Former Lakeside Music Teacher On 1969-1972 Campus Bird Surveys

After long months of rain, ice, and snow, the sun rises on a new season. Spring is arriving, and with it a return of life of all kinds: flowers, trees, insects, my work ethic (hopefully), and of course, birds.

Washington isn’t the most renowned place in the world for bird migrations, but regular access to the wilderness — mountains around us, lakes interspersed, forests throughout our cities — means Lakesiders can, and do, draw wonder from the movements of our avian cohabitants. 

So in the spirit of local bird appreciation, I decided to speak with someone who can speak to Lakeside’s history with birds: Peter Seibert, a Lakeside Upper School music teacher, and later admissions and college counseling staff member, from 1965-1993. Mr. Seibert is well-known in many circles for his time at Lakeside, but one of his lesser-known endeavors includes birding around the world and leading a Winter Bird Population Study on campus from 1969-1972. 

The exercise itself was part of a National Audubon Society Winter Bird Population Study. Each year, up to a half dozen students and faculty like Mr. Seibert would hold eight surveys of campus.

When they [birds] are affected, we’re all affected.


An important bit of context Mr. Seibert noted was that during this time, Lakeside was much smaller: around 250 students, all male, in a campus with no library or Allen-Gates and much smaller iterations of the gym and the student center (then called the Refectory). Where the library and Allen-Gates now stand was a traffic circle and faculty parking, and the area next to senior parking had a baseball field. 

The study started at the baseball field in front of Bliss, looping around to the headmaster’s house, towards the ravine (noting varied thrushes, usually found on mountains but now semi-commonly seen in the area), behind the Refectory (“the Student Center,” as Mr. Seibert quickly corrected himself), and around the gym, where they would make notes near the recently-built freeway entrance. “You look at that as the olden days, it was new,” he remarked about the final stage of his study.

Indeed, the neighboring highway Interstate 5 had only opened in 1964. Even the area around Lakeside, North Seattle, only received federal funds for development in 1971. The last leg of Mr. Seibert’s study went across to where Stimson is now, back then “all woods, and there was a rocket-launching site” for students inspired by the Apollo missions. 

All of this would be done in about an hour, in one period, and each year would be compiled and sent off to the National Audubon Society, “and that was the last [we] heard of it,” apparently. “I gotta say, going out in the rain with a piece of paper you want to write on, it took a bit of doing,” he added, “but [we] did it. It was good fun.” With the chaos of Lakeside becoming coeducational, though, and the graduations of devoted students, 1972 became the last year for the study.

In the 50 years since the last survey of Lakeside campus, the area has changed much — I-5 has become clogged with traffic, houses sprouted around the place, suburban sprawl of Aurora set in, and Lakeside has grown. Birds as a whole, too, have seen dramatic decline: around 25% of total bird populations having been erased by human interference.

I just wish people would be more aware of birds. People take them for granted, and if they don’t see them they don’t notice them.

However, Lakeside and its surroundings are still, at least in part, an oasis of greenery sandwiched between a highway and a major road. And the pre-eminent draw factor for birding, the reason Mr. Seibert “chose” birds in the first place, remains: “the diversity, beauty, and the challenge of trying to see birds,” and their significant status as a “‘canary in the coal mine,’ so to speak; they are the living lungs of our existence. When they are affected, we’re all affected.”

Mr. Seibert hasn’t himself thought about birding for some time — “there’s a lot of things I used to do, but things fall away and other things take precedence,” notably, his career in music, from teaching at Lakeside to composing independently. “And,” he jovially added, “birding requires getting up early, and when you get past 80, you make a decision about things.” 

When asked for advice for prospective bird appreciators, though, he was keen to offer some wisdom: “I just wish people would be more aware of birds. People take them for granted, and if they don’t see them they don’t notice them.” 

Perhaps that is the best possible advice for the incoming spring migrations. Just get out there, be mindful. Birds are all around us, even in their declined state, from the cheekiest crows on cawing from power lines to the humblest song sparrows at a feeder to the most majestic eagles soaring above — our senior retreat alone, coinciding with fall migrations, yielded 15 species to those who simply looked up and around. In the season of new beginnings and the return of old ones, I recommend giving it a shot.