Former NMU student tries for ‘big year’

MARQUETTE – What do Michigan and Hawaiian birds have in common? Other than feathers, an avid birder who is concerned about avian conservation in both places.

David Pavlik, a 2010 Northern Michigan University graduate and former member of the Laughing Whitefish Audubon Society, is embarking on a “photographic big year” as a fundraiser for the American Bird Conservancy.

His goal is to photograph as many bird species as possible in a year, a project that ultimately will protect endangered Hawaiian bird species.

“This fundraiser is important to bird conservation because not only does it help raise awareness for the extinction crisis that Hawaii is currently facing, but it raises funds that will be used for project that ensure the survival of bird species that, without conservation efforts, would become extinct,” Pavlik said.

Pavlik is asking supporters to donate money – anywhere between 5 cents and $5 – for every species he records. Donations then will be given to the conservancy for its work in protecting Hawaiian birds.

Already he has photographed more than 550 bird species and passed the $4,000 fundraising mark. Pavlik hopes the final total will exceed $5,000.

According to the conservancy, most Hawaiian bird species are declining because of habitat loss, predation by non-native predators and habitat degradation due to plant diseases and other factors.

Chris Farmer, the conservancy’s science coordinator for Hawaiian birds, said the organization was “touched” by Pavlik’s project.

After all, Farmer called the state the “extinction capital of the world.”

When tourists visit, he said, they tend to gravitate to the beaches.

“But most of the birds you see there aren’t native,” Farmer said. “They’re from the mainland, Asia, other places in the world.”

The original lowland birds, Farmer explained, are declining in numbers because of several factors, such as early colonization that destroyed habitat. Avian disease also isn’t transmitted as easily in the upper regions of the state as it is in the lower area.

Farmer said Pavlik’s fundraiser adds a needed dimension to local bird conservation: getting the word out about the Hawaiian bird crisis.

“It’s the awareness,” Farmer said. “It’s a problem we face all the time.”

Pavlik said he chose the state for his project after learning about the extinction crisis, noting the conservancy said 71 bird species in the state have become extinct since human colonization.

“The possibility of future extinctions is high,” he said, “and without support, these species will suffer.”

For his part, Pavlik has traveled throughout the United States, spending a lot of time in Florida, California, Nevada, Michigan and Alaska. He also blends into his life being a graduate student in the conservation biology program at the University of Minnesota.

“When I’m not studying, which isn’t often, I’m traveling around the state looking for new photo birds,” Pavlik said.

He recently added a gray partridge, northern goshawk and winter wren to his list and looks forward to seeing a great gray owl, Iceland gull, greater prairie chicken and others.

Pavlik keeps a blog of his avian activity, which can be found at (People also can donate to his cause here.) Even if someone weren’t into birding, the blog makes for an interesting read as it’s full of humor and the challenges Pavlik faces as he tries to capture often elusive birds by camera.

Pavlik’s Nov. 16 blog post detailed his successful efforts to find an “overdue lifer,” a gray partridge, at the Great Western Industrial Park near Randolph, Minn. (A lifer is the first bird of a particular species an observer sees, typically kept on a “life list.”)

His Aug. 14 post focused on his trip to the Ruby Mountains in Nevada to spot a Himalayan snowcock, which, he wrote, inhabits the “steepest, highest, rockiest terrain imaginable.” Pavlik spent seven hours the first day looking – but not seeing – the bird after making a two-mile, one-way steep hike.

The following day, shortly before 6 a.m., Pavlik heard a foreign sound he knew would be the species he sought. After more patient waiting, he was rewarded with decent photos, but got a bonus when he heard black rosy-finches even higher on the cliff. After an intense climb, he came upon the feeding finches.

Pavlik also wrote about his experiences with being the “designated chummer” in which he tossed frozen fish and stale popcorn in Monterey Bay, and another time deciding against making a 15-hour detour to locate a black-faced grassquit in Miami.

However, he also scored sightings – and photos – of an elf owl, a wandering tattler and a tufted puffin in his travels.

Obviously, it helps to move around the country to achieve a successful photographic big year. Pavlik said once the semester is over, he plans to go to Texas, which he believes will be productive. After Christmas, he might make a trip to the East Coast to end the year.

That might be a nice way for Pavlik to end his photographic big year because bird conservation, Pavlik said, is important on several levels.

For example, Hawaii gets business from birders seeking unusual, endemic species.

“If these species disappear,” he said, “so does the business brought in by tourists and birders.”

Bird conservation also is essential, Pavlik said, because birds help maintain healthy, natural ecosystems.

“At a time when global extinctions are at their highest, any conservation effort that protects native species is important,” he said.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.