Shea Tiller, April eBirder of the month

By Team eBird June 20, 2018

Please join us in congratulating Shea Tiller of Charlottesville, Virginia, winner of the April 2018 eBird Challenge, sponsored by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics. Shea’s name was drawn randomly from the 2,543 eBirders who submitted at least 15 eligible checklists in April that had eBird Mobile ‘tracks’ shorter than 8km (5mi). Shea will receive a new ZEISS Conquest HD 8×42 binocular for his eBirding efforts. Here’s Shea’s birding story:

I first became interested in birding at my house in central Virginia. Seven or eight years ago, I was flipping through a field guide trying to identify some black-and-white birds visiting a feeder that my mom put up. All of a sudden, I thought I’d found what they were: Black-capped Chickadees! But then I flipped another page, and saw the nearly identical Carolina Chickadees. Realizing that I couldn’t tell them apart by basic appearance or by the tiny, whole-country range maps in the book, I wanted to learn more, so I began to research common backyard birds. Soon, I found myself attending a local birdwalk, where I saw my first non-backyard bird: a Hermit Thrush. I also joined the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club. For multiple years, I went on club field trips and found my life list steadily growing. However, because my schoolwork limited my participation in club outings, I developed a desire to find birds for myself on my own time.

An American Oystercatcher photographed at Chincoteague NWR by Shea Tiller/Macaulay Library

I began using eBird in 2016 to look at data in order to know where to find certain birds when I traveled to other states. in 2017, with encouragement from other birders, I made my own eBird account and started creating checklists in order to keep track of my own sightings and give back to the birding community. At that time, I still relied on existing data on eBird to tell me where to find species even within my home state of Virginia, but I found such data sorely lacking in my home county of Fluvanna. I also noticed another young birder in a different underbirded part of the state who went out and found his own new hotspots and 1st county records. Inspired by this example and many others, I took up the task of county listing at the end of October, 2017. I was fortunate that during my first winter of county listing, a bomb cyclone pushed into my neighborhood some great birds including Greater White-fronted Goose, Tundra Swan, and Common Merganser.

In the spring, I made a point to log breeding codes for the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas whenever I went birding, because many of the blocks in Fluvanna haven’t even been started, let alone completed. The combination of county listing and local atlasing took me to a number of interesting places this past April. These sites included a small swamp along the James River, where I found a bright yellow Prothonotary Warbler on territory and my lifer Northern Waterthrush; a bridge over the James River, under which a colony of Cliff Swallows have been nesting; and a local park containing sprawling scrub and riparian forest, where I found Yellow-throated and Prairie Warblers in abundance.

A Purple Martin from Shea’s local colony. Photo by Shea Tiller/Macaulay Library.

I also birded a lot right around my own neighborhood. While observing a Purple Martin colony at a pond just down the road from my house, I stumbled upon a Solitary Sandpiper foraging around the muddy, flooded edge. Near the beginning of April, I witnessed a late-season push of waterfowl on my neighborhood lake, which included Common Loons and a flock of Red-breasted Mergansers.

I also birded some around the state, including in the mountains where I photographed some early warblers before the leaves came out, and a one-night trip to coastal Virginia highlighted by a visit to Chincoteague NWR. On this trip, I found my lifer Piping Plover; enjoyed an extended close study of my lifer Marbled Godwits; and saw many other nice birds, including a slightly early Whimbrel, a flock of Northern Gannets, and a group of Brown-headed Nuthatches.

Despite the fact that I have had to work to find good hotspots and birds in my underbirded county, I greatly appreciate that eBird lets birders see each other’s data and therefore get an idea of both the specific locations and general types of places to look.