Alec Wyatt is a 15-year-old birder who currently lives in San Antonio, TX; however, he still likes to think he is from Colorado. Alec has been birding in eighteen states but has not yet had the opportunity to bird 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.
When I took on the challenge of the 2014 Young Birder of the Year Contest, I was fully aware that it would be the hardest thing I had ever done. I planned to devote myself to the study of birds for nearly six months spending hours each day compiling a field notebook, studying nest boxes, analyzing data, and writing about birds. The contest would become the central focus of my summer, and every single aspect of my submission would receive the utmost attention to detail. I was ready to rise to the challenge. I had already competed in the 2013 contest, and I certainly did not expect this one to be any different. However, the course of my entire summer changed radically in mid-June. Two months after the start of the contest I was forced to confront the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history as it rapidly destroyed my hometown. But first, I should start from the beginning. During the 2014 YBY contest, I lived near Colorado Springs in a small town called Black Forest. I loved Black Forest more than any other place because it was where I discovered birds and nature for the first time. It was a beautiful and diverse ecosystem, but as the years went by, it gradually became more and more susceptible to wildfire due to a lack of forest management. In addition to poor management, historic drought and record-breaking high temperatures made Black Forest a tinderbox just waiting to ignite. It also contained my home, my nest box trail, the school that inspired me to pursue birding, and the homes of thousands of my friends and neighbors. The following is an excerpt from my 2014 YBY contest submission.
Nest box 18 before the fire.
Just as the numerous eggs inside the nest boxes are preparing to hatch, disaster strikes the Black Forest. A destructive wildfire is ravaging the woods, destroying large swaths of habitat and homes. Ignited early in the afternoon of June 11, an uncontrollable wildfire is raging toward my nest box trail. I was forced to evacuate my home as a massive smoke plume engulfed my beloved woods. The fire continues to grow, and I feel helpless as I watch my forest burn. I fear many things from this fire, but utmost is my fear for the 63 eggs on my nest box trail so close to hatching. A home can be replaced, but the lives of 63 birds cannot. As I write now, I watch from a hotel window helicopters and planes dumping slurry and water into the hazy smoke plume. The entire city smells like smoke. I fear now that my efforts to provide the birds of Colorado safe places to raise their young were ended in only a few days of destruction. I do not know if the nest boxes still stand. If so, will the parents continue to tend their nests despite a thick, burning plume of smoke? There are so many uncertainties that only time will resolve. As I watch the fire continue to grow, I desperately hope the Black Forest will survive the disastrous effects of an unnaturally powerful fire.
As I sat in the hotel room while Black Forest burned, I was more driven than ever to finish my Young Birder of the Year contest. I continued to work in spite of the fear and uncertainty. I was most afraid of the fate of my nest boxes. After days of agonizing waiting, we received news that our home had narrowly survived the fire. Yet I could not be happy about this news; hundreds of other people had not been as fortunate as my family. After a week of mandatory evacuation, we were finally allowed to venture into what remained of Black Forest.
The fire destroyed large swaths of the forest but, fortunately, an efficient evacuation system prevented widespread loss of human life. As I watched the news, the number of homes destroyed by the flames grew from 10, to 50, to 100, and finally to a staggering 486 homes. For the longest time I was uncertain of the fate of my home and of School in the Woods, and I still do not know the fate of the nesting birds on Section 16. The nest box trail still lies within the mandatory evacuation zone. I can see part of Section 16 from the end of my street and it is clear the ground has been reduced to ash. Many of the trees are now towering black skeletons. I cannot see any of the nest boxes, so the future of the nest box trail remains uncertain.
Even after I returned home, I was not allowed to access my nest boxes. It was clear to me that the property on which they stood was severely burned. I expected the 63 eggs to be lost, and I doubted whether the 36 nest boxes even still existed. When the day finally came that I was allowed to see my nest box trail again, I could not have been more surprised.
Nest box 18 after the fire.
In the wake of disaster, it is rare to see something turn out much better than you expected. Much of the land in and around Section 16 was reduced to ashes, and I expected the same fate to befall my nest box trail. My surprise this afternoon was indescribable when I discovered 47 healthy baby birds, growing rapidly within the smoky nest boxes. All 36 boxes survived the blaze, even though some sustained damage. I was allowed access to the trail for the first time today, so I took advantage of the opportunity to survey the damage. I could not believe my eyes as I discovered box after box unharmed, even though the land beneath them and around them was charred. In many cases, healthy nestlings were being raised in boxes scorched by flames. Many of the nestlings growing in the boxes hatched from eggs that were laid before the fire. That means the parent birds tended their nests even as the fire burned underneath their eggs. Only one nest box, Box 18, sustained severe fire damage. Luckily, it did not contain a nest. I expected to see a wasteland today, but what I discovered in its place was a nest box trail thriving with new life from 47 fire survivors.
Western Bluebird survivors after the fire.
My nest box trail had survived the most destructive wildfire on Colorado history, and due to the actions of numerous dedicated firefighters, so did the school in which I discovered my love for birds. After such an immense disaster, it was thrilling to witness the new life of dozens of baby birds happen right before my eyes. In the weeks following the fire, I came to discover a few things about Black Forest that would stick with me forever.
Western Bluebird after the fire.
Since the fateful day of June 11, I have learned more than I ever have about birds, Black Forest, and about the ecosystem surrounding me. Less than a mile from my home, the once peaceful haven of Black Forest now lay largely in ruins. Giant ponderosa pines are now towering black skeletons beside the foundations of destroyed homes. Streets I used to pass every day bear no resemblance to their former existence. Hundreds of people are without their homes. Black Forest is my home, and for a time I thought it had been destroyed permanently. I learned, beyond anything else, that the community is resilient. I have spoken with neighbors who are already planning to rebuild their homes and their lives. As an uncontrollable fire swept across Section 16, a few brave chickadees and bluebirds undoubtedly stayed to protect their eggs. Firefighters fought for the school that brought me to where I am now. This community, this interconnected ecosystem of humans, plants, and animals, is resilient. It will take much more than a fire to destroy what lies beneath the canopy of pines here.