Many birders have a spark bird. But for some of us, birding starts with a spark person! What does a 12 year old growing up in 1960’s small-town Iowa do all summer? For me, it was getting on my clunky, red, one-speed Schwinn bike and heading out with my best friend, Reed, for the (very) nearby fields and woods to look for birds. Reed’s enthusiasm fed my own and the thrill of chasing naively about and discovering neat stuff has never gone away.
Before long, we had rigged a toy parabolic reflector ($14.95 for the Big Ear from Sears and Roebuck--"listen in on your friend's conversations down the street!") to a small Sony reel to reel 3 1/2 inch tape recorder. We'd record bird songs and splice together the thin brown tapes with ordinary Scotch tape. Inevitably, the spliced tapes would stick to themselves and become unplayable but it was magic while it worked.
In the summer of 1965, during a family trip to the East Coast, I used some of my precious vacation spending allowance in the gift shop at Gettysburg battlefield to buy my first bird book: Chester A. Reed's Bird Guide to Land Birds East of the Rockies ($2.95 plus tax.) I still have that book:
Equipped with this new resource, my young birding career gained momentum and I sat down in May 1967 and hand-printed on school notebook paper (the only options back in those days) a five-page life list. The first page is reproduced here:
Forty-five years later, I get a kick out of this list. First, it appears that I thought I'd seen a Raven during that trip through Pennsylvania two years earlier--it's the first species on this list. I'm also guessing that I made this list by thumbing through my Chester Reed guide since the list (like the guide) is "land birds only" and I wrote down a lot of birds in ID pairs (Hairy and Downy Woodpecker, Scarlet and Summer Tanager, and so on) as they appear on consecutive pages in the Reed guide. I'll admit that some of these may have been mis-identifications but clearly I was into making bird lists. I doubt that I called it "listing" back then--the ABA wasn't founded until the next year.
This bird was in my field guide along with Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Wheatear--I was disappointed not to be seeing all of these on a regular basis. Luckily they don't appear on that 1967 list!
Fast forward to 2012. I never dreamed when I started birding that I'd one day find myself sitting on the board of the American Birding Association and starting up the Iowa Young Birders (talk about coming full circle!) I'm trying very hard to call on those distant memories of my own start as a birder to help spark today's young birders. But I will admit that it's hard. I'll sound like many others who automatically begin by saying that things are different today. Well, they are and they aren't. Obviously today's young and beginning birders have resources we couldn't even imagine back then: countless excellent comprehensive field guides; great, inexpensive optics; digital bird song playback AND recording; inexpensive super-zoom point-and-shoot cameras, and so much more. And you certainly don't have to rely on home-made, handwritten lists on notebook paper (see eBird and the new ABA Listing Central.)
But what strikes me most after all these years is that birding, for me, is still more about people than about birds. It started with two young pals on bicycles and continues today as I make new friends and shared experiences by getting involved with the ABA board, the Pledge to Fledge program, and Iowa Young Birders. So, I'll say it again: birding is more about people than about birds!
One of the things I've always enjoyed most about looking back over the various lists in my file cabinet is that so many of the entries remind me of the birds, of course, but just as vividly of the people I was with at the time. For example, this extract (below) of my life list encompasses 2 1/2 years of birding in six states but, more importantly, even 25 years later it conjures up dozens of faces and friends. I can still see their field marks and hear their voices--birds and birders alike!
Each line on this list triggers a flood of images and memories of the family, friends, mentors, role models, trip guides, and fellow travelers who shared that moment or, in many cases, made that moment possible. To me, this is the difference between birdwatching (you watching a bird) and birding (an active pursuit--often undertaken with others.) Admit it, for most of us, even birding solo is spiced with the possibility of finding something interesting to share with other birders.
Writing this today is helping me see more clearly why starting a group for young birders has felt like the right thing to do. It's just so much darn fun to share birding with others and, looking back, I can understand today how those experiences as a young birder will literally last for a lifetime.
Leave a comment and tell us about your spark person!