By Jeff Tome
There are people who fanatically like birds and the challenge of identifying them. These people are called birders. Birders are distinctly different from bird watchers, but that’s for a different article. Birders are a close-knit tribe of enthusiastic, binocular-toting, individuals who can be seen staring intently into the bushes at tiny, flitting birds that most people don’t notice.
I thought I knew birds when I started at Audubon. I was wrong. There is a big difference between the backyard birdfeeder birdwatching that I grew up with and birding. There are hundreds of birds that could care less if there is a birdfeeder around. They quietly migrate through, dining on insects or berries or swimming in local ponds for a day or two. Most people never notice them, but birders do.
Birders collect bird sightings like kids collect Pokémon cards. Some keep life lists of every bird they have ever seen, which can be over 300 birds in this region and twice that in North America. Spring is full of birders reporting FOY (First of the Year) birds as they migrate through. More high-tech birders go online to look at the “birdcast,” a forecast for bird migration that showcases weather fronts moving through and the birds that accompany them.
I did not care much for birding for many years. Frankly, birding with birders made it obvious that I knew very little and I was very self-conscious about it. One birder I hung out with identified every bird by sound and didn’t use binoculars. Another could identify even the tiniest, fastest-moving warbler so quickly that I could never tell if she was just making up the name. She would look at a bird for a second and confidently say “Nashville Warbler” or “Cape May Warbler.” It seemed like every warbler was just a random word with “warbler” added on the end.
That all changed when I started doing the Birdathon at Audubon. The Birdathon started out as a small fundraiser to raise money at Audubon. People donated money by how many bird species were seen, but it has become so much more than that. Birdathon is now a gathering of people who all love birds, claim emphatically that it is “the best day of the year,” and all care deeply for the Audubon Community Nature Center.
This group of people has taught me to identify birds that I didn’t even imagine existed. They even taught me to identify some birds by sound, though it took me five painful years to hear how a Yellow Warbler says “sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet.”
The Birdathon has morphed over the years into something larger than a small fundraiser. Some of the money raised from the Birdathon goes to a scholarship for a student going into an environmental field. Over the years, many of these scholarship winners have gone on to become biologists and environmental professionals in jobs across the country. The scholarship is known at the Ryan Exline Memorial Scholarship in memory of Ryan Exline, a volunteer, intern, and college student whose life ended too soon in a car crash. The Birdathon honors Ryan’s memory and passions and gives a financial boost to an up and coming student.
The Birdathon also raises money for a needed project at Audubon. This year’s project is to create a bigger home for the Snapping Turtle exhibit at Audubon. This turtle was found half dead as a hatchling on a litter clean-up with Lincoln Elementary School. Snapping Turtle has thrived at Audubon and is now in need of a bigger and more suitable home. That home will have to be custom built to accommodate the size and future size of the Snapping Turtle.
The group that birds the Birdathon is a community. There are experienced birders and new birders and non-birders that are all mixed together to learn and teach together as a team. The day is full of good cheer, good food, and good people that are gathered together around a passion for birds and for making a difference in the world.
You can help me and the other Birdathon teams by pledging a small amount of money per bird or a general donation to the Birdathon at www. go.rallyup.com/acncbirdathon. There are some interesting teams out there that are helping, from the Wrenegades and the Uncommon Loons to the Derby Duo and Birders on Bicycles. Each group is a team of people who are spending a chunk of their time and energy to look for birds and support the Audubon Community Nature Center. I would love to see you support them as they support us.
It doesn’t take a birder to appreciate birds. Every one of us has the capacity to look out a window or walk down the street and notice, with sudden all-consuming interest, a bright, colorful bird we have never seen before going about its everyday life and making our lives a little bit richer.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.