Birding Attracts Young Enthusiasts

Why a new generation is flocking to the old hobby of birding.

| Spring 2015

  • Birding offers both a contemplative pastime and a fierce adrenaline rush (just try chasing down a vagrant, a bird that has accidentally flown off its course). It is also one of the fastest-growing outdoor hobbies in the United States, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reporting a total of 47 million American participants.
    Photo by Flickr/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

We arrive at the sewage lagoon at 3 p.m. It’s cold for mid-May, barely above 50 degrees, and we count this as a blessing: it means the five enormous rectangular ponds that make up the waste stabilization compound in Blenheim, Ontario, are mercifully odorless. To people like us, this area is fabled for its colossal concentration of aquatic insects, which provide a veritable feast for an impressive number of shore birds. As Heather Blakelock, Brete Griffin and I roam the contours of the cells, scanning for movement, Bill Baughan—the loner in our group—stands guard near the entrance. He leans back against his Honda, on alert for rarities flying overhead.

We are making good time so far—90 birds under our belt and it’s only mid-afternoon—but I’m starting to feel a little nervous. We have less than five hours of daylight left.

Griffin, an ornithologist-turned-high school science teacher who has been birding for 45 years, immediately directs our attention to new shorebirds in the far corner of the pool, which he notices naked-eye. “Semipalmated, least sandpiper and greater yellowlegs,” he says, binoculars now up. “Or is it a lesser? Come on guys, I need your help here, be alert!” Blakelock and I raise our binoculars. I can barely make out the three birds feeding in the shallow waters: all grayish, uniformly spotted, running amok. I’m stumped. But to be fair, I am new at competitive birding.

I had joined this team of veterans to compete in the Baillie Birdathon, Canada’s largest birding competition and the oldest sponsored birding event in North America. Each May, 7,000 enthusiasts participate in this countrywide endurance test-cum-avian treasure hunt, where teams see how many species they can spot in a 24-hour period. Established in 1976 and administered by the non-profit Bird Studies Canada (BSC), it is named after Canadian ornithologist James L. Baillie. Participants collect sponsors, with all of the proceeds going toward conservation and bird research. The 2013 event netted more than $220,000 (CAD).

Between the three of them, Baughan, Blakelock, and Griffin have participated in 45 of these friendly competitions. This year, they are targeting the Lake Erie migratory flyover zones: the St. Clair marsh area northwest of Chatham first, followed by Point Pelee National Park. We’ll end the day in Rondeau Provincial Park, where, if we’re lucky, we’ll be rewarded with a fine woodcock display around sunset. “In my 15 years of birding, I’ve only seen this twice—both times at Rondeau,” Blakelock says. “Let’s cross our fingers you’ll see this!”

Ostensibly, I’m here to look at birds, but I’ve been examining the birders up close since our 4:15 wake-up call. One would assume that it is a rare breed that is willing to spend hours driving from forest to field to sewage lagoon in search of a specific bird to add to their list. However, the number of birders is growing across Canada. And as the practice expands, the typical birder—an older person clad in a multi-pocketed vest, Tilley hat and waterproof gear—is also starting to change. Organizations such as BSC and local bird groups are expanding their numbers of younger birders and galvanizing them to raise awareness about the importance of conservation and preserving habitats. Jody Allair, biologist and science educator at BSC, stresses the importance of illuminating the scientific benefits of bird research for a larger audience. “Birds,” he says, “are biological indicators, a thermometer to gauge the health of our planet.”

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