a Sunday in mid-April 2013, we drive first to Galveston, then cross by ferry to the Bolivar Peninsula. We make a few stops to look for birds in the scrubby mudflats and along the beach, then move on to the main attraction. After following the chocolaty-brown waves of the coast for about 20 miles, Highway 87 abruptly veers inland, and we find ourselves climbing the only hill visible in any direction.

We park our cars in a U-shaped gravel parking lot and walk a short distance down the narrow asphalt road to a place on High Island called Boy Scout Woods. There, next to a small wooden shack where volunteers are selling birding gear and High Island hats and T-shirts, are a set of bleachers. A couple dozen people are sitting and standing, looking quietly but intensely through binoculars and spotting scopes into a small clearing beneath the trees.

Following Lee, we eagerly break out our binoculars, anxious to discover what avian treasures await. But those of us who are relatively novice birders quickly learn that trying to spot a small bird in a thick tangle of leaves and branches is not always easy. Lee’s ability to identify birds by their calls gives him a definite advantage, and he helps us by providing detailed directions for where to point our binoculars.

“You see that spot in the sun? There is a branch at a 45-degree angle. Go to the base of the tree. About a foot off the ground,” he directs.

I catch a quick glimpse of a dark bird before it flutters off deeper into the brush. Identifying each species seems next to impossible after such a cursory glance. I’m a biologist, but I’m used to looking through a microscope at insects mounted on the end of a pin. Birds, I thought, should be easy — after all, they are fairly large and often brightly colored. But there, with so many different species all in the same spot, it’s somewhat overwhelming.

A great egret in breeding plumage on High Island. In the background are roseate spoonbills.

Thankfully, our group is chock-full of experienced birders. In addition to Lee, Rice professors Mark Kulstad and Diana Strassmann have joined us for the outing, as well as graduate student Ben Van Allen, who is co-teaching the lab with Lee.

Kulstad has been coming to High Island for 40 years and clearly enjoys sharing his passion for birds with anyone who is interested. Moving beyond the bleachers, we walk slowly along the well-maintained trail, chatting without making eye contact, always looking up into the trees. Suddenly, he spots something and his binoculars shoot up to his face.

“White-tailed kite! Straight up through the trees!” he shouts. There is a collective “ooh” as the students raise their binoculars and catch a glimpse of the large, predatory bird flying overhead.

As we arrive at an intersection along the boardwalk with a large tree stump on one side, Kulstad stops, puts down his binoculars and gestures overhead.

“This spot used to be called the Cathedral,” he explains, “because it had large trees that created a canopy and was filled with birds, and so it felt like a holy place. Until a hurricane came and knocked them down.”

For many, High Island really is almost sacred ground, a sort of mecca for birders. More than 10,000 visitors arrive each year, according to Richard Gibbons, director of conservation for the Houston Audubon Society, which owns and operates Boy Scout Woods and three other sanctuaries within High Island.

“A lot of these habitats are stopover habitats,” explains Gibbons. “You can think of them as a Buc-ee’s rest area — the birds are going to stop in, refuel, take advantage of our water features that we have there, get a drink, get salt off their wings and be on their merry way.”

Many of these birds have just made a marathon crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, a journey that can take 15 hours or more, according to Gibbons. A few come from as far away as the Atlantic coast of Brazil, flying nonstop for more than two days. High Island is one of only a handful of suitable places along the Gulf Coast where they can finally stop to rest and recover.

At 28 feet in elevation, High Island is just high enough to prevent flooding during the tidal surges that often accompany hurricanes, says Gibbons. Consequently, the vegetation on High Island is completely different from that of the surrounding coastal plain. “It’s that forest in a sea of marsh that makes it so attractive to birds,” Gibbons says.

As we make our way to Smith Oaks, another sanctuary on High Island, Lee explains to the students that High Island’s elevation is caused by a salt dome pushing up from beneath the surface, a feature that also has made it an important site for the oil and gas industry.

Fulvous whistling-ducks at Brazos Bend State Park, a typical destination for Lee’s field biology classes. Photo by Tommy LaVergne

From the Mantle to the Sky

Lee should know. He is, after all, a geologist. His research focuses on the origin and evolution of the Earth’s crust, for which he has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Donath Medal from the Geological Society of America. In his nomination for the award, Lee is described as “a Renaissance man … one of the best and brightest of the new generation of multidisciplinary geoscientists.”

Lee’s ability to move between disciplines has allowed him to make contributions to both geology and ornithology. In addition to an extensive set of peer-reviewed research articles on geology, Lee has published some 18 articles on birds and birding. According to Gibbons, “He has contributed a lot of notable records and some intriguing observations that have helped people think about birds in a different way.”

Despite their apparent differences, Lee sees the two fields — geology and biology — as being two sides of the same coin.

“Everything’s interconnected,” he says. “From the birds, to the bacteria, to the rocks, to the deep earth, to the atmosphere. They’re all connected.”

Lee’s interests in both geology and biology stem from a childhood fascination with nature. He grew up in rural California, on a five-acre lot where his parents grew orange trees, and where he quickly developed a fondness for identifying wildlife. By the age of 10, upon realizing that he had already seen all of the snake species that could be found in the area, he turned to birds, which offered a more challenging pursuit. Painting the birds he saw there helped to train his eye, and he soon found he could associate a bird with its song; before long he was able to identify many of the local species without the aid of his reference books.

Students in Cin-Ty Lee’s field bird biology lab scan the skies at Brazos Bend State Park. Photo by Tommy LaVergne

Now, many years later, Lee can identify not only the birds from California, but in most of North America. He estimates that he has seen — or heard — around 1,500 species in his life, nearly 700 in North America alone. But he doesn’t keep track of them with detailed “life lists” the way many birders do. Instead, Lee is more interested in monitoring the birds on campus.

“I’ve gotten more excited now about birding locally, keeping a list for Rice, and I really enjoy that,” he says. “Obviously you can go out to High Island and get way more. But it’s a local place. It’s our place, and I like that.”

Lee has the same expression of boyish enthusiasm when watching flycatchers at Rice as he does when chasing warblers at Boy Scout Woods. Although he enjoys the spectacle of High Island, the convenience of Rice makes the campus his personal favorite place to watch birds. He also hopes that his detailed observations, which he records with pen and paper as soon as he returns from an outing, might someday help researchers keep track of how birds are being affected by climate change. Contemplating how birds, climate and people are all linked makes Lee reflective: “It’s sad in a sense because it makes you feel very mortal.” 

Lee recognizes that there are only so many spring bird migrations he will have the pleasure of personally observing. Witnessing their annual arrival is a chance to be a part of an ancient cycle. Long before the construction of Lovett Hall or even the arrival of the first human settlers in southeast Texas, the ancestors of these birds have been pausing here on their long journey north. He hopes they will continue to do so for thousands of years to come.

For now, Lee is content to watch them one at a time, grinning broadly from behind his binoculars as yet another familiar shape descends from the sky.

Field Habits

Clockwise from top left: American redstart, Rose-breasted grosbeak, Yellow-crowned night heron, Canada warbler, Yellow-throated warbler, Blue jay. Illustration by Cin-Ty Lee

Although Cin-Ty Lee’s professional expertise lies in igneous and metamorphic petrology and geochemistry, his main desire is “to be a natural historian of the Earth.” His research immerses him in deep time as he studies the Earth’s innermost worlds — its ores, metals and magma.

“My tools are my eyes, the rock hammer, state-of-the-art geochemical facilities, mathematical modeling, and yes, old books and maps.” There is one tool he does not mention — a paintbrush.

“My favorite pastime when I’m not getting paid is field biology and ecology.” A lifelong birder, Lee has combined his love of observation with keeping a record. He illustrated these local and migratory birds for our story, working in mixed gouache, watercolor, pen and ink, and pencil.

I’ve always liked drawing, and I just ended up drawing animals and plants as a kid. Eventually, I picked up the paintbrush,” said Lee, with characteristic modesty. Inspired by his college friend Andrew Birch, who illustrated the “Field Guide to the Birds of the Middle East,” Lee kept painting, eventually taking a scientific illustration class at Harvard. This assignment marks Lee’s return to illustrating birds, after a hiatus of a few years. —Lynn Gosnell

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