It all started with the scrub jay.
Ten-year-old Katie Warner attached a bird feeder to the window of her Thousand Oaks, Calif., house so she could attract local birdlife to her yard. Her attention was drawn to a pretty bird with a bright blue back and a white breast.
“It got me interested,” said Katie, whose family recently moved to the Vancouver area. “I didn’t know it was a scrub jay when I first saw it. I went to a website called feederwatch.org. There’s a page there that shows common backyard birds, so I found it on there.”
She visited other birding sites, including the American Birding Association, where she found the Young Birder program. She signed up right away. Three years and 268 (and counting) bird sightings later, Katie has become the American Birding Association’s 2021 Young Birder of the Year in the 10-13 age category. (Top honors in the 14-18 age group went to Joaquin Galindo, 17, of McAllen, Texas.)
To achieve this distinction is no small feat. Katie participated in the program every year for three years before receiving this honor. She has likely logged hundreds of hours in the field, observing bird species in their natural habitats, taking extensive notes, shooting photographs and making detailed drawings.
Participants in the Young Birder program work from April through October to complete specific tasks, choosing from among two “major modules” (field notebook plus conservation and community leadership) and three “minor modules” (photography, illustration and writing). Young Birders must complete both major modules or one major and two minor modules. When participants are done, they submit their portfolio of birding work to a panel of volunteer judges — ornithologists, conservationists and noted bird artists. The judges evaluate the entries and give comprehensive feedback.
For the 2021 award, Katie went above and beyond, choosing to complete both major modules as well two minor modules, writing and photography.
“With COVID, I had plenty of time,” Katie said. “I would do schoolwork and then I would do the modules afterward, half an hour to an hour a day, it depended, and then more on the weekends when I had time.”
She did fieldwork for three of the modules, studying two species in her area of Southern California: snowy plovers and least terns. Her observations were initially made for the Ventura Audubon Society, but she was able to use her many hours in the field and her notes, drawings and photographs for the Young Birder program.
“I was helping document how many males, how many are females, their age, and making sure people were not going and disturbing the nests,” Katie said. “It was mostly just documenting the numbers, seeing how many made it to adulthood. Since their numbers are low, we have to protect them so they don’t go extinct.”
She says the constructive feedback she’s received from American Birding Association has helped her improve.
“It’s basically made me become better at certain things — like my field notes are better and my photos and my writing,” Katie said. “Especially with the photography module, they gave me quite a few tips, like not to cut off parts of the birds. You want to have the entire bird.”
Most of the 268 (and counting) different birds she’s seen are from California, but she also took a bird-watching trip to Arizona. Since moving to Clark County in January, she’s been enjoying the local black-capped chickadees and varied thrushes. As the COVID numbers decline, she said she’s really looking forward to traveling farther to spot even more birds. She’s heard that a rare painted bunting has been spotted in Oregon and she’d like to go see it.
When asked if she has a favorite bird, Katie said it’s hard to decide, but it might be the Rivoli’s hummingbird that she sighted in Arizona.
“They’re one of the biggest hummingbirds I’ve ever seen,” Katie said. “They look really cool. Their head is a purple color and their neck is blueish green and then they have a black front.”
Not content to rest on her laurels, she intends to participate in the Young Birders program every year she’s eligible. In the meantime, she’ll press on with her field work, writing and photography. She has pets — two cats and two rabbits — but she still keeps an eagle eye out for her feathered friends.
“I love animals in general,” Katie said, “but birds are my favorite.”