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Open spaces not just for the birds, says Janice Hetzel

Protecting open spaces: Janice Hetzel, president of the Bermuda Audubon Society, is putting herself out there to protect Bermuda’s open spaces (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

As president of the Bermuda Audubon Society, Janice Hetzel often finds herself handling fences.

The 70-year-old charity has nature reserves across the island totalling 63 acres, making it the largest land owning charity in Bermuda, second only to the Bermuda National Trust.

Just recently, Dr Hetzel had to deal with a fence around one of their nature reserves in Sandys, mysteriously unravelling from the ground up. The culprit: mowers working too close to the wire.

Now she is dealing with a much more complicated fencing problem involving land at Southlands Park in Warwick.

On Monday, she wrote an opinion piece for The Royal Gazette, protesting proposed changes to the use of Southlands Park in Warwick to create an events lawn for the nearby Bermudiana Beach Resort.

If approved, part of the park would no longer be public property.

“They want to cut down a piece of the woodland, and put a big fence around it,” she said. “The land has been planted with native and endemic trees that are now 15 or 20 years old. You are taking this living, complex system, and just creating a lawn.”

She felt this set a dangerous precedent.

“What park is next?” she asked. “If the economic success of this resort depends on the events lawn, then we should all be extremely worried.”

She asked everyone who cared about Bermuda’s parks to respond to public consultation and make their voices heard.

“Southlands is a large park, 37 acres,” she told The Royal Gazette on Friday. “We don’t have many big chunks of undeveloped open spaces left in Bermuda.”

Dr Hetzel is not just concerned about habitat for our feathered friends; but also about the impact on humans.

She said: “The health of our environment is tied into the health of people. We feel better, mentally and physically, when we spend time in nature. Bermuda is just a tiny place, and we only have so many spaces to experience the outdoors.”

The bird lover is not normally one to put herself out there.

“I am a quiet and private person,” she said.

When she became secretary of the organisation back in 2014, graduating to president was the last thing on her mind.

“Karen Border was secretary and then president,” Dr Hetzel said. “So when she left her post as president, it seemed natural for me to progress from secretary to president.”

When Dr Hetzel accepted the post of president, she did not imagine herself taking on another Southlands controversy.

She had already marched for its protection years ago when nature lovers campaigned for its preservation. However, protecting open spaces is a subject she is passionate about.

She studied science and public policy at Cornell University. She worked for the Natural Resources Defence Council in New York City for a year, and then in a fisheries lab at the University of Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay.

“I got to the point where it was time to go to graduate school,” she said.

She would have gone into marine science, but a stint with a volunteer fire and rescue squad inspired her to go to medical school.

“After graduation, I did a residency in a family practice,” she said. “I came back to Bermuda and worked doing family medicine for a while, but stopped pretty early.”

At Cornell, known for its ornithology programme and lab, she had a casual interest in birds. However, she did not really get into it until a few years ago when she heard an unusual bird call in her back yard.

“There was this bird in our backyard singing with a very distinctive call that we never heard before,” Dr Hetzel said. “It was June.”

Curious, she and her husband, Erich Hetzel, called Andrew Dobson, who was then president of the Bermuda Audubon Society.

The Hetzels described the bird and Dr Hetzel did her best impression of its song, a high-pitched warbling or buzzing.

Mr Dobson was excited. He came over to their house and confirmed that it was a prairie warbler, a bird not often seen in Bermuda that late in the year. They are usually a fall migrant.

Just flying through

More than 200 species of birds visit Bermuda on their annual migration. Double that have been spotted in Bermuda, at one point or another. However, only 22 types of birds are actually resident and breeding here.

“That bird really got us sucked into bird watching,” Dr Hetzel said.

Mr Dobson, who has since left the island, became their mentor.

“We started learning about the favourite hangout spots for certain types of birds,” Dr Hetzel said. “We also learnt bird watching tricks.”

One of these is called “pishing”. This involves going to a spot where there might be birds, and making loud “pish” sounds.

“It is a bird alarm call,” Dr Hetzel explained. “Instead of running away, however, they will come closer to take a peek to find out what is going on.”

Theoretically, the sound makes the birds twitchy, giving birdwatchers the opportunity to get their binoculars out and have a look.

“Sometimes it works, and sometimes the birds just leave the area,” she said with a smile and a shrug.

Birdwatchers sometimes also record and play back bird calls to draw them in, but this is more controversial.

“The bird calls are the birds’ way of identifying themselves and their habitats and you are potentially distracting them from doing what they need to do,” she said. “Pishing is a little less distinctive to a particular bird.”

Dr Hetzel said birdwatching is a hobby that can take you years to become proficient at.

However, in recent years numerous apps have been created to record and identify birds including Merlin Bird ID made by Cornell Labs.

Birdwatching has taken Dr Hetzel and her husband to interesting, and sometimes weird, places.

“In Bermuda, you can sometimes find birds at the Marsh Folly Dump in Pembroke,” she said. “The pond at the new airport is a great place to see killdeers.”

A killdeer is a North American plover with two black rings around its neck. It can often be seen on golf courses and near ponds. It got its name from its shrill two syllable call.

The Hetzels have been on bird watching trips to places such as Costa Rica, and also work birds into their regular holidays.

“When we were in California one of the hottest spots to see birds was a waste treatment facility,” Dr Hetzel said. “It didn’t smell. There was a path and trees and ponds around the facility. There was a good variety of birds there.”

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Published May 01, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated May 02, 2024 at 8:20 am)

Open spaces not just for the birds, says Janice Hetzel

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