The Little Twitcher Who Could

This early birder wants to be the next David Attenborough, but not before she sees 5,400 birds.

As told to Purbita Saha

“Birdie” was one of the first words I ever learned, so no one was surprised when I picked up my first pair of binoculars when I was only 4. My family was the whole reason why I got into the entire craze. The first big birding trip I took with them was when I was 9 days old—to the Isles of Scilly where I saw a Lesser Kestrel.

My family and I live in England, a short drive away from Bristol and Bath. Dad was the first birder in the family. Mum wasn’t into it, but once she and Dad started dating she began to warm up to it. My older sister grew up birding with them (I really look up to her). They all helped me to get started, but then I just stuck with it and kind of went berserk.

When I turned 7, the BBC came knocking. They were filming a documentary called Twitchers: A Very British Obsession and wanted to feature me and three other birders. (I was the youngest and also the one who ate the most chocolate on-screen.) It was a little embarrassing when my friends watched it, but mostly it was just fun. After the documentary first aired in 2010, I went on a trip to South America. People there recognized me! Some wanted to take photos; others would come up to me and shout, “Hey, you were in that Twitcher series!”

That trip to South America was a good one. I was there with my parents for 6 months. I was home-schooled, but was all caught up on my studies by the time we got back to England. I saw many new birds while exploring the Andes and the Amazon; every time I spotted one I’d break out into a little dance. I think my parents filmed it—they might use it as blackmail some day. I did smash my first pair of nice binoculars on that trip though. Luckily, Swarovski fixed them up so that I didn’t have to miss out on any more birds.

Two years later in Queensland, Australia, I hit 3,000 birds. The milestone species was a Regent Bowerbird—not too difficult to find, but still very pretty. I came back to England really inspired. I began spending more time outdoors so that I could learn, not just about birds but other types of wildlife as well, and realized that I wanted to be a naturalist like David Attenborough or Steve Backshall.

I think about birds a lot obviously. They’re unlike anything else; they’re amazing in every way. I can go to tons of cool places to see fantastic birds, but I can also stay close to home, since there are always different kinds passing through. One skill that I’m working on improving is IDing birds by sound. It’s a struggle, but I practice loads. I like to challenge myself.

When I’m not out birding, I’m bird banding. I have my trainee license, so I go out on weekends to the Chew Valley Lake ringing station and help the scientists catch ducks. Well, first we bait them; then we catch them. I can’t wait until I turn 16, when I can get my true banding license. Only four more years to go...

Conservation is an important part of my life. Doing the little things, like taking the bus to school, recycling, eating vegetarian, is very important. But it also helps to be passionate and want to help something specific. In 2012 I went to Ghana to learn about saving the Yellow-headed Picathartes, a species that was once thought to be extinct. I was also supposed to go to the Sundarban forest in Bangladesh this winter to do survey work on Masked Finfoots. But that trip was cancelled due to a horrible oil spill that happened there in December.

I'll be spending my summer holiday in Uganda and Rwanda, where I'd like to spot my 4,000th bird. The next trip after that will be to Antarctica—the only continent that I haven’t seen yet. (My mum gets seasick, so we’ll have to fly the entire way.) My ultimate plan is to see 5,400 species by the time I turn 18. I’m also eager to find a Harpy Eagle the next time I’m in the tropics, as well as every hummingbird species in the world (I’m about halfway through). Really, there’s a lot of stuff I’d like to happen. But it’s better not to wish about it all, and just appreciate what’s already coming around.

Correction: Steve Backshall's name was previously misspelled in the article.