Flying Penguins - Young Donors Birding - Photography by Christi Leeson

Young Birders Give Back with World Series of Birding Fundraiser

Last year, in May 2022, three generous young birders got up extremely early to bird at the annual World Series of Birding in Cape May, New Jersey. They chose Delaware Nature Society (DelNature) as their fundraiser recipient! We were very thankful and reached out to see if we could speak with them about it. On June 1, 2022 I interviewed them at Bucktoe Creek Preserve where they watch DelNature’s Bird Banding Project underway. Read below for the story and interview.

DelNature’s Bird Banding Project – A Little Birding Community

When I arrive, it’s a pretty summer day at DelNature’s Bird Banding Project station. Adults of a variety of ages and a few children have gathered to watch bird banding in action. They excitedly point out birds in the sky for each other and take photos. Birders young and old cheer for each other’s best photographs. They are gathered together beside the 3-walled shed where the ornithologist leads the banding.

A Friendly “Hello” from Ornithologist Ian Stewart

Ornithologist Ian Stewart, or “Ian” as he likes to be called, jovially calls out “hello” to those arriving from his picnic bench in the shed. He is measuring details he learns about the birds he and his helpers catch in the nearby mist nets. The ornithologist keeps track of other data such as ticks found on the birds as well. Despite his hard-working ethic, any person who approaches soon receives his friendly smile. Visitors learn interesting facts about the latest bird held gently in Ian’s hands. As I approach, he’s teaching a 9-year-old to look at the shape of the tips of the feathers. The shape helps gauge the age of the bird – if many of them are pointed, it’s younger. The child, a homeschooler, writes notes as Ian speaks. He also lists the latest bird he saw in his tally book.

The several kids attending comfortably share bird tips and discoveries with the adults they’ve befriended. Many are regulars so they know each other well. Some of the children come with their parents as part of home school. Others attend traditional school but are able to come before school starts. What a great way to learn!

Ian Stewart, Ornithologist with Scarlet Tanager Ian Stewart, Ornithologist with Scarlet Tanager

The Flying Penguins: Meet the Young Birders of this World Series of Birding Team

The three fundraising young birders are the oldest of the kids. They are Christian, age 12, Ellie, age 9, and Hudson, age 12. They, with the help of their parents, created a birding team they called “The Flying Penguins”. The teammates then went on to take pledges in support of Delaware Nature Society in advance of attending the May 2022 World Series of Birding event. There, they won 4th in their 6th – 8th grade division! In the end, they raised $3000 for Delaware Nature Society!

The annual World Series of Birding is a mix between a fun game and a marathon. The objective is to raise money for a favorite environmental cause and focus worldwide attention upon the habitat needs of migrating birds. Teams have up to 24 hours, midnight to midnight, to count as many bird species as they can identify by sight or sound within their chosen category.

Flying Penguins - Young Birders at DelNature's Bird Banding Station - Photography by Christi Leeson Flying Penguins – Young Birders at DelNature’s Bird Banding Station – Photography by Christi Leeson

It’s exciting to have such young people use their free time to try to help improve the world! Curious to learn more about their stories and their big event, I begin our interview.

Interview with The Flying Penguins

How and when did you get started with birding?

Christian began, “I think it was when I was maybe 5 or 6. I really liked hawks, so we went up to [the former Bucktoe] Hawk Watch a lot. Then, in 1st grade, we had a bird study and I studied American Robins and that kinda just started it. We learned about the Great Backyard Bird Count somehow and we did that. And then, we kept going to [the former Bucktoe] Hawk Watch. Hank [Davis] was up there working and he told us about eBird to keep track with our life lists and, then, we kept going. I’d say 2020 I started really birding.”

Hudson thinks about his answer to my question of how he got started for a moment, then says, “Um… When I was 7? There was this lady… I used to do the camp at Bucktoe and she was a bird watcher and she got me into birds and stuff.” He confirms he’s talking about a Delaware Nature Society summer camp. Hudson went on. “Before that I kinda liked all wildlife. We’d go out some days, but I was already into nature a lot. I love nature. I love birds too and I really got into birds when I was 7. The past 2-3 years I’ve been getting serious into birding. I think it was, like, this [past] year that I started bird banding.”

Ellie says, “Probably my whole life but, mostly, the last 2 years.”

When did you first come to DelNature Bird Banding with Ian here at Bucktoe?

Ellie says, “Sometime… last September…. Every week.”

“Every week? That’s so awesome that you can just fit it in before school!”

Ellie giggles.

Christian shares, “It’s been at least 4 years. I think we were going past it one time and Rowan and Tristan were on the sign.” I laugh – he’s talking about my kids. They were nice enough to model for the sign photo. Christian and my kids have known each other since they were little. Christian continues. “And, then, we started just coming here all the time. With school we couldn’t come every week – but now, with home school, [we can].”

What made you decide to come to bird banding?

Ellie said, “We went on a walk with Ian and he had the nets.” She’s referring to the mist nets mentioned earlier. Bird banders use these to safely capture wild birds in order to measure and band them before releasing them.

We are interrupted by excited voices coming from the group of birders. A Wood Thrush has been sighted! Their populations have become fairly low in Delaware, so it’s a treat to find one.

Why do you like birds, specifically?

Hudson is thoughtful. “A lot of people underestimate birds and don’t think much about them. But, if we didn’t have birds… I think in the 50s there was a giant locust outbreak and then birds ate the locusts and protected the crops. And, they’re really cool to watch. It’s fun to see how they behave. Sometimes you can find rare birds or, like, really colorful ones. They’re really cool to watch and look at and sometimes. If you have a camera, you can take pictures of them and remember those moments when you saw them.”

Ian Stewart Teaches About A Bird - Photography by Steve Chiu Ian Stewart Teaching About Birds – Photography by Steve Chiu

What’s a favorite thing you’ve learned about birds?

Ellie thinks for a bit, then says, “Hmm… I don’t know… They can migrate from the arctic to Tierra del Fuego [an archipelago at South America’s southernmost tip].”

“Wow, that’s pretty cool! Which bird is that?”

“The Red Knot,” she answered.

The endangered Red Knot is an amazing bird who travels an exceptionally long distance, 9,000 miles. It makes a crucial stop at our own Delaware Bay beaches. It stops at Delaware Bay because it, like many migrating shore birds, depends on Horseshoe Crab eggs to be able to complete its trip.

Red Knot and Horseshoe Crabs - Photography Gregory Breese/USFWS Red Knot and Horseshoe Crabs – Photography Gregory Breese/USFWS

Do you have a favorite bird fact that Ian Stewart the Ornithologist has taught you?

Christian shares excitedly, “I like when he catches the bird and tells us something about it…like the Indigo Buntings. The male has darker feathers, and they just don’t look the same. But when they’re in the air you don’t see it. Sometimes, the bird will look female but then you’ll have a little patch of blue on its head then know its male.”

Have you ever had a bird that stumped Ian?

Christian ponders this. “Um… I don’t think I’ve done that! When we were at the World Series [of Birding], we heard the Swainson’s Warbler at the beach and it’s been there for, like, 3 years, but Ian’s never seen one before. So that was kinda cool because I’ve never seen birds before that he hasn’t seen.” His excitement is palpable. “It’s just this little, little bird. It’s smaller than a [American] Robin but they have such a loud song!”

Can you tell us about your World Serious of Birding adventure?

I begin, “I heard you guys got kinda wet!”

Christian admits, “Yeah, we did get kinda wet.”

“And you woke up at 4am.” Not something you’d expect – kids getting up at 4am, getting soaked in the rain, and calling it a good day!

“Yeah, we did,” Christian agrees. “It was kinda weird because it was, like, 5 am, maybe, and the sun was just coming out but there’s birds everywhere. Our target for the day at that place was a Chuck-will’s-widow, so we heard that as soon as we got there. They were, like, calling all over around us. Then, we heard [a bird] and we just didn’t know what it was. So we talked about it for 5 minutes and we decided that it might have been a [American] Woodcock. Once we get a confirm, we’re allowed to record it and see what Merlin [Cornell’s bird identification phone app] says and I put it in Merlin and that’s what it was.”

American Woodcocks and Chuck-will’s-widows have a particularly unique appearance. It’s coloring is similar to “dead leaves.” The Woodcock has eyes almost to the back of its head so it can watch the sky while it eats! This bird puts on a popular-to-watch sky dance during mating season. DelNature’s Coverdale Farm Preserve is a great place to see this sky dance and we host an annual program so you can see it up close. Find programs like this one on our Activities Calendar.

American Woodcock at Coverdale Farm Preserve - Photography by Ian Stewart American Woodcock at Coverdale Farm Preserve – Photography by Ian Stewart

Christian continues, “But, then, probably my favorite place was in downtown Cape May. It’s right on the dunes. They built this huge platform – it’s called Springwatch.” He’s speaking of the platform that the Cape May Springwatch puts up at the Coral Avenue Dune.

Ellie agrees, “We went to the Springwatch and, because of the really big storms, there were super rare birds coming and we saw our first Wilson’s Storm Catcher.” I think she’s talking about the Wilson’s Storm-Petrel.

Christian shares his memories. “First, we were at Cape May Point State Park and we got the report that there was a Wilson’s Storm-Petrel there. So, we went over there and, at first, there were two Long-tailed Ducks there which were just not supposed to be there at that time. Then there were Black Scoters and Surf Scoters which are lifers for me. The counter said there were 20. And he was, like, ‘there’s one now, just everybody look out!’”
Wilsons Storm Petrel - Photography by Ethan Rudnitsky Wilsons Storm Petrel – Photography by Ethan Rudnitsky

“We looked out to the horizon,” Christian went on, “and there was probably 3 and then we slowly moved back and our estimate was there were, like, 14 of them. They live miles and miles out on the ocean but they only come in when there’s a storm so when people have an opportunity to see that it’s a really big deal! When we were at the awards brunch everyone was like ‘Oh yeah the Storm Catcher!’.”

Why did you Pick DelNature as your fundraiser recipient?

Hudson looks proud. “Because they’re really close to us and because it’ll protect the wildlife and give them funds [to do that]…because it’s helping others and helping more people to learn about wildlife.”

Is it true one of these young birders was taking a Cornell University course?

I have heard that Christian was taking courses through Cornell University for a little while. Cornell is among the top colleges for ornithology study. I ask him about it. “There was a Cornell class you were taking. Are you still thinking of going to Cornell and are you still taking that class? Or are you taking a break from it?”

Christian is pensive. “The Ornithology one I’m taking a break. I’ll start back up soon but it’s hard because it’s…”

“It is a college.” I point out.

“It’s college… the words are big. I am taking a few on identification. They really help and… they go from $50 to $120. You get them for forever and you can do them whenever you want.”

I hear you’ve bought a microphone because it helps with birding – can you tell me more?

“Right now, I’m doing [a Cornell class] on recording bird songs and I bought a microphone and I really like that. Mine’s really small, but it works. I was at Susquehanna State Park with Hudson,” Christian continues, “There [were] 2 male Cerulean Warblers. Hudson had never seen or heard one. We saw them fly over and they were singing. I got such a cool recording of them.”

I smile. “It must be fun to have friends that share this with. Are you kinda bummed that he’s moving away?”

“Yeah, but he’ll come back. He has family up here…we’re going to do the World Series together next year!”

Christian and Hudson Recording Bird Songs for Identification Using the Merlin App - Photography by Christi Leeson  Christian and Hudson Recording Bird Songs for Identification Using the Merlin App – Photography by Christi Leeson

An update – as of the writing of this article in February 2023, they confirm that they still plan to reunite for the World Series of Birding event again! It takes place in Cape May, New Jersey Saturday, May 13, 2023. Learn how to register and join in!

Any last things you want to say?

Hudson thinks a moment. “I’d really like to thank the organizers for the World Series of Birding. It’s really fun and it’s a lot of people into birding and lot of people getting lifers and having a good experience. And I’d like to thank the Delaware Nature Society for helping others to learn about animals. It’s really cool, I loved funding for them. I tried to see as many birds as I could for them because they helped me out too. They helped me learn about animals and birds and frogs and I had good experiences with the Delaware Nature Society when I was very young.”

Ellie has some last thoughts too. “I would tell them that they’re fun to watch. It changes your life…if you’re walking out on the street, you’ll see something fly over and you know what it is. It’s like a different world.” Ellie’s eyes shine. “I like that there are so many different kinds. Wherever you go, there’ll always be something new and different.”

Want to help native birds too?

You don’t have to attend the World Series of Birding to help birds. Here are other things you can do:

Garden for Wildlife Shop Native Plants Volunteer Make a Gift Find a Birding Class Learn About Bird Conservation