One of the great and mostly rare joys in life is to take a passion from childhood and build it into a sustainable career, a way of life as an adult. We should all be so lucky, and Cleveland Metroparks naturalist Jen Brumfield is among the few who can claim that thrill.
"I swear to god that I was interested in birds in utero," she tells Scene on a windy morning at Wendy Park earlier this summer. She comes here every morning to scout feathered friends along the breakwall and in the small woodlot near the volleyball courts. This is one of the best birdwatching spots in Northeast Ohio, she says, and therein lies her life's passion: the many and varied birds of planet Earth. On that day, she was leading one of her many birding walks in the park, passing on her knowledge of summertime songbirds and regaling a crowd of maybe 20 with her own brand of humor and insight.
"You know when you first become conscious of life, your first memories ... I remember just liking birds," she says. Her father was a science teacher and her mother was a nurse, and instead of buying things they channeled their family's time and money into trips to the park, road trips, vacations. "We owned, like, nothing. No video games. No elaborate TV. We spent our money on experiences."
Back then, Brumfield's home was ringed with birdfeeders. When her father would fill them up with seeds, she'd run into the house and wait patiently for whatever birds would happen by that day.
This is how it's always been, since her earliest days. (Some of her first words were related to birds, to her mother's chagrin. "It was like 'Dad' and 'Hawk' and 'Grackle,'" she says. "'Mom' was like sixth.") From there, she went on frequent Audubon bird walks and pored over field guides constantly. By 11 or 12, she was leading her own bird walks. All along, her parents were incredibly supportive of her interests. They sent her to southeast Arizona for a bird camp once; at 16, they sent her to Belize for the birds. She worked hard and gathered scholarships to fund her passion.
What's interesting about birdwatching is how similar it is to a broad spectrum of other activities, how transferable it is for naturalists to share with rookies. Many in the field will compare it, sometimes reluctantly, to Pokemon Go. "It's like this big hide-and-seek game," Brumfield says. "It's like collecting stamps, but in a fun way."
After a string of outdoorsy jobs in the area, she landed at Rocky River Nature Center one day to sell some artwork. She had just gotten back into town after a three-day hawk watch in Buffalo. Her reputation preceded her, as these things happen, and Brumfield was hired to do seasonal, outdoor education work and field-guide writing. She moved up in the Metroparks world. "The opportunities are incredible," she says of the organization.
With a visible platform in a prime North American birdwatching region, Brumfield has been able to develop and hone her passion. In 2012, she broke the record for the most bird species seen in Cuyahoga County with 270. (She saw 53 species on Jan. 1 alone, including a snowy owl at the airport.)
Our visit with Brumfield at Wendy Park was so impressive that we incorporated her work into a recent feature on the nexus of birdwatching and climate activism. Something she said that morning, winds whipping fast around our interview, really stuck with us, mostly because Brumfield is about as enthusiastic a naturalist as you'll find: ""Little do people know anymore that we're conscious! We can make decisions and not just go with the flow!"
She's made her passion into her life, and she shares that with other people everyday. — Eric Sandy