Leader Spotlight: Thomas Bancroft

Leader Spotlight is a monthly blog to showcase our incredible volunteer leadership at The Mountaineers. Meet this month's featured leader: Thomas Bancroft. He is a life-long lover of birds (despite an allergy to both eggs and feathers!) who believes that the ability to identify local wildlife is critical to fostering a sense of care for our wild places.
Sara Ramsay Sara Ramsay
Volunteer Development Manager
June 29, 2020
Leader Spotlight: Thomas Bancroft

For our Leader Spotlight this month we talked to Thomas Bancroft, a volunteer leader with the Seattle Branch who loves the process of learning with others. His advice to new leaders? You don't have to know everything, a love of nature and a willingness to learn is plenty!

Name: Thomas Bancroft
Branch: Seattle
Where do you live? Seattle, WA
How long have you been a leader? 3 years (member since 2017)
What activities do you lead? Naturalist Trips, Global Adventure Trips

Leadership Questions

What inspired you to lead trips for The Mountaineers?

I enjoy helping people see and name plants and animals, learn about geology and ecology, and enjoy nature. To see their faces light up as they relate to wildland brings me an incredible sense of joy. Robin Wall Kimmerer said that naming things acknowledges them as something different, giving them dignity and respect. I like to take this concept further. Naming things helps us know and recognize things - plants, animals, birds - to look for and anticipate them in certain places, and to ask questions about them. We then begin to care, and caring is critical for the future.

We also start to see things we might have missed before. One of the most rewarding responses I've had from a student was when they came into the next class and said, "I've found all these birds in my neighborhood that I didn't know where there before." That kind of response motivates me to teach classes and lead field trips. I spent my career at the science-policy interface of conservation, and now it is about "caring."

What is the best, favorite, or most memorable trip you've led for The Mountaineers?

Oh, wow, that is an impossible question. One of my first trips as an approved Mountaineers leader was to Mt. Rainier National Park. We hiked up Sourdough Ridge and into Berkeley Park to look for wildflowers. I was nervous, so I'd hiked the trail the day before to review the flowers, trees, and think about the geology. We spent the entire day on the mountain, taking more than an hour to cover each mile. The geology there is as fascinating as the flowers, birds, and mammals - several million years of the earth's history around us. Sourdough Ridge is a lava flow from when massive Pleistocene Glaciers came off Mt. Rainier. Goat Island Mountain is from a volcano before Mt. Rainier, and then there were all the flowers; lupines, paintbrushes, and louseworts in bloom. Chipmunks and ground squirrels scurried across the trail. People lingered on the way back, reviewing plants, asking again about geological features. Even at the parking lot, no one was ready to leave. It was so much fun to be out with others and experience these subalpine habitats together.

How has your leadership style evolved as you've gained experience?

Participants on naturalist hikes want to learn about the environment, learn about these places, and see and hear the wilds. I think the first responsibility of a leader is to get them to those places and create the chance for them to become immersed in the wilds. But I've also discovered that they want to know more than just the name of a plant or animal. They want to know what characteristics I used to identify something; they want to know more about it, its behavior, its ecology. They want things that help them relate, stories that help them understand the environment. Trying to give this information in a conversational way, not a lecture, is important.

Trips work best with a co-leader, someone who brings a different perspective than me, who knows other things and is willing to share that knowledge. Also, the participants often know things that I don't, so creating an environment of sharing is essential and fun for me. I always learn something from others.

Also, it is okay to make mistakes in identification. And being embarrassed is alright, its human! I remember a trip to Mt. Rainier for flowers that I led. I'd studied most of the possible flowers ahead of time. We spotted one as we started up the trail at Sunrise that a participant thought was Alpine Aster. I said no, it doesn't occur this low down. Another hundred yards up the trail were some more, and he questioned me again, saying the flower stems weren't right for my ID. We double-checked, and it was Alpine Aster. I'd messed up! Don't get defensive, laugh, and show everyone your mistake. We can learn together.

Any learning experiences you can share, such as take-aways from a close call or a near miss?

Don't try to explain things while walking backward along a narrow trail. It doesn't work well. I fell once when I tried to answer a question without stopping. I wanted to get to a specific place, and it is hard when there is so much to see and talk about. Fortunately, I was okay.

I've also learned that its important to make sure your introduction letters are clear on what to bring. I've had people show up without enough water, but fortunately, I had a purifier.

What advice do you have for aspiring leaders in The Mountaineers community?

Please do it! You don't have to know everything; it is okay to say you don't know this plant or that bird or sound. It is okay to look things up together. Getting people out in the wilds, engaged in nature and showing them something is a gift that they will treasure. Others can help identify and will enjoy doing it. You don't have to be an expert; having a love of nature is plenty and a willingness to learn together.


I live in North Seattle, but my heart is in the wilderness. I spent my career working on wilderness conservation, first on Everglades issues, and then at the national level in Washington, DC, before moving to Seattle in 2011. I'm an ecologist by training and have worked to inject science into the policy and management decision-making process.

Birds have been a critical part of my life since I was five and remain a significant source of joy, inspiration, wonder, and solace. I like to write about my adventures and experiences in nature, hopefully bringing joy to others through words, photographs, and sound recordings.

I like to travel around the world and experience nature through the eyes of a local guide. Meeting local people, hearing their stories, reading about these lands and cultures, all add to the enjoyment of nature in these places and a broader understanding of our planet. My daughter and her husband live in Australia. As soon as the pandemic lifts, I hope to visit her and travel, bird, and hike in that marvelous part of the world.

One last thing, I was raised on a chicken farm in Western Pennsylvania, studied birds in graduate school, and am extremely allergic to eggs and feathers.

Lightning Round

What's your go-to place for a post-trip meal? Elliott Bay Brewery and Pub
How about your best trail snack? Fresh apple slices
What's your favorite close-to-home adventure? Stillwater Wildlife Area
Who is your Mountaineers hero? All those who climb these trails with what appears to be little effort!
What "luxury item" do you bring on most trips? Binoculars and a camera.
What's next on your bucket list? I want to backpack in the Pasayten Wilderness.

is there Someone that you'd like to see in the spotlight?

Send an email to Sara Ramsay to make a recommendation for one of our upcoming Leader Spotlights!

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Peter Hendrickson
Peter Hendrickson says:
Jul 03, 2020 01:53 PM

Oh, Tom, you're a wonderful teacher...so humble, joyful and knowing, all wrapped together. Our club is better, so much better, for you finding us and lunging into leadership. You've turned me from a lifelong feeder birder to a slightly better namer and ever more eager naturalist. Your words about naming recall Paulo Freire's treatise* on turning objects (persons without agency or legitimacy as the oppressed) into subjects regaining their humanity -- those with a name, not just "boy," or "you." Thanks. //Peter//

*Freire, 1968, Pedagogy of the Oppressed