Flying high: Sophomore is a rising star in the birding world

Looking through binoculars, half a dozen Cornellians admire a great blue heron standing on the opposite shore of Beebe Lake.

Their guide points to a song sparrow on a branch, Canada geese and mergansers on the water, an American goldfinch in the distance and a downy woodpecker climbing a tree trunk.

While the birds may be the main draw, the guide—a second-year member of Cornell’s Birding Club—gets the attention himself.

A social media influencer with nearly 40,000 Instagram followers, Isaiah Scott ’25 is emerging as a young adult leader in the national birding community. He is passionate about not only conserving and appreciating avian species, but also about attracting other Gen Zers and people of color to birdwatching.

Credit: Noel Heaney/Cornell University

Isaiah Scott ’25 loves sharing his passion for birds – whether that’s leading tours for fellow Cornelians or captivating his thousands of Instagram followers.

Majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Scott is a Georgia native who developed a passion for birding after visiting the Ornithology Lab during a family visit to Ithaca for his older brother’s college tour. (Darius Scott ’22, a biological sciences major, will graduate from CALS in December.)

Isaiah Scott bought his first pair of binoculars at the Lab’s gift shop and later started his own small-scale excursion, Ike’s Birding Hikes, while in high school.

“I love birdwatching so much, I want to share it,” he says. “I want people to be outside and experience the healing and regenerative power of nature – especially when they see birds, because they are such inspiring animals.”

After Ike’s Birding Hikes appeared in the local news in Georgia, the Ogeechee Audubon Society reached out to offer Scott a membership and to organize some of his tours.

He has since become one of the leaders of Cornell’s Birding Club, where he serves as Chair of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and studies and works at Hog Island Audubon Camp off the coast of Maine. And he participated in a graduate student research project at Sapsucker Woods.

Third year doctorate. Student Ethan Duvall called on Scott to help collect data for his study of calcium intake in birds, which is needed for egg laying. The study involved positioning cameras in the Sapsucker, determining sources of calcium, such as bones and shells, and then reviewing the images to see what the birds preferred.

“Isaiah is phenomenal in his passion and initiative to try to make the birding community a more inclusive space – but also a more fun space,” says Duvall. “He has a special ability to connect with people in a way that expresses how engaging birdwatching can be.”

Scott was already leading his own birding treks when a now notorious case of bias made headlines in May 2020.

Christian Cooper, a black man birdwatching in a wooded area of ​​New York’s Central Park, was falsely accused of threatening by a white woman who broke park rules by not leashing her dog. The incident sparked a discussion about ‘birding in black’, highlighting how birders can face hostility and threats due to racist assumptions that they don’t belong to certain neighborhoods or natural areas.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised, because I knew there were issues with racial stereotyping or profiling,” Scott says.

“I especially didn’t feel comfortable watching the birds alone; what if someone says something or calls the police? But I’m really glad it opened people’s eyes to these issues.

Scott is also a skilled artist who creates watercolor paintings of birds, which he sells through an online gallery. He is a student brand ambassador for LL Bean and has modeled a trail sneaker for Zappos. And he’s working to raise $100,000 to buy land for a nature preserve in Georgia.

In addition to serving as a protected space for birds and other animals, the 40-acre facility would nurture the distinct cultural heritage of the Gullah Geechee people. The community, to which his family belongs, is descended from enslaved Africans who lived along the southeast coast.

Like many avid birders, Scott has a “life list” – the species he has seen in person.

Of the roughly 300, he admits a clear favorite: the painted bunting, which he first spied on an Audubon outing in Georgia.

“It’s a beautiful little songbird,” he explains. “Males have a blue head with a red belly and green wings. It is a very beautiful bird, colorful and vibrant.

Given Scott’s success on Instagram and his interest in fashion, is he drawing inspiration from the avian world, where it’s usually the male of the species that displays the most colorful plumage?

“Yeah,” he said, laughing. “The males should look handsome and pretty to the females. Why not take notes? Let’s be kind to the birds too.

Beth Saulnier is the editor of Cornellians, where the original version of this article first appearance.

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