It all started with a 4-H project. I was required to do a project about bird feeders and I was struggling. "How boring," I thought! Don't get me wrong - I have always been a nature lover, and I like all sorts of animals including birds, but how much can you say about bird feeders? Plus, I had to watch the bird feeders for weeks! "What a nuisance," I groaned.
I went to the Indiana State Fair to get some ideas and I chose the day that the DNR was doing a presentation on Indiana birds hoping to find some inspiration. That was the first time I met Mr. Fred Wooley, chief naturalist at Pokagon and birder extraordinaire! Those of you who know him know how enthusiastic he can be and just how infectious his enthusiasm is! Even though his presentation was mostly about non-feeder birds, he took the time to talk to me about the different types of birds that come to feeders in Indiana. He was really excited about my project (even though I wasn't yet!) and introduced me to Mr. John Schaust, naturalist for Wild Birds Unlimited. It just so happened Mr. Schaust was at the State Fair that day talking about bird seed and bird feeders. Perfect! Mr. Schaust was very kind and talked to me about my project and made several suggestions that I took to heart.
Still riding on that infectious enthusiasm, I filled up my feeders with the seed, nectar and mealworms that Mr. Schaust recommended and I sat and watched. It took a while, but I got some birds. Oh, sure, they were mostly House Sparrows at first, but it wasn't long before I got some more exciting birds like the Eastern Bluebird, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, and Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. I became so interested in watching the birds that I kept watching them for a little bit longer than what was required; instead of watching them for weeks, I watched them from August until the Huntington County Fair in July!
I finished my project, and I got Grand Champion at the County Fair and Special Merit at the State Fair. How cool is that? I told Mr. Wooley and Mr. Schaust and the two of them went to the State Fair to see my project. They even took their pictures with it and sent them to me! I don’t know if they have any idea how much that meant to me. I honestly got tears in my eyes when I saw the photo. It made me feel really good, even better than the ribbon.
After that, I talked to Mr. Wooley about other opportunities to work with birds and other animals. He not only invited me to work with him at Pokagon as a volunteer, he also suggested that I meet Brad Bumgardner and attend Brad’s Saw-Whet Owl Banding demonstration at the Indiana Dunes. That was in October of 2011. Brad invited me to help set up the nets and I thought that was fun.
Now at this point I would say I was a bird watcher. I wasn't a birder yet. But Brad, having never met me before, allowed me to help him and he took the time to teach me about the owls and the Project Owlnet program. I got to pet and adopt a tiny Saw-Whet Owl! That was when the spark was lit for me. I was on my way to becoming a birder!
The problem, though, with having that spark is that a lot of times as a young birder you feel a bit isolated. You don't know how to find the birds and even if you spot them, you don't know whether it's a Hairy Woodpecker or a Downy. Your friends think you're insane and obsessed, and you have a lot of pressure to do other activities instead. Your family may be like mine - they like nature and they want to help, but they have no idea where to even look for the birds.
That's where Fred and Brad really made an impact. While working as a volunteer at Pokagon, Fred spent so much time with me in front of that big window facing the feeders! He pointed out the different types of birds, pointed out their markings, and told me interesting facts about them. I now work at Pokagon whenever I can with Fred, Marjorie Hershman and Lauren Loffer, and I get to help the visitors spot and identify birds! I’ve also been introduced to other birders through my work at Pokagon, like Dave Reichlinger who introduced me to Stockbridge Audubon and all of the wonderful people there like Jim Haw.
Brad has been a co-conspirator with Fred in turning me into a hard-core birder. He made the mistake of taking me birding with him. The first time he took me birding was such an eye opener! He could identify distant birds just by watching them fly or by listening to them call! Plus, he seemed to have some magical connection to the birds - he knew where a bird would be and the birds seemed to be drawn to him, too. "What sorcery is this?", I thought! I have asked to go birding with him again and again since then. I can't even count the number of hours and miles he has driven just to help me find lifers and, more importantly, to become a better birder! I joke that I stalk him, but really, it's kind of true. I am so grateful, though, that he has never treated me like a nuisance. He has encouraged me and taught me so much!
Fred invited me to participate in the Christmas Bird Count at Pokagon. I was in Brad’s group (who else?) and there I met Jacob Lothamer and Holly Meyers. Holly invited me to watch a Soarin’ Hawk practice flight session. What a wonderful group of people I met there and what a wonderful service they provide! I met countless people there that have been so encouraging: Lynnanne Dennison-Fager, Bob Walton, Natalie Haley, Floyd Jimison, Angie Geiger, and so many others! Plus, my guinea pig’s vet is the veterinarian for Soarin’ Hawk: Dr. Pat Funnell! Small world! I have had the opportunity to work with Soarin’ Hawk since then and it has been an honor and a privilege.
Brad has increased my circle of support, as well. He introduced me to Chad Williams, head of the Indiana Young Birders. Chad has been so encouraging, I can't even express how much! With his kind words and actions, he has helped build my self-esteem more than you can imagine! For a shy teen like me, that really makes a difference. He even asked to interview me for the Indiana Young Birders newsletter. I felt like a rock star!
Then Brad told me about something that sounded too good to be true - a birder's conference! What's this? Do you mean there are enough birders out there to have a conference? I would be surrounded by birders? Sign me up! I met so many wonderful birders like Bud Jenkins, Skip, The Ripmas, Jeff Canada, Greg Miller, Lee Sterrenburg and so many others! For the first time, I felt like I had a place where I belonged. I had the time of my life!
To all of you who have taken me under your wing (pun intended): Thank you for allowing me to tag along, for taking the time to teach me and for inspiring me and encouraging me to become a better birder and a better person. You are all like family to me. I am not sure you realize how much you have influenced me but I hope someday I can return the favor and make a difference to another young birder. You have all helped me so much just by being here. I started with a spark but you have kept that flame burning with your encouragement and kindness. Having a support system - an extended family - like this means so much to a young birder like me. Thank you.
Alexandra (“Alex”) Forsythe