Birding with a Purpose: Amazon Conservation’s Local Impact

July 3, 2024

With summer in full swing and summer vacation plans looming, we were excited to speak with Eleanor and Malcolm whose passion for birding, as well as socially and environmentally responsible travel, has taken them to many incredible destinations. Concurrently, their travels to some of the world’s most biodiverse regions have also exposed them to some of the biggest risks to the planet, including illegal mining and logging. Through their travels and birding, Eleanor and Malcolm have become increasingly committed to helping protect the Amazon and doing what they can in the face of climate change.

While Eleanor and Malcolm normally prefer to support causes local to their home in Maine (where they know their donations will have the greatest impact), Amazon Conservation has demonstrated a comparable level of real, localized impact that empowers local communities through conservation. Malcolm explains, “To see how much you are doing to empower local communities as part of the partnerships, that resonates with what we care about.”

Eleanor and Malcolm first learned about Amazon Conservation through birding trips to our three biological stations in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon. There, they had the opportunity to chat with young researchers and community members to learn more about the value of the work carried out on the ground in Peru to conserve the Amazon biome for the benefit of the entire planet. This first-hand experience inspired the two to become donors to Amazon Conservation’s mission, and to this day, we are one of the few international organizations they choose to support due to our impact on the ground.

Eleanor sums up why they support Amazon Conservation: “You’re a great organization doing good work on the ground with local partners, based on science and technology, and trying to maintain healthy biodiversity that’s critical for the longevity of this planet. What’s more important than that?”

Read on for the full Q&A with supporters Eleanor Goldberg and Malcolm Burson.


Can you tell us a little background about you?

Malcolm: My primary interest is birding. I’m a lifelong birder, and we’ve done a lot of birding together over the years. I also spent the end of my working career doing policy development for our state environmental agency, so it’s a combination of those things that have been important to me in thinking about the natural world and conservation.

Eleanor: I’m not a lifelong birder. I’ve been birding for about 25 years, but I have developed a real passion for it. Starting in my twenties, I developed a real love for the outdoors and just being out in nature. I certainly have come to appreciate over the years what’s happening to this planet in terms of the loss of biodiversity and the impact of global warming and climate change. We saw some evidence of that in Peru when we were there, and so I have come to appreciate the work that Amazon Conservation does.

Malcolm: My primary work for Maine’s DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] was being in charge of developing the state’s climate change program from the very beginning, back in the early 2000s. So my awareness of the importance of doing this kind of work, as the planet warms, has been magnified.

Eleanor: We are both from the Chicago area, although we met in Maine 22 years ago. I grew up in the city of Chicago, in a very urban environment, moved to Boston after graduating from the University of Michigan, and then lived there for a long time. I moved to Portland in 1987; Malcolm moved to Maine in 1978. Then I bought a summer home on a lake in the woods in Maine where we spent weekends. Since we’ve both retired, we have spent our summers up in Maine for the last 10 or 12 years.

One of the things that Malcolm likes to say is that we used to bird while we traveled because we’re both avid and passionate travelers. But now, birding is often a primary purpose of our travels. I can’t remember a trip in the last 15 years where we didn’t bird. The binoculars are always with us.

Malcolm: Before Peru, we’d made two previous trips to the Ecuadorian Amazon as part of our various adventures, and I think it really elicited my longer-term interest in the Amazon just by being in those places.

Eleanor and Malcom in front of the Madre de Dios river which leads to our Los Amigos Biological Station.

What initially inspired you to care for the environment generally and the Amazon specifically?

Eleanor: I would say the initial interest was birding, as well as being a global citizen, but it’s also recognizing how crucial the Amazon is to the health of the planet overall. It’s so vitally important, so the work to protect the Amazon has ramifications for everybody.

[The Amazon is] so vitally important, so the work to protect the Amazon has ramifications for everybody.

Malcolm: The whole notion of preventing deforestation and on the other hand watching as the numbers come in year by year, particularly from Brazil but also from other places, just how much has been lost and is being lost makes the conservation for the “lungs of the planet” all the more important.

Eleanor: When we were in Peru taking the boat down the Madre de Dios River, we saw a lot of illegal gold mining. It was stunning and shocking in a very negative way to see how much of that was going on. That brought home the destruction of the environment that was occurring, even in very remote locations, and at Los Amigos [Biological Station] where we stayed for a few days, you could just look across the river and see the mining and logging going on right there. It was depressing.

How did you initially learn about Amazon Conservation’s work?

Eleanor: We learned about Amazon Conservation during our trip to Peru, where we stayed at Wayqecha, Manu, and Los Amigos Biological Stations. At Los Amigos, we had an evening presentation by one of the researchers there at the biological station, which was really interesting. So we knew about you through that introduction, and then later more intimately through our friends Laura and Charles when we were sharing notes about our trip. We worked with a man in Cuzco who plans birding trips, and he booked us at your biological stations. We were very happy to learn about it and it was fascinating to learn about all of the different work going on at each of the different locations. It was quite impressive.

Malcolm: One of the high points for me was meeting all the young scientists who were working at the stations. The interesting work they were doing, and the opportunity to see the way in which the kids, two generations down from us, are getting engaged with that kind of work.

Eleanor: Right, kids marching off at 4:30 or 5 in the morning to go sit at the base of the trees where the monkeys were and counting vocalizations – it was very cool.

Eleanor: Over the last 10 or 12 years, we have tried to keep our giving local to Maine, where we know it makes an impact and we know the people involved in the non-governmental organizations or non-profits. That’s different from how we used to give 15 or 20 years ago. Amazon Conservation is really one of the only bigger picture, larger, non-Maine 501(c)3s that we choose to donate to because the work is so important.

What is it about Amazon Conservation that sticks out and motivates you to support our work compared to other organizations?

Eleanor: One of the things that strikes me is that you have so many partners and that the local communities are up front and center in the work you do, as well as the government agencies who are also important. But the fact that you’re working with Indigenous communities, that the projects are all science-based, and that you are on the ground doing the actual work to protect and conserve the Amazon.

Malcolm: On all of our birding expeditions, we have been fortunate to have the opportunity to meet and be with members of Indigenous communities in their communities. That’s been really important and great. So to see how much you are doing to empower local communities as part of the partnerships really resonates with what we care about.

So to see how much you are doing to empower local communities as part of the partnerships really resonates with what we care about.

Eleanor: Way too many organizations come into a place and tell communities, “This is what you should do.” We know better, and we don’t get that from Amazon Conservation.

We also think your website is excellent. It has so much information, is easy to navigate and it tells the story of Amazon Conservation in a powerful way.

Is there a specific program or initiative that stands out to you most?

Malcolm: I’m increasingly interested in knowing that your “heartbeat” has always been Peru and Bolivia, but I think the whole MAAP program is really a step ahead in reaching the whole Amazon. We’re planning a trip to Guyana soon, at the northern end of the Amazon, and it’s great to know MAAP has even done work up there.

What would you say to other environmentally-conscious people who want to make a difference in the Amazon and help fight climate change?

Malcolm: I would be happy to tell anybody about the 3-pronged, thoughtful, well-conceived plan of action that you folks are branching out with in all directions. It’s not just focused on one species, but your combination of science and on-the-ground work seems like a great way forward for an organization like this.

Eleanor: I also think that it’s so important that there’s a plan, a 10-year plan for really getting work done that you’re constantly evaluating and re-evaluating to see whether you’re going in the direction that you want to be going, but the idea of having an overarching plan with strategic steps, partners, and science supporting it makes a big difference in terms of making an impact.

Do you have anything else to add that you’d like people to know?

Eleanor: You’re a great organization doing good work on the ground with local partners, based on science and technology, and trying to maintain healthy biodiversity that’s critical for the longevity of this planet. What’s more important than that?