Katherine Hepburn

Nocs Naturalist

Headshot of , starring directly into the camera

Introduce yourself

Hi, My name is Katherine Hepburn (They/She). I also go by Katburn, Kat, and maybe one day Katbird. I live and teach in Boston, but I’m originally from Michigan. I have loved being outdoors since I was a kid and am always searching for ways to integrate time outside into my busy schedule as an adult, primarily by birding. I have been birding for about a year and a half and have never been so content pursuing a hobby!

We’re curious, how did you get into birding? It seems like you’re into so much surrounding the outdoors and nature. How did it all start?

When it comes to my love of the outdoors, that all started when I was a kid going to summer camp in Northern Michigan. My time spent in the woods and at the lake gave me a great appreciation for being outside. My mom has also been taking my brother and me to national parks since we were little which is something I'm trying to keep up with today. So far I’ve been to nine national parks. It's important for me to acknowledge that our national parks are on native land so I try to educate myself before and after visiting a park about its indigenous history. When it comes to birding, I started in 2022 with an Outdoor Afro trip to the Boston Nature Center. I had so much fun on that trip that I immediately went home and bought the “Birds of Massachusetts” field guide by Stan Tekiela and my first pair of (very small) binoculars. I have learned so much about bird identification in the past year and some change from going on bird walks and spending time in the many local parks in Boston. I often surprise myself with how much I can remember when I’m birding. Birding has reminded me of how fun learning can be when you are super interested in the topic. My brain is so excited to learn and hold new bird knowledge, a feeling I hope all of my students can experience someday. Now I can't be outside without identifying all the birds around me.

You are also a teacher. How are you approaching helping the next generation to appreciate and take care of the outdoors?

Last summer I participated in a program called Teach Earth through an organization called EarthWatch. I was part of a group of teachers who went to Lake Tahoe, NV/CA to help with caterpillar research. Throughout our trip, we lesson planned together on how to bring topics like climate change, environmental stewardship, and appreciation for our planet into our classrooms. Currently, I try to integrate topics like climate change and the environment into the core subjects I teach (Math, ELA, and Social Studies). For example, if we doing a unit in math on data collection/representation, we can analyze relevant data about our climate as well as the biodiversity in our community. It is so important for the next generation to develop a sense of responsibility for the earth. It’s also important for teachers to use indigenous people and their teachings as expert resources, and to think about the intersections of race, class, and the environment. A goal of mine is to expose my students to all the beautiful outdoor opportunities there are in Boston. While there isn’t a ton of BIPOC representation in the outdoor communities in Boston, there are lots of people who are working to change that. As a teacher, I want to show my students who are mostly Black and Brown that there is a space for them in the outdoors. Additionally, I am always learning and hope to become a certified Naturalist in the future to supplement my classroom teaching experience.

I saw on your IG, you’ve seen over 100 bird species. Which one stands out to you, your favorite or top 3 we could ask?

As of right now (because it's always changing), my favorite birds are:
• The common loon - Have you ever heard something that is both haunting and beautiful? That’s how I feel about the common loon. They are so beautiful, and it makes me mad I'm not from Minnesota
•The northern flicker - I love how unique they are, the colors, the patterns. I will always be excited to see a northern flicker.
•The American Kestrel - I have such a soft spot for small and cute birds. The Black-Capped Chickadee and Ruby Crowned Kinglet were definitely runner-ups). Who doesn’t love a tiny falcon?
* Note: I also love all ducks - but would never be able to pick my top three! Whoever coined the term “Weird Duck Season” for Winter… thank you.

We’re stoked that Nocs are in your toolkit. In what situations do you find yourself grabbing your Nocs? How are they helping your craft?

I have been enjoying having Nocs in my toolkit. My first pair of binoculars were very small and not really meant for birding, so it was great when I upgraded to my green pair of Field Issue Nocs. Pretty much anywhere I go where I'm going to be spending time outside I have my binoculars with me and even if I'm inside I often still have my binoculars on me. Since I've started burning I've gotten the chance to bird while kayaking a few times and that has to be one of my favorite ways to bird. I don't have to worry about if my Nocs get wet and I can truly just enjoy my time on the water. I even bird through my windows at home. I also love that I can take photos through my Nocs especially because I don't own a camera. The pictures are clear enough to share online but also help me confirm bird IDs when I'm unsure. When it comes to helping my craft, my Nocs make it so that even when the weather is not the best and there's not a lot of sunshine I am still able to see birds even if they are backlit to my naked eye.

From the looks of it, you are constantly on an adventure or in nature. Can you tell us the most sublime moment you’ve experienced in the great outdoors?

Last summer a family member of mine moved from Montana to Michigan. We road-tripped it and visited three national parks along the way (Glacier, Indiana Dunes, and Theodore Roosevelt). After almost two full days of driving, we’d made it through Chicago and were getting closer to the Michigan state line. We stopped in Indiana for sandwiches before our final stretch, and while we were eating I decided to Google if there were any national parks in Indiana out of curiosity. It just so happened that we were 12 minutes away from Indiana Dunes National Park (we had no idea)! We decided almost immediately that we had to make a detour to visit the park even though it was pouring rain that day. We got to the visitor center, I got a picture with the sign, I went inside and got my passport stamped, then we asked the park ranger what we should we do next. They pointed us in the direction of a scenic road along Lake Michigan. While we were driving it stopped raining and the sun started to come out. We pulled up to the beach there was the most beautiful, vibrant rainbow over the lake. It felt like the weather had cleared up just for us and it was just magical. The combination of spontaneity, change in weather, and my expectations being exceeded made the experience so sublime. It felt as though we had stumbled upon a hidden gem of a park and I hope to make it back there one day.

How are you spending your time outside of work lately? What are some thoughts and ideas that have been occupying your mind?

Outside of work I typically spend my time reading, making music, catching up on my favorite TV shows, and birding, but nothing has been typical these days. The Palestinian people have been consistently on my mind. For the past 6 months, I’ve been bearing witness through social media to the horrors being inflicted on the Palestinian people. I’m currently reading “Light in Gaza - Writings Born of Fire” and learning about the impact of occupation on Palestine since 1948. There’s a quote from Palestinian poet Marwan Makhoul that says “In order for me to write poetry that isn’t political, I must listen to the birds, and in order to hear the birds the warplanes must be silent”. I’ve been thinking a lot about the privilege of birding and being able to spend time outside and listen to the birds around me without the sounds of drones and bombs. I've been mourning the 34,000+ people (14,500+ of whom are children) whose dreams are now buried under the rubble with their loved ones. I keep revisiting Rafaat Alareer's 2011 poem “If I Must Die” and making parallels between the white kite with a long tail and the birds I love so dearly. For me, birds represent hope and resilience. I imagine them carrying the dreams of Palestinians past, present, living, and dead around the world so that we can keep fighting for liberation.

Anything on your calendar that you’re looking forward to? We’d love to stay in touch! Where can we find you these upcoming months?

As a teacher, I am very much looking forward to having the summer off. So far I have a backpacking trip planned and the rest of my summer will slowly be filled up with outdoor fun as the chaos of the school year subsides. Something I am really excited and proud about is that over the next few months, I will be co-leading monthly bird walks with a colleague who is a member of the Brookline Bird Club. These are beginner-friendly walks and we hope to encourage more BIPOC people to get into birding. There is a long history of exclusion and a lack of access to outdoor spaces/ hobbies that we are actively working against. I hope people in my community and in general will start to have a new image in their heads when they think of birders. I will be posting updates on my IG: @katbirder for anyone who wants to follow along!

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