“There’re a lot of nesting warblers here, but they’re hard to spot,” said 23-year-old Tyler Imfeld as he dumps a wheelbarrow load of dirt on a low spot on the River Trail in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Imfeld considers these indirect avian encounters a major bonus of his trail-building job for The Student Conservation Association. In 2014, he and his crew members restored 2.5 miles of the 6-mile River Trail, which was closed by fire and landslides. Funding from Save the Redwoods League and The Garden Club of America supported the restoration.
Birds are Imfeld’s passion — and could ultimately become his profession. A graduate of Xavier University, he will soon begin his PhD studies in ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota at St. Paul.
“My emphasis is ornithological, focusing on birds as model organisms in evolutionary biology,” he said. “When I was 19, I served as a volunteer during an Audubon Birdathon. After that, I was hooked.”
Imfeld is a thinker – or perhaps more accurately, a ponderer. You can see it as he scans the canopy during his lunch break, processing the faint trills and peeps of distant birds. But he values his SCA position precisely because it frees him somewhat from his own intellectual rigor.
“I consider this my gap year, and it’s been incredibly fulfilling,” he said. “It gave me a chance to get away from research for a while, get my hands dirty, and just enjoy nature and the company of my fellow crew members.”
Imfeld feels his service with the SCA and his research field reflect the mission of Xavier University.
“Xavier is a Jesuit school, and its emphasis is on service,” Imfeld said. “An Xavier motto is ‘Men and Women for Others.’ But for me, ‘others’ means more than just human beings. It means wildlife, plant communities – wild systems in general. When you work in the redwood forest, you really get a sense of the bigger picture, and what’s at stake.”