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A nine-year-old’s interest in birding came suddenly. Introducing her to eBird led to tough talks about population decline—and atlasing for the VABBA2

By Eric Wallace

American Robin at Nest with Babies

American Robin at Nest with Babies (CO Bob Schamerhorn)

It came seemingly out of nowhere: Last month, my nine-year-old daughter, Zoe, flung open my office door mid-workday and, in a fluster of excitement, announced she’d been “birdy watching” and seen “a Gray Catbird!” Before I could process the statement, an open copy of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region was thrust at my face. She stabbed her finger at a picture.

“Daddy, daddy, one was in the front yard looking for food,” cried Zoe. She’d used her “sneak skills” and spyglass to follow it down the driveway to a thick stand of bamboo. There, not only did she discover a second bird, but, some minutes later, a nest. She used the guide and their telltale appearance—slate-gray overall with dark cap, cinnamon-colored undertail and long tail—to make the ID.

“Do you think they have babies?” she asked, towing me from my office, through the house and onto the front porch. There, she gave a primer about being quiet and moving super slow to avoid scaring the birdies, then led me to the spot.

Of course, I knew the pair well: They’d been nesting near our home for three years. But the intensity of my daughter’s interest blindsided me. My father had given her the guidebook years before on a whim; up to now it’d been collecting dust. We’re an outdoorsy family, but Zoe has always been more of a mushrooms and weird bugs kind of gal. She liked birds, but seemed to regard them as elusive, precariously inaccessible.

“What made you wanna go bird watching?” I whispered as we sat on our neighbor’s lawn, waiting for the Catbirds to emerge. She shrugged: “Just thought it’d be fun.”

After the birds made their curtain call, I returned to work. Zoe continued her hunt for new finds. We agreed to powwow later and talk discoveries.

On one hand, her élan was thrilling. Conversations with virtuosic young birders played through my mind. There were college-aged VABBA2 field techs like Andrew Rapp and Logan Anderson, who’d spent two months camping in southwest Virginia having fantastic birding adventures. Also, Gabriel Mapel, who helped found Charlottesville’s Blue Ridge Young Birders Club with a trio of friends (including Rapp) at age 11. All reported catching the birding bug early and with uncanny abruptness. Experiences proved catalytic, blossoming into life-defining passions that led to pursuing careers in environmental science and conservation.

Was my Zoe following in their footsteps?

Thoughts of my (nearly) 15-year-old son were sobering. He’s schooled me too well re: vacillating kiddie interests and, more recently, teenaged disdain for parental guidance. Yes, Zoe’s “birdy watching” would likely prove momentary. Pandemic-related school closures had forced her to find new modes of entertainment and I’d been hounding her about making them educational. Along with its precipitant, this too would pass.

Luckily, I appear to have been wrong.

By nightfall, Zoe had decorated a new sketchpad and dubbed it her “Bird Journal.” In the coming days, she scoured the neighborhood for hours on end, identifying Augusta County staples like American Robin, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, Grackle, Song Sparrow, Barn Swallow, Eastern Blue Bird—and a trophy Scarlet Tanager. A visit to my parents’ house in rural Appomattox County brought walks along forested rivers and creeks, new sights like American Goldfinch and Indigo Bunting, and her very own pair of binoculars. She added sketches and what-when-where-how descriptions to her journal. Tales like espying a Northern Flicker and using yellowish, black-speckled chest patterning to identify it as a male became dinnertime fixtures.

Family activities transformed as well. Mountain biking trips through the woods of Staunton’s 148-acre Montgomery Hall Park now featured stops to look for birds. Requests to revisit favorite areas like the 50-acre Betsy Bell Wilderness Park ensued.

I seized the opportunity and introduced Zoe to eBird. Using a tablet, she perused sightings for places we planned to visit—Montgomery Hall, for instance, boasted 117 species. She was amazed by all the new names. Realizing related pictures and information were a click away, and that observations were dated, amplified the affect.

“Daddy, Penny Warren saw a male Black-throated Blue Warbler at Betsy Bell on May fifth,” she announced with professorial matter-of-factness from, say, the kitchen table as I chopped veggies for dinner. “Know what’s neat about them? Males are very beautiful—they have a blue back and head, fluffy white belly and jet-black face. But females look very different; they’re quite plain.”

Zoe then pondered how the site could know where and what Ms. Warren and others had seen. Explaining the workings of accounts, I broached atlasing for the second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas. I explained the project was a way for people to help scientists figure out about how many birds live in Virginia, where they nest, and how many are having babies.

“Why would they need to know that?” Zoe asked.

I bit my lip. How to put it?

Zoe hard at work on her field notebook

Zoe hard at work on her field notebook (CO Eric Wallace)

“You know how we talked about what’s happening with climate change and the coral reefs?” I asked. We’ve been river snorkeling for a few years now. Trips to Mid-Atlantic beaches led to inquiries about visiting reefs. I said we’d better do it ASAP, as scientists project 90 percent will be dead by 2030.

‘Should you decide to become a mommy, by then, the natural beauty you saw with your own eyes and swam amongst will likely have vanished from the earth,’ I said. ‘When you tell your kids about it, they may think you’re making it up.’

Back in the kitchen, Zoe nodded. I continued.

“Well, something similar is happening to the birds,” I said. We talked about new subdivisions and strip-mining, about pesticides, habitat destruction, declining avian populations, the finality of extinction. I explained that the VABBA2 is meant to help conservationists understand which birds need protecting the most and how to best strengthen existing habitats. In short, to combat the damage we’ve done—and day in and day out refuse to stop doing—to the planet.

Glancing at Betsy Bell’s eBird list, Zoe’s eyes went glassy. Before the tears came a startling burst of anger.

“I don’t want the birdies to go away!” she cried. “I love them! Why don’t people care?”

“Some do,” I said, taking her in my arms. “And that’s why they work so hard on projects like this one. The birds can’t tell people what’s happening to them, so the people that know how amazing and incredible they are have to step up and be their voice. Appreciation isn’t enough. If we love them, this a way for us to help protect them and fight to keep them around.”

Luckily, my little speech quelled the emotional storm.

“So, I guess we’re gonna be atlasers then?” Zoe asked, smiling and sniffling.

That conversation occurred a few weeks ago. Since then, Zoe has been hard at work, studying how to identify avian breeding behaviors. While she hasn’t entered her first codes yet, she looks forward to doing so. She practices every day.

Glimpsing a Northern Flicker swoop down into our front yard, she grabs her notebook and watches closely. He pecks around on the ground, nabs a wormy looking bug in his beak, and flies away toward a stand of nearby trees. She gives chase, but loses him in the foliage. A flash of red among the greenery and she’s back on the trail: The bird lights on the high broken trunk of a snag, then disappears inside a well-worn hole in its side.

“He’s carrying food to a nest!” Zoe cries with glee. “That means there’s probably babies in there. Oh, this is fan-tas-tic. Do you think we’ll get to see the fledglings?”

Like the trajectory of her newfound interest and the fate of the birds she’s come to know and love, only time will tell.

  • July 9, 2020