Leica Interview with Kristi Dranginis

I first met Kristi two years ago during the predawn hour at our bird banding station along the Animas River in Colorado. I remember she was sipping a fragrant homemade chai while we waited for the rest of the crew to arrive. We exchanged small talk and quickly realized each other’s love for birds. Once the bird banding got hoppin’ Kristi and I had a chance to do a few net runs together where she shared something that piqued my curiosity.

She told me that she was in the midst of creating a course for beginning birders. It wasn’t going to be your typical birding class where when all is said and done your mind is full of super fascinating facts and soon-forgotten identification marks. Kristi was committed to helping people develop an intimate connection with the birds of their backyards.

She said she doesn’t care much if a person can tell her how many wing bars a particular sparrow has or what the bird’s Latin name is, she wants people to develop a relationship with the chickadees and wrens of their backyards in the same cherished way they have with their best friend or parent. The knowledge of the details will come with time, she says, but now from a very different place within our minds.

Later on, while she was in Albuquerque for a weekend, we sat down over some scrumptious waffles so I could ask her to tell me a little bit more about her new website, BirdMentor.com, and the upcoming course release. The following Leica Interview is the result of that brunch date.

What motivated you to start Bird Mentor?

Honestly, it was for selfish reasons to begin with. was looking for a mentor, someone who could help take my understanding of birds to the next level. And, what I soon discovered was that there really wasn’t much out there, unless you wanted to offer up your first-born child to pay for a university-level class that is.

Around this time, I was also leading a weekly bird walk in Durango, Colorado where over and over one of the participants would say to me, “Your style is really unique, how did you learn what you know?” Or, “How can I learn what you know, do you teach any classes?” These questions motivated me. I wanted people to have the same opportunity of deeply connecting with the birds that I had.

I also wanted them to be able to learn advanced skills and not just get stuck in the remedial group simply because that’s all that is out there.   From my experience I have seen two camps in the “how-to-learn-about-birds” world: One is set up for the total beginner and has a plethora of fantastic resources – but it’s pretty basic – while the other is designed for the seasoned birder and can be quite technical and even a bit daunting to a beginner. There really isn’t anything that helps folks to make that transition from beginning to advanced birder, so that’s where Bird Mentor comes in.

What is unique about Bird Mentor?

Well, from what I have witnessed, our brain not only has the capacity to learn and retain more information than we often think it does, much of this knowledge already lives in our bones, and is therefore available if we just knew how to access it. Which, on a side note, science has begun to prove. A team of researchers at Emory University School of Medicine showed that certain memories can be passed down in our DNA…. kind of cool don’t you think!!

What I mean by this is that understanding the ways of the birds is ancient. Each one of us has an ancestor, somewhere in our lineage, whose survival depended directly on the intimate knowledge of what the birds were saying and how they were behaving.  Because, as one of my first Bird Language mentors told me, “The birds will tell you if there is a cougar in the forest Kristi”.

So, to answer your question, what makes Bird Mentor unique are the practices of Deep Nature Connection and Bird Language which are woven into the very framework of the curriculum.

Another element that is unique about Bird Mentor lives in its name. One of the options people will be able to choose from, once the course is online, is to have a personal mentor. You know… that person you wish was there with you when you saw that bird you couldn’t identify or the one that you wish would ask you evocative questions to help take you deeper along your path to understanding the ways of the birds. That person.

Here’s a little video to whet your appetite:

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From what I’ve heard, your students rave about how much they’ve been able to learn from you in just a short amount of time. Why do you think that is?

Ha…Well, it’s probably not me as much as the straight-up practical method that’s working behind the scenes of the course which allows people to learn so quickly.

Back when folks were inquiring about how I knew what I did about birds, I started to ask myself questions like, “what do I do when I see a bird? What process does my mind go through in order to identify it? What do I look at first? And last?” The method was born from the answers to these questions.

I’m certainly not the first person to talk about some of these aspects of bird ID, but I may be the first to put them into a systematic approach that makes learning about them super accessible.

Gosh, I hope that doesn’t make it sound too boring and dry, because it’s really quite fun. In fact, I think it’s the structure itself that actually allows people to have the repeated successes that they do – which in turn is just plain fun.


Do prospective students have to know a lot about birds to begin? AND, Is there an age limit/restriction?

No way!! Bird Mentor was started for beginning birders. Though, I’ve been told that because of the unique approach of the course, even experienced birders are taking their skills to the next level with it.

Regarding age, it is really geared for adults, but kids will get a lot out of many of the activities. One of my students was a first grade school teacher and she would take the activities from the course and share them with her students. It was so cool to see how stoked these kids were getting about birds with what she was doing.

When I first met you, you described wanting to facilitate a deeper connection to nature… Can you describe a recent connection that YOU had with nature and explain why you think experiences like this are relevant and necessary in today’s electronic world. 

Hmmmm. You’ve got me thinking on this one. Well, my answer will have to be two-fold.

First, the thing that is special about the mentoring style of Bird Mentor is that I am committed to teaching people HOW to learn. Many times the best way for this to happen is for your own brain to do the work. In the age of Google, we have become kind of lazy and accustomed to receiving any answer to any question as soon as it is asked.

In most cases, the instant answer only satisfies our desire and discomfort about not knowing something in the moment, but it doesn’t truly help us to know the answer for ourselves. Think of how many times you have gone on a bird walk with an expert birder where they are naming all of the birds they see and not two minutes later you notice one of the same birds and ask the leader, “What bird is that?”, because you haven’t done anything to try to learn the bird for yourself.

The other thing I love about getting people to think for themselves is that they begin to get turned on in life again. It’s kind of like when you were a kid flying a kite with your friends and all of the sudden the kite gets stuck up in a tree and there weren’t any adults around to help you get it out… You had to get creative and figure out a way get it down yourself. Dang, that was exciting, wasn’t it? So much of our human nature comes alive in situations like these.

Now, I love this question you’ve asked. And, maybe for the same reason that I might not tell you what my best friend and I giggle about at night or the special words a lover shares with me when we’re alone, I think my stories of deep connection are best kept in the realm of what’s sacred.

I suppose that in itself might be one of the relevant and necessary aspects of learning how to deeply connect with nature in a culture inundated with the desire to tell everyone what we ate for breakfast.   I think we need to know that there is a special place we can go, and it’s often not further than our own backyard, where what’s wild and natural in us can participate with what’s wild in the world.

I believe that when we fall in love with something, not only do we want to spend more time around it, we want to make sure it has everything it needs; that it is safe and flourishing.   When this happens on a grand scale, when people begin to remember who they are through the reflection of what is around them by deeply connecting with, let’s say, the birds in this case, then there is real hope for our beautiful world.

Watch for the Leica shoutout in this video:

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You’ve been carrying 10×25 Leica compact binoculars ever since we first met… Do your Leicas have a story? How did you come to own them? 

I sure have! I love my little Leicas!

Actually, I’ve had them for about 12 years now, and even after getting squished by the metal lever under my seat a few years ago they still look brand new, despite my less-than-responsible handling of them.

I purchased them off of eBay when I was getting ready to embark on a yearlong trip around the world. I didn’t budget for a new pair of binoculars because I already had a robust pair of 12×42 Steiner’s. But, after seeing how much my backpack weighed and knowing that my binoculars must have accounted for at least 15 of those pounds, I knew I had to get a new pair.

These little Leicas literally are one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. My favorite thing about them is that I can take them anywhere; gardening, running, x-country skiing, hiking, biking… you name it, they’re there with me. And because of the superb quality of Leica glass I’m able to see an image, in my pair of 10x25s, that most manufacturers could only dream of having in their full-size binoculars.

One aspect that makes me chuckle is that on more than one occasion other birders have expressed concern about my near-certain inability to see well due to the slight size of my binoculars alone. And, it’s not until these naysayers notice the sweet red circle in the center of them that they blush and say, “Oh, they’re Leicas. I didn’t realize.”

And lastly, when will the course be available and how can folks learn more about what Bird Mentor is up to?

That’s easy, all they have to do is follow this link www.birdmentor.com/free-weekly-bird-walk/ and sign up for the free weekly bird walk videos. Each week they’ll receive an e-mail from me with a new video teaching them a helpful tip or trick to learning about birds. When the course is ready (early December), anyone who has joined the “bird walk” will be the first to know. Plus, if I have any special offers with the course they’ll get those too.

Images of Kristi banding birds courtesy of Robert Winslow Photography. http://www.robertwinslowphoto.com/

Kristi Dranginis, Founder of Bird Mentor

Kristi’s first mentor was the grand forest itself. Her mother was a seamstress who worked from home and in order to get anything done she use to scoot Kristi and her sister out of the house early in the morning and tell them to, “go play in the woods.” Soon, they’d find themselves somewhere in the middle of the 4,000 acre nature preserve that bordered their home in Connecticut, engrossed in their mission to explore the places that no one had seen before. For the most part, when she wasn’t in school, she was outside. Despite this, it really wasn’t until she tagged along on a summer job in college that she actually began to notice birds. That summer she had the pleasure of working as a research assistant for the American Museum of Natural History’s Roseate Tern banding project on Great Gull Island, NY with world famous Helen Hays. The moment she held a Cedar Waxwing for the first time, she was forever enamored. After graduating college she continued her passion for the outdoors by working at the Wolf Education and Research Center in Winchester, ID with a pack of 12 captive wolves. It was here that she met her first mentor in the study of Deep Nature Connection, Keith Marshall. Keith introduced her to author and birder, Jon Young who she spent the next 5 years studying Bird Language from. Today, Kristi is taking the unique approach to birding she learned over the last 20 years and offering it to folks through her Bird Mentor course.

Raymond’s interest in birds was sparked at age seven, but it wasn’t until a few years later that birding completely ruled his life; All it took was a curious male Western Tanager to push him over the edge. Alongside his best friend Ryan, Raymond started what is known as the Sandia Rosy-Finch Project, a rosy-finch banding project that has since received recognition in National Audubon Magazine, Birders World Magazine and with birders all over the nation. Raymond has an impressive resume conducting bird research all over the western United States, notably, a breeding ecology study of Gray Vireos in central New Mexico and a similar project investigating the little-known breeding habits of the Arizona Grasshopper Sparrow.  Other highlights include: stints with the USFWS in the Arctic Ocean, and USGS  in desert-grasslands of Arizona; guiding all over the world from Alaska to Ecuador with his ecotourism company Birding Research And Nature Tours (BRANT); serving as the youngest National Audubon Society chapter President in history; and being one of the most interesting and charming individuals you’ll ever meet!

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