It should have run off upon seeing Trude Hurd, but there it stood, high in the Santa Ana Mountains at night, staring intensely at her. She slowly reached for her walkie-talkie to let a fellow researcher know she had encountered a mountain lion. They cut their butterfly and bat studies short, fearing the animal felt threatened.
Just a day in the life of the biologist and photographer who's a two-time national champion for The Big Sit! (one of the largest birding events in the world) and the project director of education at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary.
"There's kind of a little bit of everything for people here," says Hurd about the sanctuary. "But I would say the tranquility is what attracts me the most to it."
A Southern California native, Hurd does everything from budgeting to fund-raising to documenting the life forms found at the sanctuary. A typical day finds her on the trails taking pictures of the season's wildlife, in the ponds wearing her boots or reading one of the several books from her office library. Passionate about her job, Hurd continues to educate the public about nature through pamphlets, programs and speeches. And then there's everything that falls in between, including digging holes to bury dead birds, identifying bird feathers for residents, and answering questions about the sanctuary and its inhabitants. During the year, Hurd excitedly prepares for the 75 to 80 classes from nearby elementary schools that attend the educational programs.
For her, nothing is more gratifying than seeing the smiles on students' faces after coming in direct contact with a bird they've only seen in books. "Knowing that we're having an impact, especially on the children's lives [is rewarding] because science, lately, is not done in schools," says Hurd. By "we," she's referring to herself and her team of nearly 100 volunteers; Hurd also recruits and trains all of the volunteers at the sanctuary.
Hurd's fascination with nature goes back to her family history and childhood. Growing up in Downey, along the concrete Rio Hondo riverbed near the 5 freeway, she kept herself entertained in her parents' sycamore, watching ladybugs crawl around the branches and hearing the calls of birds. While Hurd's grandfather sailed around the world as the head chef for a variety of ships, including scientific-research vessels and oil tankers, her mother frequently took Hurd on day trips to the beach. Jokingly, her mother would comment they "had salt water running in [their] blood."
Later, after receiving her marine biology degree from Long Beach State, Hurd began working at Cal State Fullerton in its non-majors biology labs. During this time, she also worked part-time at the Amigos de Bolsa Chica, successfully helping to conserve some of the last remaining wetlands in Southern California. "Back in the 1980s, [few people] really cared about the place, so I was very active in the fight to save it," says Hurd.
A few years later, someone at Bolsa Chica referred her to the sanctuary. "I was really excited because it was a brand-new program," Hurd says. "I would get a chance to work full-time in one place."
Standing on the pathways at the sanctuary reminds Hurd of an old Navajo poem that she slowly begins to recite: "With beauty before me, I walk. With beauty behind me, I walk. With beauty below me, I walk. With beauty above me, I walk. With beauty around me, I walk."