By Marie McGee
Hands trembling with excitement, I tore open the shipping box. Earlier in April 2011, inspired by the entries of the previous year’s participants, I had registered for the American Birding Association’s Young Birder of the Year Contest. Now, after several weeks of eager daily mailbox checks, the anticipated package had arrived. Filled with helpful advice and plenty of encouragement, the package materials supplied information to aid and guide participants during the next seven months of the contest.
I was especially grateful for the encouragement. Rather recklessly, I had indicated that I would participate in all four modules, reasoning that each would develop my birding skills in different ways. Plus, they all sounded fun! Photographing and drawing birds, however, were both territories into which I had never before ventured, and although I repeatedly reminded myself that I was participating for the joy of it and to cultivate new skills, the quality of previous winners’ art set a daunting standard. As spring and summer flew by, I was excited by how my stick birds gradually became more shapely and recognizable. Although my drawing skills still have a long way to go, it was extremely satisfying to see how much they improved within the span of the contest.
My lack of experience with art caused me to anticipate that the field notebook unit would be especially difficult, and during the early months of the contest, making entries in the notebook felt awkward. Soon, however, I warmed to keeping a field notebook and it unexpectedly grew to be my favorite module. The challenge of sketching birds was lightened by the fun of noting various details and impressions of them and their behavior. It was an approach to birding that I had never considered before, and it was incredibly rewarding. I found that note taking not only sharpens and reinforces observational skills, but also fosters a desire to ask questions about those observations.
One of my most interesting discoveries was the result of a summer morning spent observing a family of Mallards; had I not been sketching, certain details could well have passed me by. As I was drawing and taking notes about the ducks, I started paying closer attention to their plumage and noticed the variation in bill color; one adult had a black and orange bill, while another exhibited a yellow bill. Back at home, my field guide revealed that the latter was actually a male in nonbreeding plumage – but why, I queried, had he already shed his fine iridescent green feathers? Most self-respecting passerines retain their colorful breeding plumage throughout the summer months, and it had never occurred to me to think that ducks might be any different. I was further surprised to learn that this drake would begin to reacquire his gaudy green helm in October, a few short months away. What was more (as a brief struggle with Peter Pyle’s scientific paper on Molts and Plumages of Ducks revealed), far from being atypical of waterfowl, the Mallard drake’s molt sequence was the norm for most dabbling and diving ducks.
Although I had been birding, first casually, and then more seriously, for roughly the past three years, there were so many details about even the common birds – goldfinches, grackles, mallards – which I had never properly noticed before taking part in the YBY Contest. It encouraged me to apply a more focused approach to birding and engage in pursuits that I otherwise wouldn’t have attempted, pushing the limits of what I believed myself capable of achieving. Participating not only greatly improved my abilities in each individual contest segment, but also helped me to develop skills that have made me a better birder.
About the author: Marie McGee, a 16-year-old from Southeast Michigan, is the 2012 Young Birder of the Year (14-18 year-old category). She has her father to thank for piquing her interest in birds, although her fascination with feathered things only took root within the last few years. Her favorite birds include falcons (especially kestrels) wrens, and woodpeckers of all types. In addition to birding, she enjoys reading a wide variety of genres, although books about birds are a natural favorite. Some of her favorite natural history authors include Pete Dunne, Bernd Heinrich and Roger Tory Peterson.