With the din of chattering skiers, a nearby chairlift and the occasional siren of a ski patrol snowmobile, it was far from quiet atop Sam’s Knob at the Snowmass Ski Area on a recent day.
But Dick Filby still whipped his head in the direction of a bird song. It was a Steller’s jay, he said, and he would know.
Skiers speeding down runs often bypass other, smaller universes unaware. Filby, a renowned expert in feathery creatures of the forests and polar regions, helps shine a light on several of these worlds.
A volunteer with the Aspen Skiing Co., Filby has hosted for nearly a decade informal talks on Wednesdays at feeding stations that serve as a critical spring break for birds.
“We get all sorts of different birds coming into these bird feeders,” he said. “They’re just fascinating to watch because they’re doing all sorts of things.”
What at a layman’s glance appears to be a common sparrow may be a red-breasted nuthatch, a bird that will take one seed — “There he goes,” Filby said as one flitted off — back to the tree and wedge it into a crevice to help open it.
Al Levantin, a Snowmass Village resident who also is an eminent birder, skied off the Village Express lift and joined the group last week. He is “an often harasser of my Wednesday bird talks,” Filby laughed.
“He’s knowledgeable, that’s the problem,” Levantin joked back. “You see this feeder? It took all my birds away.”
Steve Martin played Levantin in the recent film “The Big Year,” based on Mark Obmascik’s book that chronicled what turned out to be an unprecedented bird-watching competition in 1998 between Levantin and two other men.
As Filby told the handful of people listening at Sam’s Knob about the gray jay and the Clark’s nutcracker’s ability to stash tens of thousands of seeds in the summer and fall, and their uncanny ability to remember where the stashes are throughout the winter, Levantin quietly described Filby’s talk as world class.
“This is one of the most knowledgeable guys in the world when it comes to birds. Trust me,” Levantin said. “What’s interesting is, here’s a guy who’s from England, and he’s considered one of the outstanding birders [there]. And he comes to the United States and he knows all the birds here. He doesn’t need the books.”
Filby’s birding trips have involved everything from landing a small Zodiac boat on a remote Alaskan shore to camping with Emperor penguins in Antarctica. In between, in the mountains surrounding Aspen, he has partnered with the Aspen Skiing Co. and fed countless species.
There are feeding stations at Sam’s Knob, Elk Camp and West Buttermilk.
And while the gray jay and Clark’s nutcracker will use landmarks to recall the stash sites, they won’t need every seed during the course of a winter, Filby said.
Those discarded seeds “become ‘the forest of the future,’” he said.
The 54-year-old was raised in Surrey in southwest London and now lives near Carbondale with his wife, a part-time ski instructor. They also reside in Norwich, England, when she’s not teaching skiing.
When he arrived in the valley in the early 2000s, “I looked at the bird feeders that were here and said, ‘You know, you guys can do a better job,’” he recalled. “And as it turned out, I said this to the right guy.”
It was Doug Mackenzie, the mountain manager at Snowmass at the time, who agreed and asked Filby to improve the feeding process. Mackenzie encouraged him to get involved with the SkiCo, and Filby has been a volunteer ever since.
An informational sign about the region’s birds that Filby designed was installed at the top of the Coney Glade lift but went by the wayside when the Village Express chair was built. He is designing a new one that he hopes to have at the top of Sam’s Knob before the season ends.
The feeder now in place, which he designed, can hold 20 pounds of bird seed, an amount that 500 to 600 rosy-finches can help empty in a spring morning.
Filby uses what are sometimes slight differences in colors and bands on the birds in the identification process. All species that winter in the Rockies are “specialized for surviving this very cold and very extreme, and almost food-free, environment,” Filby said. “With the exception of the rosy-finches, they all stash food to help them survive the winter. That’s their adaptation to surviving this extreme climate. Other birds’ adaptation to living up here is to get the hell out for the winter. They go to South America.”
He said he enjoys the common magpies, as well, for their obnoxious nature. A group of them is known as a funeral because if one discovers another one dead, it makes an “absolute raucous, and all the other magpies come along to find what the raucous is about,” Filby said. “If you anthropomorphize it, you could say it’s calling everyone for a funeral. They’re very noisy birds, and they’ll mob raptors, owls, hawks, eagles. Part of that is bravado,” but it also alerts other birds and animals to where a bird of prey is.
“It’s extraordinary; there’s a never-ending amount of knowledge that one can soak up,” Filby said.
Jeff Hoerr, a part-time valley resident who said he has attended three or four of the bird talks, said the information Filby provides can indeed seem unending.
“He could talk about the same five birds each week, and it’d be a different lecture every week,” Hoerr said during Filby’s recent discussion. “It’s just amazing that he can come up with a different story that you haven’t heard.”
When Filby was 6 years old, he’d take the public bus to and from school. He said he asked to be dropped off in the afternoons at the other end of the open space that was behind his house in Surrey. He said he would observe birds and make notes there until dinnertime.
He got his first binoculars at the age of 8 and, 11 years later, was driving from Europe to India for a birding trip.
In 1990, he took his first trip to Antarctica. His expectation was that it would be the most incredible place on Earth.
And was it?
“Yep,” he laughed immediately. “And off we go ever since because it is.”
In the 23 years from that initial visit, he hasn’t missed a summer there. To get there, one flies from South America to a base camp in the interior of Antarctica, and from there is flown to a “very temporary camp” on permanent sea ice 35 miles away from the Southern Ocean.
The Emperor penguin trips only happen once or twice a year and are limited to about six people, Filby said. Attendees, during a five-night-or-so stay, can get as close to the birds as humanly possible.
“They walk right up to you, and they’re looking at you curiously thinking, ‘What are you? You’re not a seal, you’re not a whale, so just what are you?’” Filby said of the penguins, a family of birds that is among his favorite. “They come and check you out.”
One of the most bizarre things he said he’s seen is the waste of the Emperor penguins, the world’s deepest diving bird. They will dive to more than 2,000 feet to gobble up pebbles, and when they return to the surface and their defecation station, “you’ll find rocks from the bottom of the ocean,” he said.
No one really knows why they eat them, an indication of how much we still have to learn.
“We can put a man on the moon, we can send a mission to Mars [but] we don’t know too much about the actual world and how it works.” Filby said. “We know a fair bit ... People study this, that and the other, and, you know, we find medicines in the trees and the plants and God knows what. But we don’t know an awful lot about what’s out there. There’s so many things that you get to see.
“That’s the neat thing: The more you look, the more you see.”