All it Takes is a Spark

All it Takes is a Spark

For my first few blog posts, I have shared with you all some tips and tricks to getting involved with the birding community, whether it’s through identifying birds or bird photography. Now I want to tell you all some stories. Remember my first ever blogpost where I introduced you to some birding jargon? One of these terms was spark bird. The spark bird stories are important to the overall community of birding and bird conservation. If people aren’t moved and enthralled by birds, they won’t care about protecting them. If you spend enough time exploring nature and observing the behavior of creatures around you, sooner or later you may have a spark bird-like encounter. I want to share my personal spark bird story, as well as the spark stories of some fellow birders.

My personal spark is kind of a two-parter. This is a common theme for many birders, including a few birders who’s stories I will be sharing later on.

Barn Owl
Photo by Javier Fernández Sánchez/Getty Images

My first spark bird was the plucky Black-capped Chickadee.  I’d venture to say that this small bird is the spark bird for many birders.  They are abundant and very comfortable around humans.  They are the welcome crew of the forest and are the first to start singing and calling when a human enters the forest.  They are very curious and their small size, yet big attitude makes them beloved by birders around the country.  

The black-capped Chickadee was the first bird I can remember really having an up-close moment with. I was in 7th grade and had recently acquired my first digital camera. It was late fall, and I was walking down my driveway after being dropped off by the school bus. I noticed small birds flying to and from the pine trees and our garden. Our garden was mostly gone by as we had a few early frosts (normal for Vermont), and nothing was left alive. However, there were still the tall, brown remains of the large sunflowers we had growing at the edge of the garden. The small birds were flying to the dead sunflowers, and back to the pine trees. I ran to the house and grabbed my camera and sat outside at the edge of the garden watching and photographing the birds that I eventually recognized as chickadees when I got close enough. They seemed to not care one bit that I was observing them feeding and flew right beside me and above me as they made trips from the sunflowers to the pine trees.

Photo taken during my first spark bird encounter
Morgan Quimby Photography

That time I spent with the chickadees captivated me. I had never gotten so close to wild birds before, and I was thrilled with some of the photos I had captured. I continued observing them off and on for a few weeks until the sunflowers had fallen over. This experience was my spark into really being fascinated by birds. After that, I would try to find birds around my yard to photograph. I didn’t care where I went, or what birds I found, I just wanted to observe birds and take photos of them.

My second spark came in 2016 after graduating from high school. Up until this point I still loved birds and photographing them, but I wasn’t exactly a birder. However, one rainy morning, I was driving down Route 15 on my way to a friend’s house to care for their dog and cat while they were away on vacation. I looked to my right at the cornfields and in a dead tree I saw a bird. From it’s stance, at first glance I knew it was a bird of prey. My second glance told me it was a Barn Owl and I pulled over as soon as there was a driveway to turn around in so I could go back to get a better look. When I slowly pulled over across the road from the tree where the owl perched, I was awestruck. I snapped out of it in time to grab my camera and fire off a single shot before the individual gracefully took off across the cornfields and into the woods.

To someone who doesn’t know birds, this sighting wouldn’t seem that extraordinary. However, to me this sighting was once in a lifetime. Barn owls are my all-time favorite bird. Something about their mysterious beauty and elegance in flight captures my soul. Not only are they my favorite bird, but they are extremely rare and not native to Vermont. There were only four sightings of individuals from 1985 to 2010, and according to eBird identification specialists for Vermont, I captured the only known photo of a Barn owl in Vermont.

Barn owl in Vermont 2016
Morgan Quimby Photography

This encounter with a rarity sparked my passion for being completely obsessed with birds and birding. I submitted my sighting to eBird, a website where birders from around the world submit checklists of species they see at different birding hotpots. This database is not only beneficial for birders, but for biologists and researchers studying different bird trends across the world. When I saw that Barn Owl, it really clicked why birders are so passionate. After that encounter, I began birding at every opportunity I had at hotspots within a couple hours of my hometown. The rest is history!

Now that I’ve introduced you to spark birds through my own personal story, I want to share some spark bird stories from fellow birders. I am part of several birding groups on Facebook such as Vermont Birding and World Girl Birders. On these pages, I asked for willing birders to share their spark bird stories and below are the results!

I love Alyssa’s spark story because she not only was struck by the American Redstart’s beauty, but she was amazed by it’s strength exhibited during it’s remarkable migration journey!

From Alyssa D. :
Spark bird was at the age of 5, a gorgeous male American Redstart. It was less than 10 feet away from me, hopping on the ground, with the sun shining on it. I was in awe. Later I would learn that he traveled from Central America to here, managing to escape predation, collisions, poisoning, etc. Nothing short of remarkable, and quite impressionable at any age (let alone for a child).

Male American Redstart
Morgan Quimby Photography

From Naomi P.:
“My Spark bird was a Gorgeous bush shrike in South Africa!”

Bush shrike
Photo credit to Lars Tjustberg

For some people, all it takes is a beautifully colored bird like the stunning Summer Tanager to spark their love for birding!

From Bonnie G.
“My spark bird was a Male Summer Tanager outside of my window, I had never seen such a beautiful bird!”

Male Summer Tanager
Photo credit to Alex Burdo

Many birders have an initial spark with nature that doesn’t involve birds, that leads to their future avian specific spark such as with Kyle. He was not only thrown into the world of birding after these encounters, but also started photographing them and his work is very well done!

From Kyle T:
So, I actually have two spark “birds”, and one of them isn’t even a bird. The initial spark came on my lunch break one day. On this day in late February, my spark was ignited when a Bobcat ran in front of me and I got a photo of it mid-sprint. The adrenaline from that encounter lasted all week, and I wanted more. I started setting out on the weekends to find more animals, and soon learned that birds were more abundant than large mammals. I knew some basic birds already – robins, cardinals, red-tailed hawks – but the first bird that I photographed and had to take back to ID online was the Cedar Waxwing, my second spark. I found a small flock eating berries in a tree over at Ethan Allen Homestead, and struggled to get good photos of them with my newly purchased super telephoto lens. Waxies would go on to become my favorite bird species, and one of my favorite photo subjects (once I learned how to shoot them properly).

Cedar Waxwing
Photo credit: Kyle Tansley

For Lynette, her exposure to birding started young, and it was the beauty of birdsong that got her into a life of birding.

Lynette W.
“I guess I actually had two. As the second to the last child in a family of four children, I found myself vying for parental attention. My father was a birder, as his mother before him, so I started paying attention when my Dad talked birds. The other kids had no interest so this actual got me personal attention time from my Dad. I was quite young, probably 5 or 6, but I remember him saying “Hear that? That’s the voice of the Rufous-sided towhee. (Now known as Eastern Towhee). “It sings drink your tea.” The second bird was the White-throated Sparrow. According to Dad it sang “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” (Rather than the American version of Oh Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody – because his dear departed mother hailed from Canada). The idea that we could know birds through our language fascinated me. Even when they are not to be seen, birdsong is a great comfort to me to this day.”

Eastern Towhee
Photo credit to Bill Hubick
White-throated Sparrow
Morgan Quimby Photography

As you can see, the spark story is different for everyone! Some have several sparks, some have one single inspirational encounter with a bird, and some first have a spark for nature with a non-bird creature, and then have a spark bird encounter. It could be the beautiful plumage of a bird, its captivating song, or fascinating behaviors that creates the spark. Whatever the reason, birders all over the world are inspired and captivated by birds to degrees that non-birders may find weird or obsessive.

I’ll admit, when I tell my friends I am waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning to find a Black-throated blue warbler, it does sound a bit crazy. However, it brings us closer and more connected to nature and with that connection, it fosters a care for conservation and preservation of the natural world. If you felt inspired by reading the stories of birders and their sparks, I invite you to watch this compilation video below with birders speaking about their spark birds and how their avian encounters started their love for birds. If anyone has had a special encounter with birds, please feel free to share it below in the comments! Birders love hearing bird stories just as much as telling them!

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