Hooked on birds, instructor now shares her passion
Elaine Murphy’s interest in bird watching was kindled in 1985, when she began taking her three-year-old daughter to Commonwealth Lake Park to visit the resident ducks.
As they walked, mother and daughter grew curious about the many varieties of birds – and at least one bird watcher – they spied during their walks in the park.
“There was a guy there who was really friendly and he’d answer questions for us,” Murphy said. “I had misidentified a bird, and next time we were there he had his field guide and began talking to us.”
Murphy said she soon bought a birdfeeder, a bird guide and binoculars and started paying even closer attention.
“We got hooked.”
Nearly three decades later, Elaine Murphy is still hooked on birds. Murphy works as a part-time instructor at the Tualatin Hills Nature Park Interpretive Center and Cooper Mountain Nature House, where she teaches family programs, kids’ programs, school programs and summer camps.
Many of her classes allow her to share her advanced knowledge of bird watching (or “birding”), a hobby claimed by more than 50 million Americans.
Identifying birds by their physical characteristics or calls is in stark contrast to Murphy’s “day job” as a bookkeeper. That’s just as she planned it.
“In 1990, my daughter was 8, and I knew that soon she would be a busy teenager doing more stuff on her own and spending less time with me,” she said.
Murphy contemplated returning to school to become a certified public accountant, but asked herself, “Do I want to do tax returns, or do I want to do more outdoor stuff?’”
As the answer became evident, Murphy approached Cedar Hills Recreation Center about teaching a beginning bird watching course. Before long, she was teaching several classes for the district and learning about new subjects along the way, including owls and bats.
The opening of Tualatin Hills Nature Park in 1998 provided a natural extension of the work she was doing for THPRD and for Backyard Bird Shop, for whom she also leads bird walks and hosts school programs.
Elisa Joy Payne, program coordinator at the Interpretive Center, values Murphy for more than her expertise. She said other staffers love working with her and appreciate her positive attitude and willingness to take everything in stride.
“She’s got a great sense of humor,” Payne said. “After we had canceled a program for low enrollment, Elaine showed up with a cardboard sign that read, ‘Will teach for food’.”
Murphy holds four part-time jobs – two accounting positions and two in nature-related fields – so she routinely juggles her schedule, alternating between the birds and the books. That can get difficult during summer camp season.
“I thought about stopping to add up the number of hours I work, but I think it would be depressing,” Murphy said. “The work I do is fun, but I have gone 13 weeks without an entire day off during a busy season.”
She recently resolved to keep Mondays free. She enjoys kayaking and also intends to explore some natural areas, including Silver Falls State Park.
“One of the things I love about nature is that I can learn new things every day,” Murphy said.
Sharing that knowledge and seeing others inspired by her passion keeps Murphy enthusiastic about teaching.
“When I first started watching birds, it was exciting because birds are so accessible,” she said. “What I enjoy about teaching is that there are always new people. I remember what it was like when I first started being able to tell one bird from another and realizing how many are out there. The adults get as excited as kids do. I can share their excitement.”