Eyes to the sky: Young birders build their skills

The Blue Ridge Young Birders Club gets kids into the woods and sets them on a path to a lifetime of exploring. The Blue Ridge Young Birders Club gets kids into the woods and sets them on a path to a lifetime of exploring.

Dusk. A cold fitful breeze. Quiet except for our footfalls on dry leaves. Far above, a hawk glides, dark against the twilight sky.

“Cooper’s,” says Theo after a swift glance.

Theo is leading our group along the Rivanna Trail in search of woodcocks. It’s sunset in spring—courting time.

Theo picks a spot on the border between a large cut hayfield and the woods. We hunker down, breathing on our cold hands, and wait.

“Peent! Peent!”

It’s the male woodcock’s call, a prelude to a remarkable display. The bird flies upwards in a spiral, his wings making a twittering sound, and then descends with a gentle chirping. He will do this over and over, charming whatever female woodcock he can lure out.

We wait, trying not to stir.

“Peent! Peent!”

A swift blur in the twilight. “See him?” whispers Theo, gesturing up and right. Some of us are quick enough, others miss the elusive target. We wait again. The cold settles into toes and ears; no more calls. Dark sets in. We head back along the trail, using our flashlights sparingly, stopping at intervals while Theo plays owl calls on his phone. Faintly, a screech owl replies. It’s like many other bird walks—except that most of our group is still in grade school, and Theo, our intrepid and knowledgeable leader, is 14. This is the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club.

Theo’s brother Ezra, 16, is also along tonight, and says the club started in 2012 with four young birders who liked both birding together and teaching others. As the original members “aged out,” others got involved. Joanne Salidis, the boys’ mother and an avid naturalist herself, signed on as coordinating adult. New members have connected through the club’s website, through the Wild Birds Unlimited store, or word of mouth.

BRYBC is designed for young people ages 7-18, and monthly meetings are held at Ivy Creek Natural Area. The club runs at least one field trip a month, seeking a specific bird (like woodcocks, or golden eagles in Highland County) or visiting a special habitat (like the Great Dismal Swamp). The group also monitors the bluebird trail at Piedmont Virginia Community College from March through August, collecting data for the Virginia Bluebird Society. The weekly monitoring is open to anyone, says Salidis, “and kids can be younger than 7, with a parent’s full cooperation, of course, so it’s really a family project.”

Ezra started going on club outings in elementary school, when he got interested in peregrine falcons—“how fast they could fly, and the whole DDT story.” (The peregrine was pushed almost to extinction by the now-banned DDT insecticide.) He enjoyed both the sharing and the competition, spotting the most birds or the most unusual species. Ezra’s interest sparked Theo’s curiosity, and now both are avid birders and knowledgeable naturalists.

“When kids get interested in something, that naturally leads to more interests—from birds to habitats, seasonal changes, photography,” their mother says.

The other young birders on our woodcock trip represent a range of knowledge and interests. Isabella, 11, says, “I just really like animals.” At the school she used to attend, in England, they were lucky enough to host visits from both Jane Goodall and Sir David Attenborough. Isa, 10, credits her grandmother: “She sent me out on nature walks all the time.” Cyrus, 9, is mostly all eyes and ears. But he’s learning, even if it’s just how to walk and observe in the woods.

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