Confessions by Peter Alden
When you’ve traveled to over 100 countries, and you are obsessed with seeing rare birds, you’re bound to have strange things happen. This interview with Peter Alden recounts some of this “mis-adventures” in this long career in birdwatching.
“From my start in the 1960’s, long before it was cool to be traveling to see nature and birds, I led groups of intrepid nature seekers to remote places not accustomed to visitors. Some were considered very dangerous and leading groups had some challenges. I've walked away from three plane crashes. I've had tour groups held hostage at gunpoint in a jungle in South America. I've had malaria, I've had cholera. I had to put some clients in insane asylums overseas because they went totally bonkers. But most of the time, things are wonderful.”
Q: We are going to interview you about your life as a birding pioneer! We've got a series of questions for you. I'm going to start out at the beginning. Peter, when did you first get into birdwatching?
Peter: My father, John Alden was actually a birder in his youth growing up in Newton and up in Andover, New Hampshire, in the summertime. He had a little field guide and he had binoculars. He showed my brothers and me whenever he saw a Towhee or Great Blue Heron, we looked at it and we had a bunch of books, and paintings portraits of New England birds by Fuertes, and field guides. So when we climbed outside, went hiking or did a canoe trip, my father always pointed out birds. He wasn't a hardcore birder. But those outings got me hooked. Then at home we had a bird feeder, and back in the day we used to have these birds called Evening Grosbeaks coming to the feeders, and I got hooked on that too. Then my mother bought me a gorgeous book for children on birding. So that sort of made all the birds into humans for me. As I grew up in Concord Mass, where our local homeboy David Thoreau was a birdwatcher among other interests of his, I thought it was cool to be a birdwatcher. We had our own book, The Birds of Concord, printed in the 1950s. It gave me a lot of updates on what I could see here. I got involved with the Brookline Bird Club leading trips, even though I was in high school. And then my father who worked for a railroad here in New England got me railroad passes. I spent my sophomore summer in high school out in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona birdwatching with local Audubon people. But anyways, I've been hooked since I've youth.
Q: Let’s go back through your adolescent years. What was it like to be somebody interested in birds at that time amongst your peers? What did people think of you?
Peter: In my day any young birders, particularly males, although it's more and more females today, get into birding and don't have anyone else in their grade school or neighborhood who is into birds. So it's usually a lonely sport. Fortunately, my younger brother David got interested in birds. He and I would go birding quite often locally around Concord. We badgered our parents and eventually convinced them to take us to Plum Island and the coast so we could see the birds we could not see in inland Massachusetts.
And then I got two other kids neighbors interested in birding. We formed the West Concord Bird Club, four of us a little kids running around town, spotting birds and then raking in our parents to take us to the ocean. I decided to not advertise the fact that I'm was a birdwatcher. And so I started as an “underground birdwatcher” in high school. I thought birders had a little bit of a bad reputation from TV commercials. I was on the football team and the basketball team, so I did not tell everyone ‘Hey, I'm a birdwatcher’ back then. Once I got to college, I came out of the closet and everybody thought it was cool that I had an interest like that. And then I started running birdwatching tours to Western Mexico by my sophomore year in college. Then many of my friends said, ‘Hey, can I join your tour and I'll help carry luggage?’ So all my friends eventually went with me on trips to Mexico. This led to leading Mass Audubon and many other groups.
Q: Wait a minute, can you back up and tell us how a New Englander ended up in Arizona?
Peter: I had seen about every bird species in New England, so I decided to go to the University of Arizona. I had no interest in going to Harvard, even if they would have let me in. I targeted Arizona, which I really enjoyed a few summers earlier, as having good access to California for Pacific Coast birds and a whole bunch of birds in southeastern Arizona you don't see anywhere else in the United States. And I showed up out there from back east 3000 miles away got to know the local birders and went to join Tucson Audubon. And as the only undergraduate of 30,000 kids that was into birdwatching, I attended all the meetings and field trips my freshman year. They made me vice president of the Tucson Audubon Society, hoping that I would bring in other youths to join the organization because their members were mainly gray-haired people. And then I started taking overnight weekend train trips to different areas of western Mexico, down towards the mountains for long weekends. I remember eating cans of Campbell's soup just with a spoon right out of the can.
Q: How did you go from a starving student eating out of a can of Campbell Soup to leading for National Audubon?
Peter: In my final year at Arizona something big happened. National Audubon came to us and said, ‘Hey, we want to do our first National Audubon Convention in the Western United States, and we've chosen Tucson’. They asked us, as I was Vice President, to think of some pre-convention and post-convention trips. I volunteered to lead trips to the areas that I've been camping out with my tent, sleeping bag, and 10 cans of Campbell's Soup in western Mexico. And we ran a trip and I made enough money on that trip to start a little business. We started running more trips for Tucson Audubon and ended up running trips all over Mexico, all the way to the Guatemala border. With many repeat clients, we then went to Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. People would follow me in part because they liked my humor. Those same people would eventually follow me to Spain and South America as the years went by. And eventually I went with the Massachusetts Audubon Society headquartered near my hometown.
Q: Okay, so was the next milestone in your career getting involved with Mass Audubon?
Peter: Yeah, I already knew a lot of folks from the National Audubon convention in Tucson. There I hung out with my mentor Roger Tory Peterson and the three key people at Mass Audubon. They knew that I had run these trips to Mexico and that people loved them. And I stayed in touch with the president of Mass Audubon and as soon as I stopped living in Tucson they hired me immediately. I inherited a little bit of money at the end of college and got a 4-F from the Vietnam War because of some shoulder injury playing football. But before I started, rather than put my small inheritance in stocks, bonds on a down payment on a house, I decided to spend it all traveling around the world to places that have been intriguing me. I had majored in geography in college with a minor Latin American Studies. I decided I wanted to go birding intentionally. So I did a trip in 1968 on my own money, and I spent almost a year in India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and a bunch of islands in the Pacific Ocean.
To Be Continue in Part II!