Cornell Young Birders Event 2013

By Team eBird August 28, 2013
Group photo

The 2013 Young Birders Event. Photo by Eric Liner.

We just completed the 2013 Young Birders Event at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Sixteen participants were selected from a very competitive applicant pool of nearly 100 students to attend this 4 day event. The experience included eBirding adventures around the Cayuga Lake Basin, audio and video recording, Irby Lovette’s legendary Night in the Museum, and presentations from some of the best scientists in the country. The focus throughout was ways that people have transformed their passion for birds into careers in science. We thought the best way to find out more about the event was from one of the students. We’ve invited Patrick Carney, a high school sophomore from River Edge, NJ, to tell us more.

Young Birders Event 2013

Patrick Carney


Patrick Carney birding the Cayuga Lake shore. Photo by Tim Lenz.

Patrick Carney birding the Cayuga Lake shore. Photo by Tim Lenz.

As a birder and wildlife photographer, I have learned always to have my camera ready. You never know when nature will surprise you. The hiking trail you’re on may suddenly become a front row seat in nature’s never ending show: a Black-throated Green Warbler feeding its fledglings in a tree, an American White Pelican soaring gracefully over a mudflat, the mysterious call of a Barred Owl floating through a dense forest. At these moments, it is impossible not to feel excited at what you just witnessed. You feel privileged to be part of the experience.

Albatross chick at the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates. Photo by Patrick Carney.

Albatross chick at the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates. Photo by Patrick Carney.

That is exactly how I felt when I attended the 2013 Cornell Young Birders Event. This annual event hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology brings together young birders to experience nature, learn about cutting-edge research, and discover ways to make our enthusiasm for birds a future career. I and the 15 other young bird enthusiasts were eager to attend this event from the minute we learned we were accepted.

Each day began with breakfast at 5:30 in the morning, and then Chris Wood and Jessie Barry, who were leading the event, would pick us up and we would head out birding. Birding with Chris and Jessie was birding as I have never experienced it before. As another young birder said, “It’s nice not having to ID the birds!” Indeed, both Chris and Jessie were capable of IDing birds before I had even found them in my binoculars! Both of them can also make spectacular Barred Owl noises; expertly imitating bird sounds seems to be a normal skill among the Cornell Lab staff. Chris in particular took “pishing” (making a sh sh sh noise that lures out most passerines) to a whole new level. I always appreciated the usefulness of pishing – now I see that it is an art.


Ring-billed Gull at Myers Point. Photo by Patrick Carney.

Other experts at the Cornell Lab joined us in the field as well. One gray and foggy morning we arrived at Myers Point for birding and learned about video and sound recording. The silhouettes of Ospreys perched in a dead tree were visible through the swirling mist, and the cries of Ring-billed Gulls could be heard overhead. The conditions seemed less than ideal for recording birds, but a watery sun soon began to shine through the gray sky, and within 20 minutes the fog had dissipated, leaving the morning clear and sunny, and the birds in full view of the video cameras we were trying out.

Attempting to record decent footage of birds has left me with a whole new respect for nature videographers. Everyone has seen a smooth video of a bird in flight. The truth of the matter is, keeping a flying bird in focus is very difficult, and that’s only if you manage to keep it in the frame! Recording bird sounds was equally fun and challenging; wearing complex sound recording setups with large microphones, we set out to try our hands at recording calling birds. The easiest birds by far to record were a bunch of American Crows, calling raucously from atop a tree. Using headsets and the microphone made it easier to hear the birds and filtered out background noise, and many of us were in agreement that the sound recording setups would be useful just for listening to vocalizing birds!


Drawer of tanagers at the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates. Photo by Patrick Carney.

For me, another main highlight of the event was Irby’s Night at the Museum. Irby Lovette, director of the Lab’s Fuller Evolutionary Biology program, started us off with a warbler phylogeny exercise, in which we had to correctly place warblers on an evolutionary tree. Then, we were turned loose in the Museum of Vertebrates’s extensive bird specimen collection. We were like “kids in a candy store” as we perused drawers of exotic bird specimens, ranging from albatrosses to cocks-of-the-rock. Being able to see and hold all of these birds close up really emphasized the diversity and beauty of birds in a way that I had never experienced before. All 16 of us would have gladly stayed in there for days, and we explored as many drawers as possible in the few hours that we had.


Red-headed Woodpecker at Montezuma NWR. Photo by Patrick Carney.

On our final full day we birded Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Common Gallinules and various shorebirds and herons scattered deeper into an adjacent marsh as we drove into the refuge. A Cerulean Warbler and a Bay-Breasted Warbler in the same tree caused a fair amount of excitement, as did a pair of Black Terns seen later in the day. The personal highlight for me was two Red-headed Woodpeckers, which we found nesting in a stand of dead trees. It was one of the most productive birding locations we visited. An entire day there yielded around 100 species!

Just when the program was ending, there was one last surprise: event sponsor ZEISS presented each of the participants in the program with Terra ED binoculars! Not only had my knowledge and skills been enhanced by the Young Birders Event, but now I was leaving with equipment to improve my birding as well.

I have always known that I want an ornithology career, and the Young Birders Event put into perspective for me how to make that possible, and how many options there are. I can’t thank Jessie and Chris and everyone at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology enough for making this experience possible for all of us. Every experience we had was an exciting, privileged moment.