At the mic: Dessi Sieburth
Dessi Sieburth is a 13-year-old birder, photographer, and conservationist from Montrose, California. He is a member of the Pasadena Audubon Society Young Birder’s Club and writes regularly for the Los Angeles Audubon Society Newsletter. He holds the record of the big photo day in the Antelope Valley with 117 different species photographed. Dessi was one of the 2015 ABA Young Birder of the Year and placed first in the international Eco Hero Award in 2015 for his bird conservation efforts.


I was one of 8 young birders who attended the Western Field Ornithologists (WFO) conference in Billings, Montana in 2015. My trip was funded by Pasadena Audubon Society. The WFO conference is a meeting where amateur and professional ornithologists come together. The conference included presentations of scientific papers, workshops, and field trips. This was the second time I participated. My goal was to see lots of new birds, to connect with other young birders, and to learn more about bird conservation.
Montana is a great place because you’ve got western birds like Western Kingbird, Bullock’s Oriole, and Spotted Towhee, you’ve got Eastern birds like Eastern Kingbird, Veery, and Black-billed Magpie, you’ve got Great Plain’s birds like Baird’s Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit, and Lark Bunting, and you’ve got Northern birds like Evening Grosbeak and American Three-toed Woodpecker. I arrived in Billings on June 10, excited about all of the possibilities!
Thursday, June 11. Today I was scheduled to go on an all-day field trip west of Billings, to West Rosebud. The drive was scenic and we passed through miles of grasslands, farmlands, and bits of riparian areas here and there. At our first stop we birded some riparian areas and re-found Montana’s 20th record of Eastern Phoebe. We also saw two late Broad-winged Hawks. We worked our way higher in elevation, seeing Bobolinks along the way. We visited some private feeders and saw a gorgeous male Evening Grosbeak (Lifer!), several noisy Pinyon Jays (also lifers!), and Clark’s Nutcrackers. Then we visited the mountains, where we spotted three Barrow’s Goldeneyes on a lake. We picked up several mountain species including Red Crossbill, Green-tailed Towhee, and Cassin’s Finch. Once we got back to the hotel all the young birders met with the conference organizers and shared how they got interested in birds and their birding stories.

Osprey near Billings (Photo: Derek Sieburth)

Osprey near Billings (Photo: Derek Sieburth)

Friday, June 12. I left for the morning field trip to Four Dances Natural Area, were we got a spectacular view of Billings and the Yellowstone river from the top of the rock rim. Grasshopper (lifer!) and Brewer’s sparrows were singing all around us. A Plumbeous Vireo started singing and we were able to locate it. And then our group came upon a pair of very agitated American Robins. They were defending their nest, but from what? When we looked closely at the nest, we realized there was a large bull snake that had probably been feeding on whatever was in the nest! Then we went over to Pictograph Cave State Park, where we saw Mountain Bluebirds and Canyon and Rock wrens.
When we got back to the hotel it was time for the science sessions, where different presenters shared the results of their research. One presentation was about the status of the Osprey in Montana. The researcher said that Ospreys have been increasing due the use of artificial platforms for nesting. Another person talked about the birds of Sheyma Island, in the Western Aleutians. Then after the science sessions, there was the sound ID quiz ran by Nathan Pieplow. I teamed up with Kimball Garrett and Jon Dunn to identify the bird calls being presented. Our team, called the Wrong-eared Owls, got second place, which isn’t bad. Then all the people at the conference gathered for dinner outside. I sat at the young birders table and we played a game where someone chooses a letter and we all take turns naming a bird that starts with that letter. If you run out of birds, you’re eliminated from the game. While we were playing, a Common Nighthawk (lifer!) flew over our heads.
The young birder table.

The young birder table.

Saturday, June 13. I went to Two Moon Park today, a small riparian area. Ovenbirds were singing and we got good looks at a couple of them. American Redstarts were flitting around and Ring-necked Pheasants were calling all around us. We almost ran one over on the way back! We saw several Least Flycatchers and a “Yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker.
We returned to the hotel in time for more science sessions. One person talked about Le Conte’s Thrasher status in Nevada. Another presented on his work with Northern Saw-Whet Owls in Montana. He put up nest boxes and said that in a good year there would be up to 20 dead rats stored inside a box, but in a bad year there would be only a couple. Joe Morlan of the California Birds Records Committee listed the birds added to the checklist this year. One of the birds was Great Black-backed Gull, which was seen at the Salton Sea.
After the science sessions came the photo ID panel. Ed Harper would present a bird photo and five experts would comment on what they thought it was and why. After the photo quiz was the banquet. Dave Quady, the president of WFO, talked about WFO’s history and early presidents. Then it was time for the main presentation. Stephen J. Dinsmore was the keynote speaker, talking about Mountain Plovers, prairie dogs, and plague. He talked about a Mountain Plover population in Montana that has been studied for the past 20 years, and the relationship between plovers and prairie dogs. I learned that female plovers build two nests at once and lay one set of eggs in each nest. The male plover then incubates the eggs in one nest, while the female incubates the eggs in another nest. They raise the young separately, too. I learned so much listening to his talk.
Sunday, June 14. Today, I went on the field trip that I was looking forward to most:  the prairie of Judith Gap. Many grassland birds can be found here. We first stopped at Broadview Pond, which was covered in ducks. We saw Canvasbacks, Redheads, and a Black Tern. Then we went out into the prairie, where we immediately saw Lark Buntings, McCown’s Longspurs (both lifers!), and Sage Thrashers. We heard Baird’s Sparrows (lifer!) and got a fantastic look at one 20 feet away perched on a fence. We saw Sprague’s Pipits (lifer!) displaying. The pipits go up and up and sing from the sky. They do that for about 30 minutes and finally come down. After lunch, we found a Short-eared Owl, a Sharp-tailed Grouse (both lifers!), and several Chestnut-collared Longspurs.
That ended the conference. I had to say goodbye to my new birding pals, but fortunately we got to do some birding on the way home. We made a stop at Beartooth Pass at 11,000 feet and saw Black Rosy-Finch and American Three-toed Woodpecker (both lifers!)
Black-billed Magpie (Photo: Beatrix Schwarz)

Black-billed Magpie (Photo: Beatrix Schwarz)

All in all, the Montana conference was great. I made lots of new birding friends, learned a lot, and got 12 lifers. If you are a student in grades 6-12, I highly recommend applying for a scholarship for the next conference, which will take place in Humboldt County, California from 28 September – 2 October 2016.