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The Importance of Young Birder Events

By Sarah Toner October 7, 2016

Camp Chiricahua 2014 watches a sunset over the Chiricahuas. Photo by Rosemary Kramer

As I wrapped up school and started the summer of 2014, I couldn’t have been more excited. I was going to Camp Chiricahua to spend two weeks visiting the legendary birding hotspots of Southeast Arizona, guided by expert birders and surrounded by birders my own age who were just as gung-ho about birding as I was. Even better, three of the sixteen birders were my close friends who had helped me start the Michigan Young Birders Club. I had met some of the campers at other events in the past, while I knew others only from Facebook groups for young birders. From those interactions, I knew that there were going to be excellent naturalists there–birders who also cared about and were skilled in identifying many other taxa, such as moths, snakes, butterflies, and dragonflies, in addition to birds. It was going to be a wonderful learning experience.

Pygmy Nuthatch at Camp Chiricahua 2014. Photo by Sarah Toner

Pygmy Nuthatch at Camp Chiricahua 2014. Photo by Sarah Toner

The birding started as soon as we left the airport, as we all eagerly craned our necks in the suburbs of Tucson to spot birds such as White-winged Doves and Great-tailed Grackles. As we ascended the slopes of Mount Lemmon, we saw a Zone-tailed Hawk, a southeast Arizona specialty that soared directly overhead as we watched. On Mt. Lemmon, we spotted two hawks soaring high above the trail and realized, after a bit of confusion, that they were Short-tailed Hawks, which we felt fortunate to see given that the Arizona population is very scarce. We explored the Chiricahuas, seeing Mexican Chickadees, Bendire’s Thrashers, and Montezuma Quail (which we saw on the side of the road no fewer than ten times). We also visited the Huachucas, where there were excellent rarities: Plain-capped Starthroats, stunningly large hummingbirds that are only infrequently recorded in Arizona; nesting Black-capped Gnatcatchers; and Rufous-capped Warblers that were likely the only pair in Arizona at the time. The diversity was incredible, and seeing the desert bloom during the monsoon rains was spectacular. When we went out at night, I learned more about rattlesnakes, frogs, and tarantulas, while during the day we chased butterflies and even found a beautiful Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake just off a trail.

The adventure was filled not only with long days of birding but also with laughter. Although most of us had never met each other before, we immediately hit it off in the way that only those who share the same geeky interests can. While some young birders feel that birding is becoming more accepted in general, I know that most of us have had at least one bad experience when our passion was deemed “uncool, “nerdy,” or “weird.” Even without encountering active ostracism and bullying, young birders are few and far between, and young birders can often feel quite isolated without the opportunities that young birder events offer to develop friendships with like-minded peers. Sure enough, at Chiricahua, we were cracking jokes from day one, many of which were stored in the Quote Book that we kept to remember the silly and hilarious things we said. We all contributed to finding birds and sharing our knowledge, and I made fifteen solid friendships, getting to know others like me who were proud of their passion for birding. We still stay in touch and get together with fellow participants whenever we have the opportunity.

The 2013 Young Birders Event. Photo by Eric Liner.

The 2013 Young Birders Event. Photo by Eric Liner.

Young birder events like Camp Chiricahua offer a plethora of benefits for young birders. Birders of any skill level get the chance to hone their skills and share their knowledge among other passionate birders, to socialize and network with their peers face-to-face, to build lasting friendships, and to learn about future opportunities and careers. Most young birder camps offer at least one evening presentation on the many careers related to birding. Some, such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Young Birders Event, are completely dedicated to showing young birders the wealth of opportunities and future careers involving birds and birding. This outreach can leave a lasting impression on young birders, many of whom have gone on to become respected figures in the world of ornithology. Bringing young birders together provides a unique opportunity to promote camaraderie, broaden minds, and encourage future generations of conservationists and scientists. I can’t recommend these camps and young birder events enough.

To see a list of 2017 summer opportunities for young birders, visit the directory here. Do you know about a young birders event that’s not listed? Let us know!

-Sarah Toner