Taking flight: birding in Costa Rica with Academy science instructors

Through small group travel tours led by PEA faculty who are experts in their fields, Exeter Expeditions offers alumni the chance to engage in Harkness-style learning across the globe.  

Melanie Nelson
November 10, 2017
Exonians with birding expert and Biology Instructor Chris Matlack in front of a waterfall in Costa Rica.

Exonians reveled in Costa Rica's natural wonders with birding expert and Biology Instructor Chris Matlack.

Exeter Expeditions

While Exeter has long extolled the merits of study-abroad experiences for students, it has also done a particularly good job over the last 25 years of engaging alumni, parents and friends in overseas adventures through Exeter Expeditions. Run by the Office of Institutional Advancement, Exeter Expeditions typically offers several travel programs in a given year, each lasting approximately seven to 10 days. Best of all, Exeter instructors with deep knowledge of the subject matter serve as guides for the duration of each trip, and the group size is kept small to ensure a Harkness-like experience.


Spectacular species

J.B. Nutter ’63 discovered Exeter Expeditions by way of his daughter, Laura, a member of Exeter’s class of 2005. As an Academy student, Laura took biology with Chris Matlack P’08, P’15, becoming so enthralled with the subject that she decided to pursue a career as a biology teacher. “Chris really inspired Laura in her work,” says Nutter, who reconnected with Matlack when the former was on campus for his 50th Exeter reunion in the spring of 2013. “Chris knew I was interested in birds,” explains Nutter, “so when he told me he and another long-time biology instructor, Rich Aaronian ’76, ’78, ’97 (Hon.); P’94, P’97, were going to be running a birding trip to Costa Rica the following March, I said, ‘Sign me up!’”

The group traveled mainly in Costa Rica’s northeastern Heredia Province, an area known for its spectacular bird species and, says Nutter, for the La Selva Biological Station, one of the world’s most important tropical research sites. The collective goal of those on the trip, which Nutter describes as “superbly organized,” was to see the quetzal, the region’s symbolic bird known for its bright plumage and long tail feathers, and a variety of larger parrot species. Matlack and Aaronian’s extensive knowledge, along with that of a local Costa Rican eco-tourism specialist who joined the group, led participants to both of these species and numerous others, with a few frogs and sloths thrown in for good measure.

“It was wonderful birding and huge amounts of fun,” says Nutter, who returned to Costa Rica with Matlack and Aaronian for the 2015 Exeter Expeditions trip. “Chris and Rich are fanatics about birding, so even during rest periods or evening cocktails, they would say, ‘C’mon, let’s go see some birds.’ In fact, during our very last night, when we were staying near the capital of San José, they had us out birding on the hotel grounds.”

In addition to the excitement of observing new bird species, says Nutter, he loved the chance to “get to know fellow Exonians” on his two trips to Costa Rica. A lifelong outdoorsman, he is delighted that Matlack and Aaronian are organizing another bio-adventure for next March to Costa Rica’s Osa region, where, he hears, one can see at least five species of wildcat.

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article that first appeared in the summer 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.