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My First Iowa Young Birder Field Trip

Spark Bird Vol. 1, Issue 1

By Nellie PoppinsPublished 2 years ago 9 min read
Downy Woodpecker (Daughter's personal collection)

I was taking mental notes faster than any other time since the midwife told me about the expected changes in my newborn daughter’s weight, skin color, and bowel movements, while my baby alternately slept or screamed to be fed. I was on my first field trip with the Iowa Young Birders, and once again my daughter, now seven years old, knew exactly what she was doing, and I was out of my element, in a completely new world.

“I don't have a favorite bird, and I don't really care what we see today,” I remember saying as we stood in a circle, 15 to 20 of us, introducing ourselves. I can't remember whether I actually said that I wouldn't care to ever see a Canada Goose again in my life, but I'm sure the thought was on my mind. I didn’t mean to offend any fans of geese, I just had some bad experiences with these birds while lifeguarding at a lake decades earlier. Regardless of what actually came out of my mouth, I’m sure my daughter rolled her eyes, said her favorite was the Green Heron, and rattled off four or five birds that she was hoping to see. Ones that were likely to be found in the habitat we were visiting, considering the time of the year and the weather.

All other parents (accompanying adults) and even the kids seemed at least as knowledgeable as my daughter was. It later turned out that some were beginners themselves, but they were enthusiastic, or at least curious about birds and the opportunity to learn about them. My son, only four years old and along on the trip with special permission from the organizers because he was technically too young to be there, named some bird as his favorite and repeated something his big sister said about the birds he hoped to see.

After introductions, Tyler told us the plan for the day, the trail we were going to follow, the locations of the nearest bathrooms along the way, and how we were going to spend a couple of hours looking at and listening for birds. He handed out binoculars to those who didn't bring their own (not many of us), and wanted one (not me).

“Let’s go,” he said, and I thought that this wasn't going to be so bad. After all, I liked hiking, and I much preferred a trail in the woods or around a lake to the concrete of the city. My daughter followed the “birdiest” (most knowledgeable) teenagers, adults, and of course, Tyler, to soak up their wisdom and admire their ID-ing skills. My son was digging for something in the mud one minute and climbing trees in the next. He was very adept at both and did a good job of not straying far from the group, so he required precious little of my attention. This was shaping up to be an easy walk for me, and I could get some exercise while both of my kids were excited to be outside and learn.

I fell to the back of the loose line of twos and threes that formed from our little group. In the first few minutes, we may have covered a hundred feet, with everyone moving slowly, quietly, to make sure we don't scare away anything with wings. It reminded me of the days when the kids were so little I had to slow the pace of my own walking so they could keep up, running beside me with their short legs. My idea of hiking around the lake was gradually replaced by the notion of a stroll barely fast enough to keep me from getting cold on that 50-degree day. No problem, I thought, the kids are happy and I'm still outside enjoying the fresh air. I can always scrub the kitchen floor after we get home to get my exercise.

Then we stopped. Someone spotted something, and they all had to look. 20 pairs of binoculars pointing at the same tree. Talks of a big branch with dark leaves, and the one fork in the tree, but not right there, but a little higher — until someone said, “It just flew away.”

Nobody seemed especially disappointed, not even the ones who couldn't find the right fork in the tree fast enough. I was ready to move along, but they talked about colors and molting and distribution, and tips for easier identification by sound, by flight pattern, by habitat, by behavior. My daughter was absorbing it all with an interest I wished she'd show in math class just once.

It was a group of people united by a single thing, the joy of watching birds. We were as heterogeneous as any randomly selected sample of people can be within a certain geographical area. Admittedly, it wasn’t a small area. The two families who traveled the longest to get there, us from Missouri and a family passing through Iowa but coming from South Dakota, lived hundreds of miles away from each other. There were five-year-olds and teenagers, moms with young kids like me and grandpas sharing their passion with the grandkids. We were likely divided on most issues imaginable — politics, religion, books, music, you name it — but it all didn't matter.

After a few minutes of this standing around and talking, we were finally moving again. Good, I thought, there surely can't be too many woodpeckers in this small patch of woods. I remembered how it was a big deal, as a kid, going home from a day-long hiking trip and telling my parents how we got to see a single woodpecker. These birders were probably just lucky to see one so quickly into their walk.

The memory-movie of my childhood trip hadn't even finished playing in my head when the line in front of me stopped again. The ones in the front of the line were telling everyone in the back to be quiet, because someone heard some sparrow. Wait, there are more than one sparrow species? I wondered. We stood around and listened… Nothing. Not even the initiated were able to hear the bird again, let alone see it. Once again, no one was bothered the least by not getting what they wanted. It’s all part of life.

The slow stroll and quiet, cordial chatter among the once-upon-a-time strangers continued. I called to my son, and he picked up the rock he’d found and ran to me. Then he showed the rock to an older teenage boy, who said something about calcification. I knew even less about rocks at the time than I did about birds.

When we stopped yet again, I said, “So this is what birding is?”

I directed my question to no one in particular, I wasn’t even aware I said it out loud — I was just thinking how at this point we may have covered a hundred yards walking. Almost that many species of birds, along with the plants they live in, on, around, or off of, were mentioned either by Tyler or by one of the participants. My expectation of a leisurely walk around the lake made me look like I was in a rush.

The teenage boy’s mom started talking to me in response to my outburst. She was the only other person without binoculars, and I think her name was Christine.

“Is this your first trip?” she asked.

“Yes, and I'm not a birder. My daughter seems to think she is.”

“I hope you have a reliable car,” she said.

I said something about just having driven two hours to meet everyone here, and that I was certainly not planning on a trip like this every weekend.

“It's not just the weekend,” she said, and told me about eBird’s rare bird alert. The website sounded vaguely familiar, but my daughter was blissfully computer-illiterate at the time. “You'll drive the tires off your car,” she warned me. I took mental notes of everything she said, but secretly dismissed most of it with an oh-so-common parental misconception in my head — “Not my child. She will be different. And even if she won't be, I will.”

Six years later, we have traveled thousands of miles in search of birds, and that's a conservative estimate if we consider that we just spent a year in my home country in Europe, and nearly all of our trips there were related to birds or birding. It’s not all driving, though. We enjoy birds in our backyard and neighborhood as much as the ones we travel to see.

We kept talking while Tyler and the others looked at birds. I’m pretty sure they saw not only more woodpeckers that day, but several different species of woodpeckers among a bunch of other little birds that flew away too quickly for me to even notice. “It’s okay,” Christine told me. “You don't have to be a birder. You don't even have to like birds, and you will still have an important role. Because you know what? While they are busy looking at one thing through their binoculars, they often miss a whole host of other birds. You can be there to direct their attention when they are too focused on searching for the bird that already flew away.”

Over the years I've learned to be that person for my daughter. I still can't tell the birds apart, but I can say, “Big bird to your left” at the right time for her to notice, and say, “That's another White-fronted Goose.” I've learned not to waste time trying to identify the birds myself. Big or little is usually enough. I often add, “it's probably just another pigeon” or whatever bird is most common at the time and location. For her, it’s never “just” another, though most often it really is one of the familiar birds (an old friend). But she has also identified several life birds after I pointed out something sitting in a tree or on a bush in the distance. As a parent, it's really cool to be part of the excitement of her discoveries. I've also learned to appreciate all the tidbits of information she can now share with me about the animal world, not just bird trivia, but anything from mussels to the ecology of our region.

Once I mentally filed all the information about my role as the parent of a birder, our conversation with Christine turned to birders themselves. She said, “You will like birders,” and as we were slowly returning to the parking lot, I already saw her point. My son, his rock, and the various other nature things he collected along the way were welcomed by all. Young or older, they all looked with interest. Then they told him facts about whatever he found and stories from their trips and lives. And they were all more patient with him that I can be on most days. My daughter asked questions about birds and someone would have the answer. When she shared her own observations, everyone listened, and when her conclusions were wrong, she was never ridiculed. Over the years, we have found the same attitudes in every birding community we encountered — from Park Rangers and DNR employees to retired professors and people with ordinary jobs like accountant, auto mechanic, or engineer, and from the Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota to the wetlands of Hungary.

At the end of our two-hour saunter, Christine told me about a trip around the US she was taking with her 18-year-old. He has been saving up for this trip for years; it was going to be his high-school graduation present. They were going to cover thousands of miles and stay with strangers — other birders the young man met online. They were going to look at birds everywhere.

I wanted that for myself.

Not the amount of driving, or the sleeping in a different bed every night. Certainly not the birds. I wanted a teenager who could spend his summer and his money in a million different ways, but chooses to go on a month-long trip instead, with no other but his mother.

Six years have passed since I took mental notes on this first field trip. We have been on countless birding trips, but birding was only the beginning. We enjoy each other’s company, and spend a lot of time together doing different activities, inside and outdoors. My daughter is a teenager, my son almost one. I know a lot can change in the next few years, but so far, when I mention a trip anywhere in the US or the world, they say they would love the idea of going, and they want to be going with me.

About This Story

This story is the first in what I hope to become a series about kids and birding.

All earnings from reads, any tips or pledges to the Spark Bird series here on Vocal.media fully and directly support the work of the Iowa Young Birders, a not-for-profit organization that promotes engagement with our natural world and conservation issues by empowering young Iowans to study and enjoy birds and birding.

The Iowa Young Birders does not endorse any of my other stories or series published here, and they remain independent of the views expressed in those.

To connect with the Iowa Young Birders, find them on the web @ iowayoungbirders.org.

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