When I was asked to write a bit about my experiences with the Young Birder of the Year contest, I was thrilled. There is so much to write about! The YBY contest was not only engaging and educational, but most importantly fun.

By Eric Hughes

When I was
asked to write a bit about my experiences with the Young Birder of the Year
contest, I was thrilled. There is so
much to write about! The YBY contest was
not only engaging and educational, but, most importantly, fun. I will begin with a little background about
myself, and then proceed to explain the wonders of participating in the YBY

The Young
Birder of the Year competition was not the start of birding for me. In fact, I have had an interest in birds for
ten years, since the age of four. I
attribute this interest in birding largely to my father giving me an old copy
of “Birds: A Golden Guide.” I would sit
in my living room for hours paging through the pocket-sized guide, occasionally
marking with a star the birds that I felt to be especially attractive or
extravagant in appearance. I would then
begin to connect the names of the birds to the illustrations, allowing me to identify the birds strictly by memory at a young age. This was the foundation for a passion that
has lasted ten years, and hopefully the rest of my life.

Sanderling YBY

A Sanderling in Cape May, New Jersey.

I have been
blogging and writing about my experiences birding off and on for four years or
so, mainly to document my birding trips to Arizona, California, Colorado, and
Costa Rica. I have been documenting bird
behavior through video for a year, although that is definitely something I
would like to continue. I have been
recording species names and numbers and participating in programs such as eBird for nearly seven years. Doing so
has really given me a good idea of the bird population fluctuations on my
property and really made me wonder why that happens. But enough about me – now on to the good


A Resplendent Quetzal – one of the most stunning birds I was able to see during my birding trip to Costa Rica.

I am always
looking for new ways to further my interest in birding, so when my parents
first told me about the 2012 YBY contest I was very excited. That first year was sort of a test run to see
if it would be something I would enjoy doing year after year. I had no idea what was to come.

At the time,
I had four modules to choose from: writing, photography, illustrating, and
field notebook. I chose field notebook
as the major category and writing and photography as the minor categories. When the results came back, I was very
pleased. I had taken first in writing
(writing about birds is one of my favorite things to do), third in photography,
and I had not placed at all in the field notebook module. I knew from the beginning that the field
notebook category was going to be difficult for me. Although the artwork in your field notebook
did not have to live up to the standards of the illustration module, I tried to
make my bird sketches perfect. Obviously
they were not, but I figured as much. I
tried art lessons and practicing drawing on my own year after year to no avail;
artwork was just not my strong spot.

after the contest ended, I received a package full of judge comments in the
mail. The point of all of this is that
the comments sent back at the end of the contest by the judges are incredibly
important and, in my opinion, the most valuable thing one will get out of the
competition. As I was feeling
disappointed in my illustration capabilities, I pulled out one of the judge
comments and found that it was for the field notebook module. The exact words were, “Your drawings are
excellent and your detailed notes show that you are a careful observer.”  It turns out that the judge who made those
comments was David Sibley. Receiving
these comments from an idol of mine was amazing. Someone who has made a living off of his bird
illustrations said that MY drawings were excellent. Not only was it a major boost to my
confidence in my sketches, but it was also a motivation for me to keep drawing
birds. This year, I placed first in all
of the modules I participated in, and I attribute that success 100% to the
feedback the judges gave me for my work last year.

American Robin YBY

An American Robin in our backyard pond.

Skipping to
2013, the ABA introduced the Conservation/Community Action module. Rather than participate in the field notebook
module, I chose to give this new category a try. I had always been interested in the relationships
within an ecosystem, especially that of birds and plants. I never quite thought of incorporating that
interest into conservation efforts, but that is just one of the many things
that I have learned through the YBY contest. For the module, I worked with my local park to eradicate non-native
plants, get the property certified as a wildlife habitat by the National
Wildlife Federation, erect bird houses around the field, and start working
towards an Audubon Bird Town certification. This contest has opened my eyes to a whole new aspect of birding: conservation.

The Park

A glimpse of the park that was the subject of my conservation project.

participating and winning this contest, not only have I learned more about what
I love, but I have involved my friends with birds to some extent. By winning this significant and prestigious
contest, my friends realize the seriousness of birding and that it isn’t just
some mindless hobby that a few people take part in. I have found that since I have won the
contest, my friends come to me with an increased number of bird-related questions. It is a great thing to see, and I hope that
my friends begin to pursue birding at home.

My advice to
young birders who have entered the contest this year is simple: I cannot
emphasize enough how important it is to exhibit enthusiasm and devotion. I have found that judges look for that as
well as how well you follow the guidelines for each module. Put in 110% with everything that you do, and
your scoring will reflect the extra effort. Also, if it is your first year participating in the contest or you are
new to birding and you do not do place as well as you had hoped, DO NOT GET
DISCOURAGED!! The comments for
improvement from the judges will help you not only in future years competing in
the contest, but also outside the competition in everyday bird watching!

Overall, I
think the YBY contest is a great way to learn more about birds and to have fun
doing so. Give it a try; there are so
many possibilities, and maybe you will spark an interest in something you have
never dreamed of enjoying before.

Best of luck
and good birding!

Bio PhotoAbout the author
: Eric Hughes is a 14-year-old birder from Pottstown, Pennsylvania who has been birding for ten years.  His love of birds has taken him to many places far from his hometown including Arizona, California, and Costa Rica, among other major hotspots.  His interest in nature is not limited to birds, however, and he is currently working with his township and local parks to remove invasive plants to benefit the native wildlife in his area.  He can't pick one favorite bird, although his two favorite families of birds are Thrushes and Warblers.  Aside from birding in the field, Eric enjoys writing, photographing, and taking videos of birds.  In the future, he hopes to pursue ornithology and a bird-related career.