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.
The club had started only the previous spring. Kimberly Kaufman was the education director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory then, in 2006, and one day a 12-year-old named Jena Jaskulski and her mother came to see her. Jena liked birds and nature, but none of her classmates shared her enthusiasm. Did the observatory offer a program for kids her age? It didn’t, Kaufman said, but they should. She went looking for a model, assuming that other organizations had already paved the way. She came up empty-handed.
So Kaufman invited Jaskulski and five teen birders to her office—May 21, she recalls instantly—to discuss what they wanted in a club. The six kids hashed out the essentials: the name, age range, focus on field trips, and $5 membership fee. One of them, Phil Chaon, suggested an annual conference. The adults thought that was an outstanding idea, and Kaufman said her husband, Kenn, could bring in other birding luminaries. After a long pause, Chaon said, “Well, we were thinking we would give the presentations.”
“When you’re 15 you can be really optimistic about the world,” says Auriel Fournier, one of the founders, who presented at the first two conferences and is now an ornithologist, working along the Gulf of Mexico. “I think all of us had these huge dreams of what we thought the OYBC would become. We wanted to create something for any youth in Ohio who was interested in birds.”
The club was still finding its way when Winnicki joined seven months later. On the drive to Lake Erie with her father, she opened her field guide to study the ducks and gulls they might see. The group seemed like a perfect fit for her, but she worried the others might not welcome her. On arrival, somebody passed her hot chocolate and told her they were trying to find a Common Merganser among the rafts of Red-breasted Mergansers. She knew she was among her own—a team of fresh-faced birders, happy to brave fierce winds and subzero temperatures.
For the next six years the support of her birding friends and mentors like the Kaufmans helped Winnicki get through difficult mental health issues. “It was just so odd to go from feeling like an outsider to having this group that accepted me for who I was and supported me without question,” she says. “It became like family so quickly for me. That was something I very much needed at that point in my life.” She chokes up speaking about it. “I don’t think I would’ve made it without them.”
Through her teenage years, Winnicki says her confidence grew as she took on opportunities she would have otherwise never imagined. She presented at OYBC conferences and the Midwest Birding Symposium, traveled to the Galápagos with an ecotourism company, wrote for the club’s newsletter, and participated on a conference call with Ohio’s governor to discuss her love of birds and the importance of conservation. She skipped proms and homecomings when they clashed with monthly field trips.
The trips, Kimberly Kaufman says, help further the club’s larger ambition to introduce the kids to all aspects of nature. “It wasn’t necessarily that we hoped they would only pursue careers related to ornithology or biology,” she says, “but that they would go forth with this conservation ethic and apply it to whatever they decided to do in life.”
By and large, that’s been the case. Some of the early alums are pursuing degrees in biology and ornithology; others have become birding guides in South America and Africa. They also continue to give back to the club, returning to speak at the conference and advising their successors.
When the Black Swamp Bird Observatory applied for a state grant for the OYBC last fall, Kaufman asked Winnicki and Fournier to write statements of support. “There is nothing I will ever do in my career,” Kaufman says, her voice catching, “that will be more meaningful than being on the receiving end of those letters.”
By 10 a.m. Winnicki’s bird walk had turned up just 15 species and few surprises, but the kids showed no disappointment; they’d reconnected with friends from different schools and made new ones.
Over the next four hours, between poster talks and the Kenn Kaufman ID quiz, a favorite among the more competitive attendees, Winnicki chatted with current members. She has committed her life to collecting knowledge on birds, and many at the conference were eager to follow her example. In her keynote address that afternoon, she offered a roadmap. She shared her personal trials in birding and as a teen, and emphasized the importance of finding mentors to help navigate those rocky straits and work toward a career in ornithology. The club and the support its members provided, she said, offered endless comfort.
Sixteen-year-old Katelyn Shelton, one of the conference’s primary student speakers, could relate. “I think the OYBC has changed my life,” she said. “It made me more confident to be who I am.”
Like most of her peers in the club, Shelton fell in love with birds in her backyard. Last March, with the help of advisors from the Columbus Audubon Society and her father, she put up Eastern Bluebird boxes in a meadow at the end of her block. The species hadn’t nested there before, but eventually a pair settled in, along with neighboring Tree Swallows and Carolina Chickadees. Shelton watched them for hours at a time and rejoiced when she discovered four bluebird chicks. Her high school classmates, however, were less interested.
“I’m known as the ‘bird girl’ at my school,” she said. “One friend calls me Birdie, and I don’t mind. I kind of like it. I am a bird girl. Sometimes you have to own it and be proud of it.”
For Shelton, who shared photos from her birding camp in Colorado, and fellow presenting teens, getting up in front of a crowd is a formative experience. The adult organizers have always treated the conference as a professional event. Speakers receive an honorarium, and it requires serious preparation to command the stage. Helena Souffrant, 15, was once a shy kid who giggled with delight at each new bird. She won the club’s scholarship to attend Camp Chiricahua in southeast Arizona last summer, after which she made up her mind to give a talk on the experience. She delivered it in Columbus with gusto, and she concluded by thanking the club for introducing her to birding. “It’s a skill and a hobby I will fly with for the rest of my life,” she said.
After the applause, a soft-spoken voice popped up from the back of the room. Mitchell SanGregory, two weeks shy of his 15th birthday, helped to identify a few of the six-legged critters in Souffrant’s slides. In 2017, a little more than a year after he’d joined the club, SanGregory spoke at the conference about the predator-prey relationship between birds and insects and co-led a field trip with Kenn Kaufman.
SanGregory lives halfway between Cleveland and Toledo—“the epitome of small-town life,” he says—and always felt there was nothing to do. Then one day he wandered into a patch of woods near his house he’d thought was deserted and saw a few woodpeckers and skittish little sparrows he’d come to learn were Dark-eyed Juncos. He returned in secret with a camera and took photos of every bird he could find, and kept going back. “I would sit in these woods for hours watching them do what they do and seeing how they lived,” he says. “Being here gives me a chance to talk about birds with people my age.”
After the conference ended at 4 p.m., SanGregory ambled through a small garden as the setting sun turned the sky the color of the fall canvas. Asked if he’d spotted anything of interest, he pointed to a mulch pile behind him. “I saw a just-hatched grasshopper,” he said, then paused, perplexed. “Six months on the wrong side of the calendar.”
He wondered about the young creature’s survival in this uncertain and changing world. Like Winnicki, Souffrant, and countless other young birders, the OYBC has expanded SanGregory’s curiosity about nature and introduced him to a community where his knowledge isn’t seen as a quirk. It’s celebrated.
This story originally ran in the Spring 2019 issue as “The (Before) Breakfast Club.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.