Sarah birding the downtown Cleveland Lakefront

By Sarah Winnicki

I’ve been a “birdwatcher” for as long as I can remember. My mother liked birds, so there was always at least one filled bird feeder outside our kitchen windows.  It wasn’t until recently that I have become a birder.

I started reading “Aerial View”, a birding article that appeared in my local newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It described fantastic birding outings, listed upcoming events, and summarized all of the neat sightings in the area. In the fall of 2006, when I was 12 years old, I started to notice new events being lead by the Ohio Young Birders Club (OYBC). One such event was a gull walk planned for January 2007. The day I expressed interest, my mom called the OYBC. They gave me directions and only asked me to bring a $5 registration fee and warm clothes.

The directions lead me on a roundabout trip to a Lake Erie shoreway street housing an electric company that pumps hot water into the lake. Dead fish floated on the surface as thousands of gulls circled overhead. It was well below zero. A steady wind kicked mist into my face, accompanied with the eye-watering smell of thousands of decaying fish. A huddled group of birders sat in full view of the lake, spotting scopes sitting on the edge of a break wall. They welcomed me as enthusiastically as they could through their Eskimo-style mufflers and hats as I wobbled around in a full snow suit.

“What d’you have?” I asked complete strangers, not knowing that this would soon become my catchphrase.

“Oh, trying to get a Common Merganser amongst all the Red-breasted,” someone answered.

“Red-breasted Merganser?” I asked. I had never seen one. They nodded and let me peek in through the scope. Sure enough, there it was. I was ecstatic. It went on like that for an entire day; the birders would spot a relatively common bird that I had never seen while I almost squealed with delight.

Somewhere during that day I fell in step with another young birder. He was older than me, but about as enthusiastic. He was telling another birder about how many birds were on his life list, somewhere around 200. I had never even heard of a life list, so he started explaining it. If there are two things I love, it’s birds and competition. Whether it’s racing the clock or compiling the biggest book report, I’m in. Something about this whole life list thing really struck a chord with me. Somewhere between this outing and a few months later I had compiled my meager list, acquired a better pair of binoculars, and started really birding on my own.

The OYBC is an organization stemming from the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. Any kids 12-18 can participate, while older birdwatchers can join as adult supporting members. A Youth Advisory Panel of, you guessed it, youth advisors meet a few times a year to make the important decisions for the club. Once a month we try to meet for various trips across the state and sometimes beyond. We participate in banding, BioBlitzes, CBCs, scientific taxidermy, and all-out kamikaze-style birding. Every year we host an OYBC Conference lead by young birders. Also, the OYBC publishes a newsletter four times a year. We even have a blog site, (see if you can spot yours truly) and a website, Somehow, I got (willingly) sucked into this entire production after a freezing bird walk that a normal person would’ve never attended.