Alec Wyatt is a 15-year-old birder from Colorado Springs, Colorado who recently relocated to San Antonio, Texas, and is very excited about the birding prospects there. Alec has been birding in eighteen states, but never outside the country. He enjoys all kinds of birds and birding and his favorite area of interest is conservation. He enjoys monitoring his nest box trail, leading bird walks for kids, and inspiring others to enjoy and protect birds. Stay tuned for future posts from Alec about his winning YBY entries with suggestions for 2015 contestants.
My experience with the Young Birder of the Year Contest quickly tends to pique the curiosity of those around me, and I frequently find myself trying to come up with a short response to a very broad question. People often start by asking what exactly I did for my 2014 contest entry. Since the answer to that question involves six months of work and dozens of separate endeavors, I usually don’t quite know how to succinctly reply. My answer typically goes something like this:
“I did a bunch of stuff. If you want to, you can read about it in the 150-page book in which I have compiled my work.” So far, just a few brave souls have taken me up on my offer.
Most people begin their birding journey with a “spark bird” that ignites their curiosity, leading to a lifetime of watching birds. Others begin their interest with a mentor who teaches them to identify and enjoy the surrounding birdlife. My story, however, begins with neither.
My interest began with a little yellow field notebook. It was March 2009 when I completed my first notebook pages with crude illustrations of a White-breasted Nuthatch in my yard. The prospect of filling up that notebook with drawings and notes of the birds around me was exciting. In the following months, I worked to finish every page in the notebook. I was an eager ten-year-old who was far more concerned about filling my notebook than about the notebook’s implications for my future. I quickly made it to the final page and by May of that same year, the completed notebook started to gather dust on my shelf. I was not aware at the time, but three years from then the little book would set the stage for my biggest undertaking yet: the ABA Young Birder of the Year Contest.
Fast forward to early 2012, a time when my meager life list boasted only seventy-four species. I had just finished reading the Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding (twice) and I was ready to become an advanced birder myself. A birding trip to the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas boosted my list by ninety-nine species, and it just made me thirsty for more. However, I quickly realized that I wanted to do more than just watch birds. I wanted to do something that would test my skills, challenge me to improve, and drive me to become a better birder. It was not long before I realized that I had to compete in the Young Birder of the Year Contest.
I began work in April 2012 on my entries for the Writing, Field Notebook, and Conservation/Community Leadership modules of the contest. I was excited and determined to put forth an entry that demonstrated just how hard I was working. Despite my efforts, in the beginning my drawings were not accurate, my notes were surface-level, my writing was inconsistent, and my conservation project was too simple. It quickly became clear that it takes much more than hard work to complete a YBY contest; it also takes a great deal of persistence and a little bit of creativity. When I received the news that I had placed second, I had many mixed emotions. I was thrilled that I had placed in the top three, yet I was also disappointed that I didn’t win. But one thing was immediately clear to me: this was an opportunity to take all of my hard-earned knowledge and experience and apply it to a contest entry that would far surpass the first.
Within seconds (yes, seconds) of receiving the news, I was already plotting my next YBY contest. I would enter the same three modules as the year before, but with a completely different approach to each. My writing was more diverse, my field notebook process was completely redesigned, and my conservation project was significantly bigger and more challenging than the last. I will go into more detail on my entries later, but suffice to say, the 2014 contest was the biggest challenge I had ever attempted.
I quickly learned that the contest was not the only obstacle I would face during the 2013 summer. In early June, a wildfire started in my hometown of Black Forest, Colorado, only a few miles from my house. My family was forced to evacuate our home, but the possibility of losing our house to the fire was the least of my concerns. I feared for the hundreds of other Black Forest residents, the tiny school in which I discovered my love for birds, and the nest box trail in which sixty-three eggs were close to hatching. I watched the news as the homes of my neighbors became statistics and my forest became host to the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. My home was spared, but the homes of hundreds of others were not. The property on which my nest boxes stood, less than half a mile from my house, was burned. Despite the tragedy, I was determined to finish what I started and help the ecosystem recover. The wildfire changed every aspect of my life, yet I still had a great commitment to fulfill. I could not give up then, and I do not intend to give up any time soon.
Now that the 2014 Young Birder of the Year contest is over, I can hardly believe how much time has already passed. A few short days ago was the first anniversary of the Black Forest Fire. I opened my little yellow field notebook for the first time more than five years ago. And now, we’re already three months into the 2015 YBY contest! To those current and future YBY contestants, I offer one piece of advice: make sure every aspect of your entry shows just how much you care about what you do. No matter what modules you entered, let your passion and dedication shine through. It’s that passion that drives us to succeed and makes us work hard for what we love: observing, illustrating, photographing, and contributing to the protection of birds. Everything else will happen naturally.