Flying High: Sophomore Is a Rising Star in the Birding World

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Isaiah Scott ’25 loves sharing his passion for all things avian—particularly with other young people and communities of color

By Beth Saulnier

It’s a postcard-perfect fall day on the Hill: mild temperatures, brilliant blue sky, leaves ablaze with color. On this glorious Sunday afternoon in late October, a half-dozen Cornellians are taking advantage of the weather, savoring an hour-long guided bird-watching hike around Beebe Lake.

Peering through binoculars, they admire a great blue heron standing on the opposite shore.

Soon, their guide points out other feathered friends: a song sparrow on a branch; Canada geese and common mergansers idling on the water; an American goldfinch off in the distance; a downy woodpecker moving up a tree trunk.

Isaiah Scott leads three students on a birding tour
Scott leads a birding hike around Beebe Lake. (Sreang Hok / Cornell University)

While the birds may be the main draw, the guide—a sophomore member of Cornell’s Birding Club—is a celebrity in his own right.

A social media influencer with nearly 40,000 followers on Instagram, Isaiah Scott ’25 is emerging as a young adult leader in the national birding community—passionate not only about conserving and appreciating avian species, but attracting fellow Gen Zers and people of color to his favorite pastime.

Majoring in environment and sustainability in CALS, Scott is a Georgia native who developed a passion for birding after visiting the Lab of Ornithology during a family visit to Ithaca for his older brother’s college tour.

Isaiah Scott and two friends birding in Georgia
Birding with friends back home in Georgia. (Provided)

(Both are now undergrads, with biological sciences major Darius Scott ’22 set to graduate from CALS in December.)

In fact, Scott picked up his first pair of binoculars at the Lab’s gift shop—and went on to launch his own small-scale tour operation, Ike’s Birding Hikes, while still in high school.

“I enjoy birdwatching so much, I want to share it,” he says, chatting with Cornellians outside Mann Library in early September. “I want people to be outdoors and experience the healing and regenerative power of nature—especially when seeing birds, because they’re such inspirational animals.”

After Ike’s Birding Hikes appeared on the local news, the Ogeechee (GA) Audubon Society reached out to offer Scott membership and to host some of his tours.

He has since gone on to become a leader of Cornell’s Birding Club (he’s chair of diversity, equity, and inclusion); study and work at the Hog Island Audubon Camp off the Maine coast; and assist on a grad student’s research project in Sapsucker Woods.

I want people to be outdoors and experience the healing and regenerative power of nature.

For the latter, third-year PhD student Ethan Duvall tapped Scott to help collect data for his study of calcium consumption in birds, which is necessary for egg laying.

Duvall's study involved positioning cameras in Sapsucker, setting out sources of the mineral (such as bones and shells), then reviewing the footage to chronicle what the birds favored.

“Isaiah is phenomenal in his passion and initiative toward trying to make the ornithological community a more inclusive space—but also a more fun space,” says Duvall. “He has a special ability to connect with people in a way that expresses how engaging birding can be.”

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Scott was already leading his own birding hikes when a now-notorious case of bias made headlines in May 2020.

Christian Cooper, a Black man birding in a wooded area of NYC’s Central Park, was falsely accused of menacing by a white woman who had violated park rules by failing to leash her dog.

The incident sparked discussion of “birding while Black”—shining a spotlight on the fact that minority birders can face hostility and threats due to racist assumptions that they don’t belong in certain neighborhoods or natural areas.

He has a special ability to connect with people in a way that expresses how engaging birding can be.

PhD student Ethan Duvall

“Sadly, I wasn’t surprised, because I knew there were issues of how we’re stereotyped or racially profiled,” Scott says.

“I especially didn’t feel comfortable birdwatching alone; what if someone says something, or calls the police? But I’m really glad it opened up people’s eyes about these issues.”

In addition to Scott’s passion for observing and studying birds, he’s a skilled artist who creates watercolors of them, which he sells through an online gallery.

A painting of a Northern Flicker bird
Scott's illustration of a northern flicker. (Provided)

He’s also a student brand ambassador for L.L. Bean—the venerable Maine clothing company and outdoor outfitter that has become an unlikely fashion darling—and has modeled a trail sneaker for Zappos.

And if that weren’t enough: Scott is working to raise $100,000 to purchase land for a nature preserve in Georgia.

In addition to serving as protected space for birds and other animals, the 40-acre facility would nurture the distinct cultural heritage of the Gullah Geechee people. (The community, to which his family belongs, is descended from enslaved Africans who lived along the Southeastern seaboard.)

Like many serious birders, Scott has a “life list”—the species he’s seen in person.

A painting of a Stellars Jay Bird
A Steller's jay. (Provided)

Of the roughly 300, he admits to a clear favorite: the painted bunting, which he first spied on an Audubon outing in Georgia.

“It’s a beautiful, small songbird,” he explains. “The males have a blue head with a red belly and green wings. It’s a very handsome bird, colorful and vibrant.”

Given Scott’s Instagram success and his interest in fashion, does he take certain inspiration from the avian world—where, by and large, it’s the male of the species who displays the more colorful plumage?

“Yeah,” he says with a laugh. “The males have to look all nice and pretty for the females. Why don’t we take some notes? Let’s look good for the birds as well.”

Top: Noël Heaney / Cornell University.

Published November 3, 2022

Comments

  1. Hindatu Mohammed

    What an incredible individual! You make me proud to be a Cornellian and excited to get back into birding.

  2. Judith Cohen

    Inspirational!

  3. Jeanne Townsend, Class of 1957

    Scott’s activities and accomplishments are wonderful. I am a 87 year old birder who later in life started birding. I have now visited more than 120 countries looking at birds. That’s a great accomplishment but it would have been nice if I had met a Scott when I was at Cornell.

    Very good luck to him in all his activities.

  4. George Givens Jr, Class of 1969

    Awesome Isaiah, please keep up the good work. I am so very happy and proud of you. My grandkids (and my kids now) call me Papa. I’d be honored if you would too.

  5. Marion Matthews

    So inspirational. As a 68 year old female birder and bird photographer nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing the younger generation showing so much passion for bird life and nature and realising the benefits. Here in Australia young people are certainly sharing my passion which is great to see.

  6. Kirie

    Thanks for the wonderful article and inspiration about what this young student is doing to change our world for the better through birding and activism. I read this article before I left on my own birding walk this morning, and it reminded me that any day the great blue heron ascends to its perch outside my window, the winter wren vocalizes along the trail, and the bald eagles start early nesting behavior nearby, it’s a very good day. Thank you.

  7. Mary Beaubien

    Great piece! Site will not let me go into comments—nog impossible at some point i’m sure. Loved interesting visuals—thanks for sending these to all of us—

  8. Fran McCullough

    Could we please get a link for how to support Ike’s planned Gullah Geechee nature preserve?

  9. Lise Balthazar

    What a wonderful young man with a love of nature and birds! With all the negativity around us these days, it is so refreshing to read about someone like Isaiah. Very inspirational!

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