By Eric Hughes
When I was asked to write a bit about my experiences with the Young Birder of the Year contest, I was thrilled. There is so much to write about! The YBY contest was not only engaging and educational, but, most importantly, fun. I will begin with a little background about myself, and then proceed to explain the wonders of participating in the YBY contest!
The Young Birder of the Year competition was not the start of birding for me. In fact, I have had an interest in birds for ten years, since the age of four. I attribute this interest in birding largely to my father giving me an old copy of “Birds: A Golden Guide.” I would sit in my living room for hours paging through the pocket-sized guide, occasionally marking with a star the birds that I felt to be especially attractive or extravagant in appearance. I would then begin to connect the names of the birds to the illustrations, allowing me to identify the birds strictly by memory at a young age. This was the foundation for a passion that has lasted ten years, and hopefully the rest of my life.eBird for nearly seven years. Doing so has really given me a good idea of the bird population fluctuations on my property and really made me wonder why that happens. But enough about me – now on to the good stuff.
At the time, I had four modules to choose from: writing, photography, illustrating, and field notebook. I chose field notebook as the major category and writing and photography as the minor categories. When the results came back, I was very pleased. I had taken first in writing (writing about birds is one of my favorite things to do), third in photography, and I had not placed at all in the field notebook module. I knew from the beginning that the field notebook category was going to be difficult for me. Although the artwork in your field notebook did not have to live up to the standards of the illustration module, I tried to make my bird sketches perfect. Obviously they were not, but I figured as much. I tried art lessons and practicing drawing on my own year after year to no avail; artwork was just not my strong spot.
Shortly after the contest ended, I received a package full of judge comments in the mail. The point of all of this is that the comments sent back at the end of the contest by the judges are incredibly important and, in my opinion, the most valuable thing one will get out of the competition. As I was feeling disappointed in my illustration capabilities, I pulled out one of the judge comments and found that it was for the field notebook module. The exact words were, “Your drawings are excellent and your detailed notes show that you are a careful observer.” It turns out that the judge who made those comments was David Sibley. Receiving these comments from an idol of mine was amazing. Someone who has made a living off of his bird illustrations said that MY drawings were excellent. Not only was it a major boost to my confidence in my sketches, but it was also a motivation for me to keep drawing birds. This year, I placed first in all of the modules I participated in, and I attribute that success 100% to the feedback the judges gave me for my work last year.
Skipping to 2013, the ABA introduced the Conservation/Community Action module. Rather than participate in the field notebook module, I chose to give this new category a try. I had always been interested in the relationships within an ecosystem, especially that of birds and plants. I never quite thought of incorporating that interest into conservation efforts, but that is just one of the many things that I have learned through the YBY contest. For the module, I worked with my local park to eradicate non-native plants, get the property certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, erect bird houses around the field, and start working towards an Audubon Bird Town certification. This contest has opened my eyes to a whole new aspect of birding: conservation.
My advice to young birders who have entered the contest this year is simple: I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to exhibit enthusiasm and devotion. I have found that judges look for that as well as how well you follow the guidelines for each module. Put in 110% with everything that you do, and your scoring will reflect the extra effort. Also, if it is your first year participating in the contest or you are new to birding and you do not do place as well as you had hoped, DO NOT GET DISCOURAGED!! The comments for improvement from the judges will help you not only in future years competing in the contest, but also outside the competition in everyday bird watching!
Overall, I think the YBY contest is a great way to learn more about birds and to have fun doing so. Give it a try; there are so many possibilities, and maybe you will spark an interest in something you have never dreamed of enjoying before.
Best of luck and good birding!
About the author: Eric Hughes is a 14-year-old birder from Pottstown, Pennsylvania who has been birding for ten years. His love of birds has taken him to many places far from his hometown including Arizona, California, and Costa Rica, among other major hotspots. His interest in nature is not limited to birds, however, and he is currently working with his township and local parks to remove invasive plants to benefit the native wildlife in his area. He can't pick one favorite bird, although his two favorite families of birds are Thrushes and Warblers. Aside from birding in the field, Eric enjoys writing, photographing, and taking videos of birds. In the future, he hopes to pursue ornithology and a bird-related career.