Kevin Riordan: In Camden, a reason to look up

Dave Magpiong, a teacher and birdwatcher from Bellmawr, points out a nest to kindergartner Eliam Nunez from the ECO Charter School in Camden.
Dave Magpiong, a teacher and birdwatcher from Bellmawr, points out a nest to kindergartner Eliam Nunez from the ECO Charter School in Camden. (LUKE RAFFERTY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 19, 2013

Spending time with Dave Magpiong, you start seeing things.

"Chimney swifts," he exclaims as two fleet forms streak the downtown Camden sky.

I wouldn't have noticed the swifts without Magpiong, who founded the nonprofit Fledgling Birders Institute in 2009 to expose urban residents to the joys of birding.

On this recent afternoon he's taking 40 ECO Charter School students on what he calls an "urban safari" in downtown Camden.

"This is a birding hot spot," says Magpiong ( mag-pe-ong), 41, a Bellmawr father of two who teaches sixth-grade social studies at Voorhees Middle School. "Everywhere is a birding hot spot."

The man's enthusiasm is contagious, his knowledge encyclopedic, as he wows an ECO classroom with his exuberant patter and gorgeous slides of indigenous birds.

But when Magpiong takes the kids across the street to the leafy oasis of the Newton Friends meeting yard, which the school utilizes in partnership with the venerable (1824) Quaker group, the lesson soars.

Kindergartners and first-graders gaze skyward through binoculars and line up to get a look through Magpiong's scope. The variety and vitality of birdsong amid downtown's clamor is stunning.

Who knew so many birds - 40 or more species along the Cooper River alone, Magpiong notes - call Camden home?

Citywide, there are finches, warblers and chickadees; grackles, gulls, orioles; owls and eagles and egrets. A veritable aviary, and often overlooked.

"Most nature conservation or environmental education facilities ignore minorities," says Magpiong, who describes himself as an American of Italian, Hungarian Jewish, and Filipino ancestries.

After he was bitten by the birding bug in 1999, his Voorhees Middle School students - he was then teaching special education - became curious. So he took them on short bird walks around the school.

"It was more than just fun. It was therapeutic," Magpiong recalls. "I became dedicated to getting schools involved, any way I could."

The ECO event, his first at a Camden school, came about because of a safari he hosted in April for the Friends of Cooper River Park West organization.

"Dave was wonderful," says Tom Knoche, a member of the group advocating public access and improvements to the fenced-in portion of the county park west of Route 130.

"He helped show the potential of the incredible asset of the river in Camden," Knoche adds.

Participants in the event included an ECO student, who brought the good news back to school.

"There's a lot to be said about experiencing the very thing you're learning about - to hear the bird singing," ECO founder Antoinette C. Dendtler says.

A woman whose enthusiasm rivals Magpiong's, Dendtler wants her students "to see things around them they don't normally take the time to see."

Fledgling Birders does that while helping shift birding's suburban, even elite, image, J. Drew Lanham, a professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University, says from South Carolina.

"Birds are out there for everyone to enjoy. They're not only beautiful, but necessary in our lives," he says, adding that urban birding enables people to "see the world in a different way, and meet nature where they live."

The kids beg Magpiong to pick his favorite bird.

"We saw 12 of them along the Cooper River. Twelve wood ducks," he says of the vividly hued birds. "They were beautiful. The most beautiful birds in the world.

"Right here in Camden."

Kevin Riordan: >

To see video of Dave Magpiong leading children on a birding expedition in Camden, go to

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at

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