Do you never leave the house without your binoculars? Stretch and grow your birding skills under the guidance of some of the most respected birders in North America and have a lot of fun in the process–enter the 2016 ABA Young Birder of the Year (YBY) Contest!
Registration is open for the 2016 contest now! In the meanwhile, read on to learn about one of the 2015 contest winners, Dessi Sieburth.
Q: Were you a birder before you started the ABA Young Birder of the Year contest? How long have you been birding? How old were you when you began birding?
A: Yes, I have been birding for 4 years. I started when I was 8 years old. I got interested in birding when I was a Cub Scout. I made a bird feeder as a woodworking project. I put the feeder up in my yard and started identifying birds with a simple field guide. I got hooked on birding when a Western Scrub-Jay landed on the feeder.
Q: Did you have a mentor who encouraged you?
Yes, I have had several mentors. One of them is Kimball Garrett, ornithologist and collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. I first met him when I was eight years old. I was birding at a park and I noticed a birder looking through a scope. I took out my field guide to identify a Surf Scoter. Then the birder said, “I wrote that book!” I was very surprised, and sure enough, his photo was on the back of the field guide! He let me look through his spotting scope, and showed me my lifer Violet-green Swallow. Since then, Kimball Garrett and I have been birding many times, and he invited me to see the bird collections at the Natural History Museum. He even let me sketch a Pileated Woodpecker and an American Redstart from the collection. He told me about the Pasadena Audubon Society, and I became a member soon after. I have had several mentors from Pasadena Audubon. They have been very supportive teaching me about birds and conservation and they have also taken me birding to many places in Los Angeles. The Pasadena Audubon Society given me and three other members a grant to make bluebird nest boxes. Pasadena Audubon Society and Los Angeles Audubon Society also allowed me to give presentations at their meetings and publish articles about conservation in their newsletter.
Q: Did you already keep a field notebook, take photographs, and participate in conservation projects before the YBY contest?
A: I already kept a field notebook with sketches. I started drawing birds when I was eight. I was also actively involved in bird conservation projects before the contest. For example, I wrote an article about the California Condor in the Pasadena Audubon Society newsletter. I spoke to Senator De Leon about supporting AB 711, which is a bill that bans lead ammunition. Lead has been used by hunters and greatly harmed California Condors.
I also attended public meetings and wrote a letter about the importance of saving a local watershed to Los Angeles County officials. Another project I did was teaching elementary students about bird conservation and leading them on a bird walk for the Great Backyard Bird Count. I also like photographing birds and every year I make bird calendar. The Western Bluebird Project is one of my favorites. I started this project in 2013. I build nest boxes, hang them up, and monitor them weekly during nesting season.
Q: Tell us a bit about your experience over the course of the contest. What things did you especially enjoy? What parts were challenging? Were there requirements that you would add (or remove) if you were in charge of things?
A: This was my first time participating in the YBY contest. I competed in the conservation/community leadership and field notebook modules. The experience was challenging and very fun. I especially liked the conservation project when I went out to photograph as many species as possible in a single day to raise money for habitat conservation. I also enjoyed putting together a photo exhibition at a local coffee shop. I exhibited photos of Western Bluebird juveniles and wrote an article about what people can do to help birds. I monitored bluebird nest boxes and taught kids from my school about this project. I had 73 fledglings last year and I sent the results to the California Bluebird Recovery Program. I was surprised to find a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches nesting in one of the boxes. Another fun project I did was interviewing a biologist at a California Condor wildlife refuge at Hopper Mountain. I asked questions about the threats that California Condors face today and wrote an article for the Pasadena Audubon website. I also led bird walks for young birders and taught them about birds. The challenge in the conservation/community leadership module was to find ways to teach the community about the importance of protecting our local birds. Luckily our local newspaper published my article on what people can do at home to help birds. The field notebook module was also challenging and very fun. I went out sketching every week for several hours. While sketching I studied the bird, including its plumage and behavior. I captured the overall shape of the bird, but I also focused on the small details. I enjoyed sketching comparison species, like Least and Western sandpipers. Sketching in the 100 degree heat was sometimes a big challenge.
Q: How has participating in (and winning) the contest impacted you?
A: I learned a lot from participating in the contest. Keeping a field journal improved my overall birding skills, as sketching forced me to look at small details in plumage and behavior that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. I learned that small conservation projects can make a big difference. For example, my article in the local newspaper about what people can do to help the birds in our neighborhood reached over 6,000 readers. I learned that giving presentations is another effective way to teach many people about conservation. I gave talks to Pasadena Audubon Society and Los Angeles Audubon Society about my projects. I will give two more presentations: one to San Fernando Audubon Society next month and one to a local elementary school. I was also asked to lead more bird walks for adults and kids. I hope to inspire more kids and adults to protect the birds.
Q: What are your plans for the coming year?
A: I will continue to sketch birds in the wild and photograph them. I am planning another fundraiser with a Big Photo Day this year because last year’s was so much fun. My goal will be to photograph 100 species. The money will go to saving habitat at a local watershed. I also will continue to monitor Western Bluebird nest boxes. This summer I am going to Alaska. My plan is to go birding and do a conservation project there. I will meet with a scientist that studies Golden Eagles at Denali National Park. I am planning to take photographs of Golden Eagles and write a conservation article about them. Another thing I like to do is teach people about the conservation of dead trees, which provide nesting habitat for many bird species. Unfortunately many people are not aware of this and just cut them down, so I hope to educate people about their importance. I am also looking forward to attending the Western Field Ornithologists conference in Montana in June. There I will be going on field trips, and learn about research in ornithology.
Q: The start of the 2016 contest is right around the corner, and many readers of The Eyrie are getting ready to enter. What words of advice do you have for them, based on your own experience?
A: I think there are many ways to do sketches, but it is important to be patient, precise, and dedicated. Sketching birds in the field is challenging as they move around a lot. I drew the general shape first and then I looked at more details, one at a time. I also paid attention to the weather and the habitat the bird was in. For the conservation/community leadership module my advice would be to be creative and dedicated and be aware what the challenges are for the birds. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. For example, local Audubon Societies and nature centers can be very supportive. I think the most important thing is to have fun!
Thanks to the ABA and the judges for running the contest, and thanks to Leica for the amazing binoculars.