If you used a microscope to examine the overlap in the Venn Diagram between birders and professional skateboarders, you’d find just one man: Dave Mull. The 32-year-old Vermont native is one of the most exciting skaters in the sport, a daredevil with a penchant for creative and death-defying tricks like roofdrops and, uh, the “Manramp.”
He’s also a real-deal birder: He gets giddy at the sight of a Townsend’s Warbler, he helped run a banding station in the mountains near his home in Los Angeles, and he put a pair of Hermit Thrushes (the state bird of Vermont) on his first pro model skateboard for Worble. He also regularly shares "noc shots" of the birds he sees on his Instagram account amid all of his latest skating exploits.
I’m drawn to anyone who breaks the mold of what a birder “should” be, and Mull shattered the mold and kickflipped over the debris. I recently spent some time with Mull on the phone discussing skaters as artists, how his skating injuries impact his birding, and the time Steller’s Jays gave him the confidence to execute one of his most famous tricks.
Nick Lund: Which came first: skating or birding?
DM: An interest in birds came much earlier, but I didn’t really pursue them. I was just kind of excited by them, you know? I have this really intimate memory of nurturing a Blue Jay from what I assume was a window collision at our home, and my parents just had it chilling in a shoebox outside, and I was just obsessing on it and checking to see if it was OK. That was the first real close look at a wild bird, like “whoa this is insane! I usually only see them outside in the wild doing their thing.” I was super young, like 5 or 6. Skating came later, when I was 10 or 11.
NL: What does being a “birder” mean to you?
DM: It’s so many different things. At first it was kind of like a poetic recognition of their existence. Like, when I just started to really notice them in a romantic sort of way, and that’s kind of how my older brother introduced me to them, and he would point out certain ones on the feeder outside my parent’s place. And then when I moved out here, for some reason, this spark just sort of happened, and I was like, “I didn’t even really get to know a lot of my birds in Vermont, so I’m gonna try to learn the birds out here, or learn the birds back home for next time I go back." It went from kind of a romantic, artistic viewpoint, to a full on adventure of trying to figure out where they are, who they are, how to draw them...
NL: I notice you incorporate nature into your skating a lot more than others—you’re going off stumps, there’s a lot of dirt involved. Do you agree?
DM: I totally agree. I do it pretty intentionally sometimes, because I know it’ll, you know, spark interest in the skating community, but also it’s just sort of engrained after growing up in Vermont. We didn’t necessarily have the nicest skate spots, so we incorporated anything we could to have some fun. We’d set up 2x4s that would fall over in our driveway or skate into the grass all the time. So I thought, “How do I mix these two worlds of being a nature lover and loving the urban environment because it’s such a playground for a skateboarder?” So I like to marry those two things and find that kind of edgy, like “what if” in skating: Can you skate this tree and this popular skate spot at the same time and make people wonder, like, “What even is skating?”
DM: Oh man, too many of those.
NL: What are some of your worst injuries?
DM: I think my most recent one was my wrist break. That was from jumping off of a roof that was slightly caved, because it was this tin-like metal that I didn’t realize wasn’t going to support me. So I dove, like, nine feet to the ground. Luckily I got a foot down at the same time as my wrist, so my wrist didn’t take the entire brunt, but I broke my wrist in four places.
DM: And that sucked. And it was right in the beginning of the surveying season where we were monitoring hummingbirds and the plants they were foraging on in the mountains. So, right after I broke my wrist I ended up birding one-handed, and actually going against the policies of the station we were working for. (Laughing) I didn’t even tell them, I was just so excited to go into the mountains and be paid to watch hummingbirds that I didn’t even tell them my wrist was broken in four places…
NL: OK, now do your worst injuries while birding.
DM: While birding .... hmm (laughs) ... I don’t think there have been any.
NL: Ha, yeah, I was trying to think if I’ve had any injuries while birding, and ... I guess a rock in my shoe? That’s the worst. No shattered wrists.
DM: I think there was one. It wasn't directly from birding, but I was at our local Audubon here at Debs Park with my partner, who used to work there, and just as we were leaving in a hurry somewhere, she forgot to tell her boss something and turned around really abruptly and smashed me right in the nose. So, not really while birding, but at an Audubon Center.
NL: Alright that counts. Tell me more about your banding work in the mountains.
DM: Oh yeah, wow. That was and continues to be such an amazing experience. My partner Lauren Hill and her friend Tania Romero started a banding station at Bear Divide in the San Gabriel Mountains above L.A. And man, ah, it is such a gem of a spot. Thousands of birds, from the darkness before dawn, are flying all over the place, right over your head, mainly in this one little corridor. We went there every day for two months straight, banding. It was breathtaking. I felt like a little kid every morning, like it was Christmas morning every day.
NL: Did you have a favorite species up there, or encounter?
DM: I think my favorite was when we’d get Townsend’s Warbler, pretty consistently. So good. So striking. Just incredible contrast between the yellow and black. So whenever I would get, like, a full-on, breeding male, it would just be so great.
NL: You must travel a lot for skating. Is it a bonus that you get to look for birds when you’re in a different spot?
DM: Big time. I fully take advantage of those opportunities. All the earlier trips were through this organization called Skate Wild, with the premise being to learn from Native American culture. We’d visit the reservations, and most of them have skate parks, so we would skate with the kids and hold contests—it was like a shared cultural experience, which was just awesome. So we’d skate, and go camping, and I’d wake up in the early morning before everyone and go birding.
NL: Do you know any other skater/birders? Is it something you talk about with other skaters?
DM: It’s definitely known that I’m a bird lover and that I’ll bring my binoculars out on the skate session sometimes. But we are few and far between. Some people have connected with me over Instagram, and it’s fun to connect with people who are actively birding and skating, but they’re usually somewhere far away, and so I’m not close friends with any others. Friends will take an active wonder in the birds I show them, but they’re not active birders.
NL: There’s an outdated stigma around birding, that it’s sorta nerdy or something ... does that ever come up at all, where people will give you any grief?
DM: I think there’s more of maybe a comical recognition of it, more than a stigma. Maybe that’s the remnants of some kind of stigma. But, I think, skating is always evolving and so fresh all the time, that when people see a skater that is also something else, that they’re some other sort of artist, and skating is just one kind of outlet that they have. So, it’s different and new to a lot of people that a skater can be a birder, but it’s not as surprising as skate culture might imagine. Pretty much every skater has some other amazing talent.
NL: You obviously need to focus very intently when you’re trying to do these death-defying tricks. Have you ever been distracted by a bird? (Note: Mull’s most famous clip might be this absolutely bonkers ollie onto and off a tree stump to a road.)
DM: Well, yeah maybe, but it usually actually ends up helping me. My favorite story to tell is when I was doing that stump jump, and there were Steller’s Jays around and they were calling like a Red-tailed Hawk—their famous mimic. And they scared these Acorn Woodpeckers away from some of their acorn caches and the jays would swoop in on them. The stump jump was so terrifying that I just looked for any means of inspiration, and at one point I had the realization that those Steller’s Jays were acting way bigger than they were, they were kind of tricking everything around them. So I thought that if I could harness the power of those super witty Steller’s Jays and treat this spot like I’m bigger than it, then that’s all I needed. It sounds crazy, but it worked.
Dave Mull dedicates this interview to birder Don White, who worked at Bear Divide, and skate photographer Joe Hammeke, who took two of the photos in this story. Both died this year.