What Makes a Birder? Hannah Mindeman Shuman: Music in the Air

By John Bloomfield

Some travel the world and amass huge life lists. Others travel as far as their backyard and may not list at all. Some bird with expensive optics and big camera lenses. Others use modest bins and maybe a point-and-shoot. Some hike miles in search of a rarity. Some take pleasant walks and just enjoy whatever they see.  Some bird from a wheelchair or walker. Others enjoy birdsong from an open window.

Birders. They come in more flavors than an ice cream store. Yet they share one thing in common: an unabashed love for all things birds.

In this new series we explore the diversity of our local birding community. We wanted to know what ignited their interest and what keeps them going. We call it: “What Makes a Birder?”

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When Hannah Mindeman Shuman thinks of birds, she thinks of music. She listens to the tones, the notes, the trills of birdsong with the ear of someone who has been playing the piano since the age of 6. She watches the arial ballet and the skipping of warblers from branch to branch, moving like fingers on a keyboard.

A music teacher and performer, Hannah remembers enjoying the sight of birds from when she was a child, but she did not become a serious birder until about two years ago, when she and her husband relocated from Arkansas.

Then along came COVID-19, and Hannah was working less and spending more time at home. Like many others, she turned to birding for solace.

“When you’re birding, you tend to close out the rest of the world and you’re just focused on one thing,” she said. “I find that extremely therapeutic. I think that’s true for a lot of people now, and I hope that as things open up, many of those people will keep up their interest in birds”

In her brief time as an avid birder, Hannah has seen more than 230 species, all of them in Texas. Her favorite places to bird include Mills Pond, Little Webberville Park, Choke Canyon State Park in South Texas and the Copperfield Nature Trail near her home.

“This trail is definitely underbirded,” she said. “I like to think of it as my private little sanctuary.”

We caught up with Hannah recently at Copperfield, where we were trying to relocate a Black-billed Cuckoo she had seen just days before. More than once we thought we had found it, but we had to content ourselves with excellent looks at a Yellow-billed Cuckoo instead (pictured left).

“I don’t get disappointed when I can’t find a target bird, and I don’t get all wrapped up in doing crazy things to find them,” she said. “I like to really take my time as I walk, you know, kind of stand still and just watch and listen for whatever birds come to me. That’s something that demands a lot of patience, and not everyone can do that.”

As Hannah began to learn more about birds, she took Travis Audubon’s beginner’s birding course with Laurie Foss and Sharon Richardson to help jump-start her skills.

“I learned so much from them, which kind of shows how much you can pick up from good, experienced birders,” she recalled. “I kind of went into it thinking, well, I’ve been birding for a little while and maybe I know some of this, but then I realized how much I still needed to learn. Laurie and Sharon are not only good, but they’re fun. I recommend this class for anyone who’s just getting into birds.”

Hannah credits her musical training with helping her identify birdsong but admits it can be tricky and recounted a tale many birders know all too well.

“I thought for sure early on that I could tell a Red-shouldered Hawk’s call from a Blue Jay’s imitation,” she said. “I thought I could hear that difference in tone. Then one day I went after what I was sure was a Red-shouldered Hawk. I just chased that sound all over – and it was a Blue Jay. Yeah, well, Blue Jays do a good Red-shouldered Hawk.”

When not birding, Hannah is known as a highly regarded collaborative pianist and music educator. As a performer, she debuted at Lincoln Center in 2013, performing in ?a multimedia concert that combined 20th century flute-piano repertoire and original visual art. She also teaches both individual and group lessons using the Suzuki method. She credits one of her graduate school teachers, Dr. Allison Gagnon, herself a talented performer, as one of her main musical influences.

“Coincidentally,” she added, “she’s also a birder.”

When the pandemic struck, Hannah started teaching online, and only recently resumed in-person classes. She and her husband have also moved into a new home. With the summer here and lots to focus on, she still looks forward to getting out in the field.

“There’s good birding year-round in Austin,” she said. “Even though it’s baking outside, there’s a lot going on in the morning. You can still hit your favorite spots; you just need to be smart about what you’re doing. Although honestly, I can’t wait for fall migration.”