Sarah Winnicki leads a walk at the 12th annual conference of the Ohio Young Birders Club. The Birding Game With Roger Tory Peterson and a Sibley field guide (right) helped her learn identification skills when she first started birding. Photos: Camilla Cerea/Audubon
On a brisk Saturday morning in November dozens of teens were quicker to rise than the birds. While other high schoolers across Columbus slumbered on, the tight-knit group met downtown shortly after dawn to kick off the 12th annual conference of the Ohio Young Birders Club (OYBC) with a bird walk. Binoculars slung around their necks, they chatted outside the rendezvous point at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, excited that the event they’d been anticipating for months was finally here.
As the clock slipped just a few ticks past 8 a.m., Sarah Winnicki stepped in front of the crowd. “I was an OYBC student,” she told them. “Now I’m an old person.”
Winnicki is 24. As she led her fellow birders along the Scioto River through a wooded area that was once a waste-clogged brownfield, it wasn’t the teens who had questions; several parents who’d tagged along peppered Winnicki with queries about the club, the largest group of its kind in the country. She was one of its earliest members, she told them, having joined shortly after it launched in 2006. A few months ago she was asked to give the keynote address for this year’s conference. The invitation moved her to tears.
Winnicki has watched the OYBC grow from a handful of kids to 120 at present. Hundreds more have gone through the club and its six regional chapters in the past 13 years. The Black Swamp Bird Observatory in northwest Ohio created the group and continues to steer it, but since the beginning, the kids have called most of the shots—from determining the membership age (12 to 18) to organizing the annual conference.
While Winnicki’s walk rolled on—a regal Northern Flicker and a fleet of Cedar Waxwings were among the highlights—an OYBC member was teaching a field-sketching workshop in one of the Audubon center’s classrooms. The rest of the day would be filled with student presentations on subjects ranging from summer birding camps to volunteering at an avian rescue center to identifying pelagic wildlife.
The group’s influence has spread far beyond the Midwest. Kimberly Kaufman and Laura Guerard, Black Swamp Bird Observatory’s executive director and education director, respectively, say they have advised clubs in 20 states, Canada, and Uganda over the past decade. The demand has been so great that their team created a toolkit for young-birder start-ups, available on the eBird website.
“Without their advice, we wouldn’t have known how to get started,” says Lena Moser, who co-founded the Maine Young Birders Club in 2017. “Their message was dream big but start small; it will snowball. It’s not about the numbers.”
Before these clubs came along in Ohio and elsewhere, birders from newer generations usually had to go it alone or tag along with adults—and often still do. “Across the country, there are young kids interested in birds who think they’re the only ones,” says Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman. The difference from when Kaufman set off on his solo pursuits as a teen in the 1970s is that young birders can now search online for groups of like-minded peers.
For Winnicki, finding such a community not only helped her through difficult times as a teenager, it so fueled her passion for ornithology that she’s gone on to research the development of baby Grasshopper Sparrows as a graduate student at Kansas State University. For her keynote address later in the day, she’ll talk to the younger club members and their families about growing pains—those of the birds she studies, as well as the many challenges fledgling birders face.
Winnicki has loved birds since she was a toddler. One of her first words was robin, and the first Christmas present she asked for was a pair of binoculars. By the time she reached kindergarten, she was filling up her field guide with notes. But when she started going on birding walks near her home in northern Ohio, she found them disheartening. She was the only kid, and the adults never listened to her. She still remembers how it stung to be told, when she saw a Golden Eagle, that she was mistaken—even though she knew Ohio was on the raptor’s migratory route.
School life was even worse. In sixth grade, Winnicki and her classmates had to keep a bird journal. “I was ridiculed constantly for being excited about this project,” she says. “From that point on, I decided: I’m not going to talk about birds. I’m not going to tell people I’m a birder. I’m not even going to pursue a career in birds.”
The next year, though, she came across mention of the OYBC in a weekly birding column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that she never missed. The existence of the group seemed too good to be true. The next field trip was a couple of months away, a winter gull watch on Lake Erie in Cleveland. Winnicki clipped the article and slipped it into her field guide. There were other young birders out there, in Ohio no less, and they had a club. It was enough to get Winnicki through that fall. At the time, she was suffering from bipolar disorder, and it remained undiagnosed. “I was in a very dangerous position,” she says.