Looking back on my childhood, my most vivid memories are of the natural world: peeking at sky-blue eggs in a nest, catching crayfish in the local creek, or chasing lightning bugs on a hot summer’s night. I loved venturing out on my own, with Golden Guides as my favorite companions (Butterflies and Moths becoming the most dog-eared). As I grew up, my love for the natural world progressively became intertwined with my passion for art. I initially pursued an Environmental Resource Management degree at Penn State University, but ultimately found greater happiness receiving my BFA with honors at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art.
In my post-college years, I worked as a freelance artist and waited tables while raising my two sons, Bradley and Alec Smith. I spent a lot of time at hawkwatches and enjoyed drawing raptors for illustrations and t-shirt designs. A move to Cape May, New Jersey (after many visits from the Philadelphia area) in 1990 changed my life. Finding mentors, becoming a member of the Cape May birding community, and sharing experiences with kindred spirits gave me the confidence to become a teacher myself. I was given the opportunity to become an Associate Naturalist with Cape May Bird Observatory and have worn many hats for New Jersey Audubon since, including illustrator, field biologist (working for the New Jersey Breeding Bird Atlas), salesperson (selling optics and running the CMBO bookstore), and leader of field trips and tours, both locally and throughout the United States.
As the popularity of birding has grown, I have been able to piece together a career along with my husband, Michael O’Brien. Michael and I met at the World Series of Birding and held our wedding ceremony at Cape May Bird Observatory (a fun story in itself). We have combined our talents under the name Swallowtail Studio, working separately on our artwork and writing and teaming up, more often than not, leading tours, conducting workshops, and mentoring young birders.
Leading tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours since 2007, I have traveled throughout the lower 48 states and to other such exciting destinations as Alaska, Antarctica, Belize, Central America, the Galapagos Islands, and Tanzania. When asked for my choice of favorite destination on the planet, my top, without hesitation, is Cape May—where visible migration of birds and other wildlife can be witnessed practically every day of the year.
Over the years, my long-term Cape May commitments have become an inescapable part of my identity. I have been a member of the West Cape May Environmental Commission for over 20 years, proudly spreading environmental awareness in our little shore community. I promote native landscaping whenever I can and love to show off my pollinator garden to any interested neighbor. Many of the local residents refer to me as the “Butterfly Lady” due to my 30+ years of counting, tagging, and interpretive work with the Cape May Monarch Monitoring Project. I served as compiler of National Audubon’s Cape May Christmas Bird Count for 22 years, and continue to host its compilation. Some local birders know me best as founder of the now-famous “Thursday Night” potlucks, a tradition that began with a small group of local birders over 25 years ago and has since grown exponentially with the birding community.
Having had the past year to reflect on all the incredible opportunities I have had, I am looking forward to getting back in the field again and sharing the wonders of the natural world with my family (my sons have grown into avid naturalists and truly amazing adults) and fellow travelers.