A career with nothing to grouse about

Published: October 29, 2020

James’ avian interests land him at Queensborough

Like a killdeer, red-winged blackbird, or black­crowned night heron, James Hardat is ready to leap in almost any direction. His career in science, it seems, is about to take off.

The Queensborough student from Kew Garden Hills is a proud birder and frequent visitor to Alley Pond Park, where, in addition to the birds mentioned above, willow fly­catchers and goldfinches hide in the scrub, and rough­legged hawks circle overhead.

“Queens is certainly diverse in terms of people, but a lot of them are not aware of the diversity of birds here, such as roosting bald eagles near Flushing Meadows Park,” the first generation American explained, packing binoculars and gear for a weekend hike Upstate.

Prompted by the federal government’s recent actions regarding environmental safety – according to The New York Times 100 major rules governing clean air, water, wildlife, and toxic chemicals have been reversed – Hardat enrolled in Queensborough’s STEM Academy and the AAS in Environmental Science two years ago.

“I’m studying the degree because I want to be more helpful to the environment and the earth. I’ve taken different STEM classes and can see myself in a profession related to each one. I loved Biology, Green Chemistry, Geology, and Ecology. Every time I take a class, I want to go into that field and apply what I have learned to the outdoors because the outdoors is my happy place,” Hardat said.

This semester, the millennial sophomore has earned a spot in the CUNY Research Scholars Program (CRSP), mentored by Professor Joan Petersen. Under Dr. Petersen’s guidance, Hardat will expand on a project started last year involving observations and data cataloged in a popular citizen science app, eBird.

 “The NYC Parks Department says a lot of information gathered throughout the city for the app is not current and, in some cases, non-existent. I plan to review current entries and update details so users have a better experience. I also want to go to parks where there is no data and record my observations,” explained Hardat.

Dr. Petersen and Queensborough students conduct ongoing research with NYC Parks, studying water and soil samples from seasonal wetlands essential for breeding salamanders and frogs.

“We learned last year from NYC Parks that they wanted more information about bird diversity. So, we started on that, sorting and filtering information and obtaining data for parks that had none. James will continue this work now. It’s a perfect fit,” Dr. Petersen said.

Hardat noted the support and care he had received NYC Parks’ mentor Brady Simmons as well as Queensborough’s  Dr. Petersen, geology professor Dr. Roland Scal, and chemistry professor Dr. [Sharon] Lall-Ramnarine.

“They are so good. They care so much about what they’re doing. They teach us to be involved, mindful, and successful. I wasn’t expecting to have such a great relationship with thm. They are very supportive,” the community volunteer said.

Hardat has worked at local ecological centers such as the Botanical Gardens, Queens Zoo, and the Queens Country Farm Museum, a 47-acre sanctuary and working farm situated in Floral Park and Glen Oaks.

“That all started when I was 16 or 17. I always wanted to be outdoors. At the zoo, I helped the keepers feed big cats. And that was the first time I truly thought I could do something with biology or ecology for a living. It kept building from there,” he recalled.

It was his South American father, however, who set in motion Hardat’s connection, as a toddler, to birds.

“Dad loved them and kept all types of tropical birds in our home, near the back door. Parrots, cockatiels, and parakeets. I remember their vivid green, blue, yellow, and orange feathers. I didn’t like feeding them or appreciate them at the time,” he admitted.

An artist, too, Hardat collects plumage on his hikes and creates ornamental nature-themed cloche displays.

“I started collecting feathers four or five years ago. Then I started to observe birds. That turned into talking to the bird society. And now I find myself planning weekends to see certain species.”

Hardat described the Pat Dolan Trail and Willow Lake, between the Van Wyck Expressway and Grand Central Parkway, as having excellent observation points. There is a bird blind, or camouflaged shelter, at the southeastern edge of the lake. Since COVID, however, crowds had overrun the trails.

“My love of science evolved from something as simple as spying on birds,” Hardat said, nominating the belted kingfisher ‒ a stocky, large-headed bird with an awesome call and a punk-style crest ‒ as the bird he would most want to be.

A few weeks ago, birders spotted a yellow-headed blackbird in Flushing Meadows Park. The bird (with a call that sounds like a rusty farm gate opening, according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology), is supposed to live in marshy areas and close-by farms, west of the Mississippi River. They are unheard of here and the discovery, which stunned Hardat, caused a stir among amateur and professional ornithologists.

“That’s a huge thing. I’m asking why did he take this path? Why did he choose to come here? Where will he go next,” Hardat said excitedly

“Wait a minute,” he reflected, “That sounds like I'm talking about me.”

Hardat and other CRSP Scholars will present their findings at the Virtual Undergraduate Research Day, scheduled for December 4, 2020.

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Contact:  Michael Donahue or Alice Doyle

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