This is the story of raising a birder, my son, and how birds became a part of our entire family’s life. This was not because we necessarily wanted to learn about birds, but rather because of our then pre-school son Nathan’s fascination with feathered creatures. Through his formative years, birding dominated his thoughts and impacted the rest of our family. Our vacations centered around birding hotspots, as we would often combine birds, beaches, and interesting cities to make sure fun was had by all.
It is my observation that the best birders have an inborn, natural ability that the rest of us do not possess. I personally was not born a birder. I started at age 39 because my 12 year old son wanted to bird. I still work very hard to differentiate species by song, field marks, habitats, and behavior. Every spring I have to relearn much of what I previously thought I had committed to memory. Once I was a general lover of the outdoors, fascinated by the beauty and complexity of all of nature. Now I am an avid birder, but I am still fascinated by the beauty of all things natural.
However, my son Nathan, now 32, was born a birder. His earliest drawings were of birds and their cousins, the dinosaurs. A precocious reader, he journeyed to the library weekly to amass a pile of dinosaur, bird, and nature-related books. One of his favorites was Mr. Popper’s Penguins. I remember laughing hysterically at the adventure of penguins held captive in a refrigerator. In the 5th grade, he won an author’s contest when he wrote a book about a family of penguins that were caught on a shrinking iceberg as it floated with its flightless inhabitants along the Humboldt current from Antarctica, up the coast of South America, and on to the Galapagos Islands.
I wasn’t surprised when Nathan began his bird life list at the age of 12. He didn’t begin his list in our home state of Missouri, but his interest was piqued during a spring break visit with his winter Texan grandparents in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Nathan at Santa Ana NWR in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, 1992
The Green Jays, Plain Chachalacas, and Altimira Orioles in the trailer loop at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park provided the magic spark that turned his literary interest into a full-fledged passion to seek out and discover new birds in the field. I became his driver, and his passion for birds lured me willingly into the field as often as possible.
It was the summer of the same year that he was introduced in summer school to Rebecca Matthews, long time birder, Audubon Society of Missouri officer, and a founding member of the Greater OzarksAudubon Society. That fall we joined GOAS, and participated in our first ever Christmas Bird Count in Greene County. We were so excited to be part of the Fellows Lake team of experienced birders! Only a week later, we were participating on a CBC team in Taney County, led by Rebecca Matthews. Nathan spotted and identified a Palm Warbler, which became his first independent documentation write-up. The sighting was accepted by the Missouri Bird Records Committee.
Christian County Headliner, June 1, 1994
In the spring of 1994, the internet became a nationwide sensation. Both Nathan and I were contributing to the new Birdchat listserv, and our collective knowledge of birds was rapidly expanding. It was during this time that we met two people who impacted Nathan’s birding future dramatically. Mark Goodman and Susan Hazelwood, both officers in the Audubon Society of Missouri, notified us via email that the young person selected to receive an American Birding Association scholarship to Victor Emanuel Nature Tour’s Camp Chiricahua was unable to attend. Would Nathan like to apply?
Nathan Swick (in the center) at VENT Camp Chiricahua, 1994
The rest is history. The birding community of Missouri rose to the occasion and with a $500 scholarship from the American Birding Association, $250 from Audubon Society of Missouri, and $250 from Greater Ozarks Audubon Society, Nathan headed to SE Arizona to participate in the VENT Camp Chiricahua for youth birders. It was a joint ABA, ASM, and GOAS investment in the future that paid off for both Nathan and the birding community as a whole, but not until after his ten year hiatus from birding.
Fidra Island, North Berwickshire, Scotland
In the summer of 1995 we took a family trip to Great Britain where we birded our way across Scotland; visiting birding hotspots; Bass Rock, Fidra Island, St. Abb’s Head, and the Isle of Skye. Soon after this trip, the demands of an active high school and college life placed birding on Nathan’s back burner for a decade. It was during his honeymoon in Asheville, NC, in 2005, that the sighting of a Black-throated Blue Warbler at close range reignited the flame that he had felt as a youth, and he hasn’t looked back since. His life in North Carolina has been bird-filled.
Birding in Costa Rica with my son Nathan, 2007
In 2007, Nathan began The Drinking Bird blog, which quickly placed him in contact with the nation’s best birders, and established him as a valuable contributor to the bird blogging world. It was not long after that he became the southeastern U.S. birding representative for the most popular bird blog in the world, 10,000 birds. He currently serves as coordinator of the American Birding Association Blog . In addition, he is the eBird Reviewer for North Carolina, is active in the ChapelHill Bird Club, and works to develop future ornithological leaders by co-sponsoring the Young Naturalist’s Club of the Wake County Audubon Society. He is truly one of a growing group of outstanding young birders who have developed their skills both in the field directly and online. The merger of technology and direct field work is their domain, and they are taking the birding world in new and exciting directions.
And then there’s me, the driver and the fortunate dad of the young birder. I am a birder today because I parented a natural born birder. Furthermore, I work with youth in the Green Leadership Academy for Diverse Ecosystems (GLADE)project, which I co-founded and currently co-direct. The project is likely an extension of the interest in birds that developed within me when I took to the field with my young birding son. At least, I have to give him partial credit for the bird focus in this conservation leadership development project. The overall mission of the Green Leadership Academy for Diverse Ecosystems (GLADE) is to care for Ozarks ecosystems, to develop future community leaders, and to improve the quality of life through conservation and educational efforts throughout the Ozarks. Specifically, our GLADE youth restore giant cane habitat in hopes that the Swainson’s Warbler will return to a small portion of the White River watershed. It is very appropriate that the same Audubon Society of Missouri that encouraged Nathan as a teen, supports GLADE’s work to restore critical habitat for Missouri’s endangered species and to develop leaders that will positively impact the future of ornithology and avian conservation. But then, that’s what ASM has always done. It is this long term work of advocacy and action that gives ASM, ABA, and GOAS a special place in our family’s heart. They helped to raise our son, and led him in the direction of his dreams.
The moral of the story is this. A seemingly random act of kindness, as taken in the mid 1990’s by ASM leaders Mark Goodman, Susan Hazelwood, and Rebecca Matthews, aimed at a young birder and accompanied by a genuine concern for the birds themselves, rippled outward, resulting in new and progressive leadership within the bird conservation community. Just like then, our investment today in youth birding and conservation can truly make a positive impact. Will our children and grandchildren continue the enduring legacy that Missouri birders have created and thereby experience the joyful song of the Swainson’s Warbler along a clear Missouri Ozarks stream? As always, it’s up to us. The answer lies within the motto of the Audubon TogetherGreen program: Our actions today shape tomorrow.