One lucky sighting ignites a passion for birds
(published 8-5-04)

One of the questions I hear often is, How did you get interested in birdwatching? Maybe you’ve been asked the same thing. Most birders, I’ve found, rather enjoy talking about their earliest experiences in birding—in particular, the “spark” that triggered their interest and got them going in the hobby. I always like hearing these stories, and I’ve selfishly decided to devote this column to telling my own.

For many birders, the spark was a particular bird sighting. That was the case with me, and it happened in 1994 at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. One day on my way to or from the beach I noticed a bright yellow bird flitting around in a thicket. I noticed right away it had some distinctive markings so I crouched down and tried to get a better look. The bird was cooperative, and I quickly realized I’d never seen anything like it. But what could it be?

Luckily, our cottage at Kiawah contained a field guide to the birds. Within minutes I was able to match the image in my head with one in the book. Success! No doubt about it, I’d seen a male hooded warbler. The whole process of observation followed by a positive identification was very satisfying.

The next day I went to Kiawah’s nature center to ask if “my bird” was anything unusual. That’s when I discovered that the resort had real live naturalists on staff who knew the local birds and offered guided bird walks. Best of all, they’d published a bird checklist just for Kiawah. The list showed all the species that had ever been sighted on the island and their relative abundance during each of the four seasons. Cool! Until then I never realized people were keeping such close track of things. And there on the list was the hooded warbler, rated R for rare.

Clearly I’d been lucky the day before, and now I couldn’t wait to see what else I could find. With checklist in hand I was off to the races. I spent the rest of the vacation looking for birds, doing the best I could without binoculars. The treasure hunt was on. Almost overnight, I’d become a birder.

I’ve been back to Kiawah many times since 1994 because my wife’s parents now have a permanent home there (more luck). Since that hooded warbler, I’ve seen another 120 species on the island, including my first gull-billed tern two months ago. It’s truly an exceptional place to watch birds, especially shorebirds and waders. And for me, it’s where a spark turned into a flame.

Do you have a “spark story” too? Please share, and I’ll try to include your responses in an upcoming column.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

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