Eastern Shore youth make up rare team of birders

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Birding1WBy Mary McCarthy

There is a rare group of birders on the Eastern Shore who have at least one world birding championship under their belts.

What makes them so rare? They are barely older than 10. And this year, they are trying to win back the title they last held in 2012.

Called the Eaglets, the youth team is based out of Kennard Elementary School in Centreville near the Chesapeake Bay. Jim Wilson has been coaching the team for nine years.

"I really enjoy getting kids excited about learning," says Wilson, 64, who retired from a 33-year career in international communications security at the National Security Administration. He was always a casual birder until his son became passionate about the sport in the late 1990s, then he became more involved. His car bumper sticker says it all: "Take a Kid Birding."

Wilson's popular after-school birding class at Kennard has as many as 30 kids between third and fifth grade who stay after school twice a week to learn more about birding.

The highlight of the year for these young birders is the World Series of Birding, held each spring in Cape May, N.J. Hundreds of birders from around the globe gather to compete, not only for a trophy, but also bragging rights in the international bird watching community.

The competition has been going on since 1984 when there were just 13 teams and only one youth birder. Now there are more than 100 teams, including several youth divisions.

Birding2WLooking to lead the birding pecking order

Wilson has been the Centreville team's "designated driver" at the World Series for 15 years. This means he drives a team around the competition but does not identify birds himself. He started accompanying his son's youth birding team in 1998 and now coaches.

In 2012, Wilson's team won the elementary school division in the World Series of Birding with 122 separate bird species identified, and last year they came in second (even with an increased 135 species). The students are returning again this spring to see if they can reclaim their champion status.

Eaglets team captain Faith McCarthy says it would be great to win back the title, though "it really doesn't matter if we win or lose, it just kind of matters how well we work together and how much fun we had."

Team members include Maya McGrory, Miele McCluskey, Gavin Wright, Ryley Wright and Robbie Pfeiffer along with McCarthy.

"The team is like a family," McCarthy says. "If you're not in a good family you don't work together, but we're in a good family, so we can find good birds and maybe it can give us a better chance of winning. In birding, you never say "I" saw a sparrow, you say "we" because you always give credit to the team."

Only a maximum of six kids can participate in the World Series of Birding, simply because that's how many will fit in Wilson's car.

WSB team members meet after school and every Saturday to train. In the team selection process, Wilson chooses six kids from the pool of 30 based on interest and passion demonstrated in the after-school classes.

"It's not easy to tell parents you're going to need their kid to participate in an activity three times a week from December to May and then travel to another state for a four-day event in May," he says.

On the big day (a 24-hour period when bird identifications are counted and judged), the kids have to be out birding by 4 a.m. and don't come in until after 8 p.m.

Youth birding popularity starts to hatch

For the kids, birding is something they end up spending many hours of the day doing, not only for training, but simply because they enjoy it. Events like the national Great Backyard Bird Count in February and a Fall Birding Weekend in Cape May keep them busy until it's time for the annual World Series event.

"It can be difficult to describe," Wilson says. "But once parents and kids have seen it, birding becomes like an addiction."

The youth division in the World Series of Birding is the fastest growing division in the World Series of Birding, according to Pete Dunne, one of the founders of the WSB, which is also an annual fund-raiser for nature conservation. Dunne is also the Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey, where the competition takes place because it is a migratory hotspot for so many species of birds.

Stressing integrity, making memories through birdingBirding6W

Does Wilson feel any pressure from the kids to reclaim their status as world champs after last year's tough defeat to another local youth team from Maryland?

"We're gonna do our best. That's all we can do," he says. "We're going to have fun, find and identify as many birds as we can, and maintain our team's integrity."

Integrity is a key element in birding because of the way bird sightings are reported, either visually or by sound.

"It's important that the kids learn to do the right thing when no one's watching," Wilson says. Traditionally more than one team member has to see or hear the bird for it to be counted. Much is based on the honor system, so integrity is crucial.

Wilson's favorite part of coaching the kids comes down to simple things.

"I like it when they remember," he says. "They'll say, 'It was here we saw the Magnolia Warbler,' and I know they'll remember these experiences into adulthood. They gain an awareness of the world going on around them. They learn they can open their back door not just to kick a ball, but to look up, to listen, to be more aware of the natural world."

"Birding as a sport requires a lot of things that are sometimes difficult to teach young children: listening for slight nuances by unseen birds, memorizing vast amounts of similar information, integrity and patience," says Tim McCluskey from Centreville, father of youth team member Miele McCluskey, who just turned 11.

"Mr. Wilson teaches these skills with ease. In fact, he makes it fun," McCluskey says. "With an equal dose of sternness, enthusiasm, knowledge and patience, he inspires the kids to want to stay after school on Thursdays and Friday studying, and to get up before the sun on Saturday mornings to catch a glimpse of a rarely seen woodpecker or owl."

Eaglets team captain Faith McCarthy, who just turned 11 (also a member of the 2012 championship team), remembers vividly a time when the group went to see a snowy owl that had been spotted near the Bay Bridge.

"It was a really windy day in January and suddenly a birder near us said, 'Look, it's over there!'" McCarthy recalls. "It was really fun to see because owls are in Harry Potter and we're in Maryland. It was such a pretty and rare bird and for our team, it might be the only time we ever get to see that bird in our lives."

Mary McCarthy is Senior Editor of SpliceToday.com and, full disclosure, is the mother of Eaglets captain Faith McCarthy, who can't wait to return to the World Series of Birding in May.

Jim Wilson's Birding Trip Car Ride Rules

(memorized by all team members)

  1. Mr. Wilson is always right.
  2. When Mr. Wilson is wrong, refer to Rule #1.
  3. No sticks.
  4. No Punch Buggies.
  5. No boy/girl stuff.
  6. No Girl Scout songs in the car.

Top photo: Maya McGrory scans the sky.

Middle photo: From left Faith McCarthy, Miele McCluskey, Coach Jim Wilson, Maya McGrory and Robbie Pfeiffer during the World Series of Birding.

Bottom photo: The 2012 World Series of Birding team champions map out their day with coach Jim Wilson.

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