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Archive for Monday, March 21, 2011

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Slice of Life: Birdwatcher’s skills no flight of fancy

Cynthia Shaw is a birder and member of the Jayhawk Audubon Society.

Cynthia Shaw is a birder and member of the Jayhawk Audubon Society.

March 21, 2011

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Where birds are concerned, Cynthia Shaw was a child prodigy.

At 2 she could identify and name nearly every bird in Kansas. By 3, her achievements were recorded by several newspapers, including one in Hot Springs, where the family vacationed.

“My grandfather (W.J. Blackhall) was a passionate birder,” Shaw says.

“He showed me the different birds in his book collection and taught me their names. Then he took me around the area so I could identify and name the birds when I saw them fly by.”

Shaw didn’t consider her ability unusual.

“It wasn’t a big deal to be because I’d always been able to do it and I loved birds,” she says. “But I didn’t tell the kids at school about it in case they’d think I was weird or laugh at me.”

Born in 1935 and raised on her parents’ farm in Sterling, Shaw had many opportunities to spot her feathered friends.

“I loved being outdoors,” she says. “I’d sit very still for hours and observe the birds.”

Shaw graduated from Sterling High School in 1953, accepted a scholarship to Kansas University and did various jobs, including stints as a receptionist, to support herself through college and buy her first good pair of birding binoculars.

She received her teaching degree from KU in 1962, then taught at Sunset Hill School before becoming a stay-at-home mom.

Shaw returned to teaching at Broken Arrow, Wakarusa Valley and Centennial schools before spending 15 years at Cordley. She retired in 1993. She delighted in teaching her son and pupils about birds.

“Sadly none of them became birders,” she says.

In 1970, Shaw and a small group of local birders formed the Jayhawk Audubon Society; she served as the first board’s recording secretary.

In 1980 she married her second husband, Ed, “who loves all things biological,” and he shares her passion for birding. They’ve both served on the JAS Board and continue to participate in as many activities as they can. They’ve been involved in the annual Eagles Day since its 1997 inception.

“The work for Eagles Day is time-consuming but worthwhile,” Shaw says. “Preparations begin in August. It’s great to see so many folks, including young people, involved in it. The first bald eagle to return to Kansas came to Clinton Park, and it now has its own nest at Perry.”

They also participate in the winter bird count.

“Groups of us go out together around a 15-mile radius of Lawrence,” she says. “We identify and count all the different birds we see in one day. It’s truly amazing what people see.”

Despite her now limited walking ability, Shaw continues active birding from her car and in her backyard.

“Kansas has two of the best bird places in the world — Cheyenne Bottom, Great Bend, and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, near my birthplace, Sterling,” she says.

“People come from all over the world to Kansas for the birds. Ed and I get to observe and interact with some of these beautiful birds in our own yard every day.”

— Eileen Roddy can be reached at eileenroddy@sunflower.com.

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