published 2019 in Louisville Magazine
For the fourth time since Clay Bliznick’s 6 a.m. arrival at moonlit Wyandotte Park, just south of Churchill Downs, his phone sounds a tiny alarm. “I’m one person who’s terrified of sleeping in,” he says, turning off the electronic music. “I set an alarm on my phone for like every five minutes.” He’s usually good about waking without this obsessive prompting, but lately he’s lucky to get more than four hours of sleep. Cue Neil Sedaka: Waking up is hard to do.
A sticker in Bliznick’s rear window tells his life story: “Eat. Sleep. Bird.” A few weeks ago, he spent 10 days in Florida driving from one promising birding site to another and sleeping in his car. It was a solitary trip — probably a good thing considering his shower schedule: He took one. As he has all summer, Bliznick always arrives at his first South End bird-watching site just before sunup. His graduate adviser at Murray State University has randomly placed 140 sites throughout the city’s South End neighborhoods. Over the course of the summer, he’ll visit each site three times by taking in 10 every morning.
At 6:08 a.m., still too dark to see, he points a range finder toward the house where he just heard the high-pitched toodle of a talkative Carolina wren. He’s measuring the little brown bird’s direction and distance from where he stands. A Harley rumbles by, yet Bliznick hears a song sparrow. And a couple of robins. And cardinals. He catches the buzzy sound of a nighthawk soaring over the sleeping neighborhood, where kitchen windows begin to glow amber from incandescent lights inside.
Moments later, he’s back in his nine-year-old Kia Rio with 218,239 miles on it. Earlier this year, when he finished a bat survey one night — it’s why he doesn’t get much sleep — he ran over something on the Gene Snyder that sliced open the car’s fuel tank. The Green Heart project loaned him a car while his was being repaired.
The Green Heart project is why he’s gathering data on birds, bugs, butterflies and bats. In October, the project will begin planting trees — big-growing trees, mostly — in many of these neighborhoods. Aruni Bhatnagar, the University of Louisville mastermind of this unprecedented research, intends to determine if more trees in a neighborhood improve residents’ cardiovascular health. But beneath the umbrella of this multi-million-dollar study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Nature Conservancy, are many smaller studies, including this one to determine if greening changes avian, insect and bat populations. Over eight weeks, Bliznick will record more than 9,000 birds representing 54 species. In a year or two, someone will repeat the survey to see if and in what ways the species mix has changed.
At Faywood Way and Schneiter Avenue, Bliznick, a Green Heart black hat jammed atop his abundant brown curls, furiously works to keep up with all the birds: Downy woodpeckers, house sparrows, robins, chimney swifts and even a barn swallow overhead — only the third time he has seen one at these sites. After bird site No. 10, Bliznick stops for a quick breakfast before beginning his insect survey under a hot sun at the same 10 sites. With a modified leaf blower, he vacuums up bugs on a square of someone’s lawn. It’s noisy work, drowning out the birds and the traffic. Bliznick shoves the bugs in preservative and heads to the next stop. With any luck, he’ll get a nap this afternoon before it’s time to hunt for bats.
This originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Eat. Sleep. Bird.”