Hopewell environmentalist tracks endangered birds in ‘Field Biologist’
Tyler Christensen has always been a wildlife fanatic, but his interest narrowed when he went on his first birding trip in Costa Rica at age 13. He was more into plants and insects when he was younger.
“Then puberty hit, and it was birds,” he joked.
Christensen became fascinated by not just the birds themselves, but by how much skill and knowledge went into the study of birds.
“When you start studying any aspect of nature seriously, whether it’s birds or anything else, it raises your awareness of your surroundings, and turns a walk in the woods into something much more intimate and stimulating,” he said. “You can identify 20, 30, or even 40 birds, just by listening.”
The 22-year-old Hopewell native is the subject of the documentary Field Biologist, which follows Christensen as he chases migratory songbirds through the dense cloud forest and mangrove swamps of Costa Rica. The Washington Crossing Audubon Society hosted a screening of the film last month and another screening is scheduled for Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. at the Lawrence Headquarters of the Mercer County Library.
In the film, Jared Flesher, a local independent filmmaker and producer for the film, trails closely behind Christensen and his research partner Sean Graesser as they collect data from migrant songbirds and resident Central American species, which fly thousands of miles every winter to reach warmer climates, like Costa Rica. Their research is part of a larger effort to understand winter habitat quality and how it has been affected by commercial development.
Flesher presents their research to tell a larger story about the worldwide decline in biodiversity, which he feels should be at the forefront of a global agenda. While Field Biologist effectively illustrates the exigency of our biodiversity crisis, it also uses Christensen’s story to confront more profound questions about the shortfalls of traditional schooling and pursuing passion over convention.
Flesher met Christensen when he was filming a previous documentary, Sourlands: Stories from the Fight for Sustainability. For that movie, Flesher needed help capturing bird footage, and contacted Christensen at the urging of several members of the birding community.
At the time, Christensen was working for the Mercer County Park Commission as a bird-bander, catching wild birds and marking them with a numbered tag for monitoring purposes. The information collected from this practice is contributed to larger databases that help ornithologists study patterns related to dispersal and migration, social structure, survival rate, life-span, reproductive success and population growth.
Christensen told Flesher of his plans to return to the Nicoya Peninsula Avian Research Station, the ornithological research and outreach initiative he co-founded in Costa Rica, that coming winter. He invited Flesher to come along and capture footage. Through their budding friendship and shared interest in ecology, Field Biologist was born.
Though Christensen may exude the ornithological expertise of someone with an advanced degree, he is almost entirely self-taught. He was homeschooled through eighth grade, which he said allowed him to better cultivate his niche interests.
“I had a hard time in school. Homeschooling was beneficial to me because I could spend a lot of time outside. It was more natural for me,” he said.
When he entered the public school system in high school, he admits he wasn’t the most motivated student. In fact, he failed his biology class. Eager to pursue his own studies, he persevered, graduating from Hopewell Valley Regional High School in 2008. He chose to defer college, but his lack of a formal degree did not lessen his discipline or mastery in the field, Flesher said.
“When he gets out in the natural world, he is an incredible tour guide and an incredible translator of the things you see,” Flesher said. “I spent a lot of time in the world outside growing up. But Tyler seems to have a talent for finding things that I can’t see.”
Christensen, who grew up in Pennington, traveled frequently with his family as a child. His parents, who ran a roofing business, took Christensen, his brother and his two sisters on adventurous family vacations to areas like the Florida panhandle, west Texas, Utah and Arizona.
“These trips felt more like expeditions than vacations; we would go out at night searching for snakes, I would identify and collect plant and insects, and after I became interested in birds, I would seek out new species to add to my list. “
Christensen said he credits his parents for his passion for biology and nature. His father, who passed away about five years ago, was especially fascinated by reptiles and amphibians.
“Both my parents encouraged my interest in nature, which started at a very young age. I was often developing new interests in different aspects of nature, and being allowed to pursue them without feeling pressure or disapproval was really important,” he said.
Christensen passed down knowledge of reptiles came to light when he, Flesher, and Graesser encountered a coral snake while conducting research at the NPARS station. The snake is highly dangerous, if not lethal; its bite contains a potent paralyzing neurotoxin.
“We’d just been talking about the coral snake, which is one of the most venomous snakes in the world. And sure enough, not a half hour later, there it is in front of us,” Flesher said. “Tyler takes off running after it, grabs it by its tail and jumps in the weeds.”
Christensen emerged gripping the tail of the calm coral snake, its body coiled around a long stick. When Flesher asked Christensen how he learned to handle a snake safely, he said he learned from his father.
“I don’t know if he really taught me a specialized technique more than just sort of an improvisational method. Keep away from the sharp end. That’s what he taught me,” Christensen said.
Flesher said the incident says a lot about Christensen’s character.
“He lives live with a sense of adventure, a sense of danger…he’s not a distant observer,” he said.
Long-time family friend Alison Snieckus said Christensen has always displayed an earnest enthusiasm for the outdoors.
“One day I’m over picking up my kids from his house, and there’s this list of birds that are native to New Jersey, a roll of paper that runs from the ceiling to the floor, and he says he’s going to check off the ones that he sees. The next time I was there, one third of the list was checked off. He would just be interested in something and go after it,” she said.
Snieckus is a co-founder of the Princeton Learning Cooperative, a center that offers homeschooled teenagers help designing a personalized curriculum, as well as classes, tutoring and social activities. In September, Snieckus asked Christensen to lead a nature hike for home-schooled students through the patch of woods behind All Saints Road in Princeton.
Snieckus said the message behind Field Biologist resonates with the core mission of Princeton Learning Cooperative, which nurtures intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning experiences.
“He leads a great example: just do what you believe in, what suits you, what’s right for you. Even though he went to high school, he wasn’t really deterred from ‘this is what interests me, this is what I should do.’ He’s still on that path,” she said.
Snieckus asked Christensen to lead PLC members on their weekly nature walk, which she has been organizing since PLC’s inception in 2011. She said both she and the students were amazed by the details that Christensen brought to their attention.
The students were especially interested when Christensen stopped to show them a delicate, pale twisting pattern on the surface of a leaf. He told the class that it was a leaf miner’s path, a feeding tunnel carved by the larva of an insect that lives within the layers of leaf tissue and survives by eating it.
“He showed us things we’ve walked past 100 times but never really noticed,” Snieckus said. “To have that sense in the woods is really a gift. Kids work off that.”
The Princeton Learning Cooperative is one of several institutions with plans to host screenings of Field Biologist in the coming months. The film has been shown at Princeton and Yale universities and has future screenings planned in libraries and film festivals in New York City, Boston, Richmond and Barcelona.
When asked what he hopes his viewers will gain from watching, Christensen said he hopes they will see it and decide to take a more active interest in the natural world.
“I try not to be a preacher. If I did have to choose, I would hope that they come away with an appreciation of not just birds, but nature. I can’t think of anything more fulfilling, and satisfying and wonderful as being familiar with nature and getting outside and learning stuff.”