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Spark Stories: Igniting a Passion for Birds

Do you have a “spark bird?” Did an event or person ignite a love of birds in you? The reasons people discover birds and the enjoyment of watching them are as varied as the diversity of birds in the world. Enjoy this fun sample of spark stories!

In high school in the 1950s I got hooked on birding by experiencing the spring warbler migration in Southwestern Ohio (Dayton) where I grew up. For three consecutive years, I spent a long weekend with adult Dayton Audubon birders in early May birding along the south shore of Lake Erie (many years prior to the construction of the Magee Marsh Boardwalk). On one of those trips, I experienced a warbler “fallout” where 20 plus species of brightly colored warblers were in the shrubs and on the ground rather than in the forest canopy. After this experience, my high school birding buddy and I monitored the arrival dates of warblers at several parks around Dayton and presented that info on a poster at a Science Fair. We won First Place in Biology among the eight high schools competing. A fallout on April 30, 2012, at Ft. Zachary State Park (Key West) stands well above the magnitude of any other fallout I have witnessed. The eBird checklist for that day included 500 Ovenbirds, 700 Black-and-White Warblers, 1,500 Common Yellowthroats, 3000 American Redstarts, 600 Cape May Warblers, 1500 Blackpool Warblers, 5000 Black-throated Blue Warblers, and 1000 Palm Warblers! The birding passion for warblers and fallouts that began in my youth has lasted a lifetime.
-Jim Gessaman

Cape May Warbler, Tyler Pockette

Prothonotary Warbler, Greg Lavaty

Spring, 1973, UNC-CH. Professor William Engel’s Vertebrate Field Zoology course. After a winter of chasing Caudatas, it was time for the spring migration of birds. The class field trip was to what is now the Mason Farm Biological Preserve. We were walking along a dike in an otherwise very dank and dark swamp. A Prothonotary Warbler landed along the dike and started singing, its golden hues lighting up the morning. After two years of false birding starts on my own, this experience put me on the path.
-Scott Crabtree

On my very first trip to Madera Canyon in the 11th grade, I was visiting with my high school class and beloved field science teacher. We did a small hike that day and were identifying some of the animals we saw throughout our hike. We looked for coati prints, different types of scat, and identified local plants in the different life zones. While hiking, my teacher turns around and puts her finger up to her mouth to get us to stop talking. An echoing sound, almost similar to a dog barking, rang among us. My friends and I looked at each other and giggled only to see two green and red birds calling to each other, perched less than twenty feet away from our left! My teacher quietly explained to us these are the most sought after birds in southern Arizona called the Elegant Trogon! Realizing what a rarity we came across, I was fascinated by the birding world! I have always been an outdoorsy person and enjoy identifying and learning about the natural world around me. I am a young birder who loves to grow and share my knowledge with community members like me. I will never forget my first experience in watching the trogons call and sally out for insects.
-Savannah Repscher

Elegant Trogon, Cathy Wasson

Blue Jay, Nick Pulcinella

I’ve always loved animals, but I think my fascination with birds started with a coloring contest when I was 6. A local store (I don’t remember which one) held a coloring contest, and they provided a variety of animal pictures to color. I decided to color one to match the pretty blue bird I had seen while my father was stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Needless to say, I was overjoyed when they selected my picture as the winner! My prize…was a plastic model of the Blue Jay!
-Karen Alexander

I’m not sure if this is my “first” spark bird but it’s surely one of the most powerful spark bird experiences of my life. I lead Sierra Club trips, and on my last Costa Rica trip (many years ago) we visited the Osa peninsula in SW Costa Rica. On our way back to San Juan and the end of our trip, our guide promised us the possibility/likelihood that we’d see the Resplendent Quetzal. As we approached “the tree” where he said they often hang out, here they came flying into that exact tree. Beyond my amazement that our guide knew exactly where to look and how beautiful they were, I was amazed at their ability to fly and maneuver in thick trees/bushes with such a long tail!
-Tim Wernette

One moment I remember, I was looking out my window in Colorado and saw a new bird in my yard, a woodpecker that looked different from any other woodpecker I’d ever seen. I asked my sister if my ID was correct and she thought I was pranking her…after 40 years of birding, a Lewis’s Woodpecker was a bird that had still eluded my brother-in-law, and they were coming to visit in a few short weeks. Since then I’ve become much more serious about birding, and part of the thrill of the chase now is trying to also get a decent photo of every bird I see. Another thing that I cherish is recording birds I’ve seen in the same bird book that my mother used, and remembering times that I birded with her, as far back as 1984, and our first visit to Mile Hi (Ramsey Canyon) where we saw exquisite hummingbirds and got caught by surprise on the Hamburg trail in a July monsoon storm.
-Kelly Badeau

My birding journey started in undergrad, when I had the opportunity to study abroad in Belize and Guatemala. It was a biology trip, spent hiking through the rainforest and snorkeling in reefs, identifying local birds, fish and other species. I had the opportunity to see so many amazing birds and develop a love of hiking. However, my true “spark bird” was more recent and had to be the Vermilion Flycatcher. In the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, I would often work outside on my patio and would be visited by a Vermilion Flycatcher. I took daily walks around Mansfield Park and saw more of them. During a time when days all seemed to anxiously blend together, noticing these vibrant birds provided some much-needed excitement and novelty. Since that initial spark, my identity as a ‘birder’ has been further sparked by my wonderful friends and favorite resident birders, Erica Freese and Kirsten Howe, who have taken me out birding and taught me so much. Now, even my standard walks around the neighborhood and bike rides to work include the enjoyment of identifying new birds.
-Rachel Leih

I’ve always loved nature, and particularly birds, but I didn’t see the bird that turned me into a birder until I was 16. A chance sighting of a Dickcissel, feeding in a roadside triangle of grass along with a group of House Sparrows, made me wonder “what was THAT?” I rushed home and looked for it in my parents’ old copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, and when I found it I was hooked – there are cool birds out there and you can figure out what they are with a field guide! I’ve never looked back.
-Nancy Bent

In January 2016, my friend and I went to Costa Rica. Our tour guide was an expert birder. Neither of us had ever paid much attention to our feathered friends until we saw the Resplendent Quetzal. The glorious long protected feathers. The contrast of the red, green and turquoise – stunning. My eyes beheld a gift from God. Eight years later, we are still hooked on birds. 
-Sara L. Danville

My spark bird was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak in a lilac bush along a creek in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I was ten. I had recently got a Peterson field guide and was off and running into birds. I have seen and logged 771 species of birds in North America (and 890 in Ecuador). Birding has been a huge advantage in my writing of fiction, which has been my life’s work. I have traveled so many places for birds that I can write stories set anywhere — Florida, S. Texas, Arizona, Alaska. Being observant is an obvious requirement for birding, but it’s as well a huge part of writing fiction. Often my characters know about birds, and one novel, Language in the Blood, is about an ornithologist in Tucson. This book won the Edward Abbey Prize for Ecofiction. 
-Kent Nelson

When my family moved from NY city to a home 35 miles away, I became fascinated with crows. Each morning I would go outside and mimic their calls …. “caw,caw”… calling out to them. I was seven years old and this “sparked” my interest in birds as well as interest in the natural world around me.
-Dan Bisaccio

I was in high school when I first saw a Western Tanager. Nearly all the birds I’d seen before were nondescript LBJ’s (little brown birds). But the tanager’s colorful, almost rainbow, feathers made me realize that there were a lot of beautiful birds out there in the real world, not just in photographs or postcards. That bird, along with the Sierra tiger lily, and the writings of naturalists like John Muir (about the Sierra Nevada of California) and Joseph Wood Krutch (about the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona) inspired me to study ecology and join the conservation movement. Summer jobs with the Park Service and Forest Service allowed me to continue a life-long passion for protecting wild places as a volunteer. In retirement, I write for a hobby website which includes among numerous other topics a page about birding, and once again celebrate birding with a photo of a Western Tanager.
-Harold Wood

I’ve been an avid and active birder since the early 80’s when my sister, Georgina Doe, asked me to stop the car during a springtime drive into the countryside north of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. During that stop, she pointed out a family of Baltimore Orioles and my life was changed forever! Since then, my vacation or business travel plans have been planned (or extended) around identifying birding hot-spots prior to my arrival. My goal over the next while is to bring my eBird account up to date so that it reflects my life findings around the world. It is so much fun to revisit those amazing places and special findings. I’m so fortunate to have been introduced to many great people as a result of this passion. On a personal note, my dear sister passed in September and I miss so much being able to call or send her a note each time I find a special bird. But I will appreciate forever the gift she gave me each time I see a bird anywhere – my back yard or some exotic place.
-Glenda Jones

On a cold, windy, winter day in Ontario, Canada, my dad and I went out to look for the Great Gray Owl. Word had gotten out about this rarity in the area. Neither of us were birders but we knew this was a very special opportunity. However, this first attempt resulted in no owl.

On January 2, 2012, we went for a second try. We saw a line of cars along the road next to a bush. We parked and as we got closer, we saw the Great Gray Owl perched on a low branch of a tree at the edge of the bush. My first thought was, “Wow, it is so big!” My dad took pictures to capture this moment we shared together. We would not forget this day.

I wondered where all the people with their equipment were from. The man beside us was from a city two hours east. I thought, “I would drive two hours too for the chance to see a Great Gray Owl.”

We left with excitement at having had such great views of a Great Gray Owl. This started my joy of birding two years later. The Great Gray Owl who made its rare appearance that winter is my “spark bird.” Over time, I have added to my special birding memories. Searching for a bird, sharing those experiences with others and learning more about the bird are all part of the memories that I am so thankful for.
-Cathy Bondy

When I was in high school, I did a senior volunteer learning project at a nature center. Many of the volunteer naturalists were accomplished birders. I remember going out with some of them, and when we heard a small faint sound, one of them said, “warbler chips!” I thought, wow, not even the song, and they know it’s a warbler! I remember thinking, they know how to read and I’m illiterate. Now that I can identify many birds by song, and I hear and identify warbler chips, I am so grateful to the older birders who mentored me when I was a beginning birder. And I’m grateful to all the gulls of Long Island who inspired me with their flight, and then their challenging identities.
-Elena Klaver

It seems every year I have a new favorite bird. A special sighting will occur that imprints on my memory as above and beyond ordinary days, something special! Last year it was an observation of a male Varied Bunting (Passerina versicolor), seen on the Anza trail near Tubac. The light was perfect to highlight all the stunning colors of the bird: purples, magentas, blues, pinks, even orange-red. I was amazed! How had I not known about this bird all my life? Later I learned it is a true native of this region, and further south in Mexico, a perfect representative of the southwest and Sonoran environment. 
-Dean Portman

My favorite bird was Belted Kingfisher before I ever called myself a bird nerd. But I went on a Tucson Audubon Society Field Trip with Luke in the Las Cienegas Grasslands, AZ. I spotted a bird, but didn’t know what it was, the lady next to me said Loggerhead Shrike. It hovered over the grasslands, then it saw a small “critter”, mouse maybe. It surfaced, and then started to bang the critter against a thorny bush until it was dead, and proceeded to eat it. I had previously read about this bird in one of the Nature Shops sale books. I never expected to see one in the wild. I was now officially hooked on wanting to learn more about birds.
-Irene Barg

Hello there! My story is more of a “spark book” story. In the summer of 1991 I was working as a nurse at Lake Hospital in Yellowstone National Park. Some friends came to visit and, as a thank you, they gave me a Peterson Bird Field Guide. I very ungraciously replied “thank you?” They immediately caught my unenthusiastic response and said, “Karen, think of all of the birds we’ve seen in the short time we’ve been here and all of the birds you see every day” and they started to list them…American Pelican, Sandhill Crane, Trumpeter Swan, Bald Eagle, Common Loon, Common Raven, Osprey. I have no idea what exactly we saw, but I know these were common birds for me at that time. And the spark became an ember.

The next summer I was dating a seasonal ranger when my friend came back again to visit. We talked about birds and birding. Come to find out my seasonal ranger had taken one ornithology class in college. He taught me that there were several aspects of a bird to look at to identify the different species of ducks and sparrows and warblers. Thirty-two years later, that same seasonal ranger says to tell you he met a hot girl in Yellowstone, so he became a birder!

My “spark book” turned from an ember into a flame that influenced our move here to Tucson and has taken us on adventures all over the country. We’ve had the great good fortune to bird as we travel internationally too. More importantly, I think my “spark book” helped me identify my life partner, as well as many many life birds. 
-Karen Vandzura

American Robin. My father had a contest every spring: whoever saw the first robin got a nickel.
-Mary Bradley

In a previous life, I spent my summers sailing the Salish Sea, the inland waters of Washington State and British Columbia. One of the limitations of that lifestyle is the inability to get any walking exercise. The further north you travel into the wilderness of NW British Columbia, the denser the vegetation becomes. One day, I rowed to shore and luckily found the remnants of an old logging road. Although it was abandoned decades before, I was able to walk inland a whole quarter of a mile! As I reached my limit of bushwhacking, out of the corner of my eye flew a large object that almost grazed my head. It landed on a low tree branch about 50 feet away. We engaged in a staring contest for the next 20 minutes before he got bored with me and flew off. Not being a birder, I only knew it was an owl. Turns out my new-found friend was a Great Gray Owl. To this day, whenever I find myself several days from civilization, I always know I will not be alone.
-Gerry Hodge

In 2008, on a warm Austin morning, I stepped into my backyard, looking to enjoy a quiet moment before my day started. As I looked around, a burst of color caught my eye. Perched on the fence was a bird with a blue head, red chest, and green back, its feathers gleaming like a living rainbow. My heart skipped a beat. No way this exotic creature was from around here. It had to be someone’s escaped pet, right? I stood there, totally mesmerized and in awe, watching this stunning bird. I didn’t know much about the local birds, but I knew I’d never seen anything like this before. After the bird flew away, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Later that day, I described the bird to a friend, and to my surprise, they told me it was a Painted Bunting, one of the many incredible birds who call Central Texas home. Suddenly, my backyard felt like a secret garden full of wonders waiting to be discovered. That Painted Bunting became my spark bird, the one that kickstarted my love for bird watching. Now, every morning, I step into my backyard here in Tucson with eager eyes, hoping to spot more of nature’s hidden gems, forever grateful for that little bird that changed everything.
Donito Burgess 

My spark bird is the Elegant Trogon. It happened in July of 2020 on a weekend getaway to the Santa Rita Lodge. I enjoyed the hummingbirds at the feeders and a birder showed me the location of an Elegant Trogon nest down at the Madera Picnic area. On Monday morning, I walked down with my camera in hand only to find a lovely family of five having a picnic breakfast at the picnic table that was closest to the sycamore tree with the nest. Patience is not my forte, but I hung around and looked at other birds and the family left on a hike. Not only did my patience pay off, but I was rewarded with the Elegant Trogon coming to the ground and eating a large caterpillar. I got great photos of the bird and I was hooked. Luckily for me, Tucson Audubon was hosting a monthly Zoom class on where to go birding each month. While many people experienced cabin fever during COVID, I went to every place Luke Safford suggested, learned about eBird Hotspots and was out in nature five-days a week. The Elegant Trogon and Tucson Audubon got me addicted to birding and what a fabulous addiction it is!
-Peggy Steffens

The very first time I remember really noticing a bird was when I was about 10. I had awful insomnia as a child and would climb onto the roof of my house to watch the sunrise (I know, I know, but this was the 90s!) As I sat there one summer morning, a large black and white bird I had never seen before landed within three feet of me. His sharp red eye viewed me with a cautious curiosity, as I had been doing with the skyline moments before. We acknowledged each other’s need for the moment and then off he went. I now believe I was looking at a Black-crowned Night Heron, but trying to identify him in bird books at the library opened my mind to the HUGE variety of wildlife around the Tucson area. These days, I get the immense pleasure of sharing birding with my young daughter; her favorite birds are the Mourning Doves that nest by our door each year. 
-Casey Richard

After learning about the “spark bird” concept it took me years to realize that I did indeed have one, the Elephant Bird. No one in my family is a birder or even outdoorsy at all; I lived in densely urban Phoenix and I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a “birdwatcher” until I was in middle school. My first introduction to the fascinating world of birds was through books from my school library. The Life book on birds was a particular favorite of mine and I checked it out often. There was a particular diagram showing an Elephant Bird’s relative size to a human and the bird was much larger! I was so intrigued by this that I checked out lots more books about birds and the natural world and loved watching PBS documentaries on birds of all kinds. My spark bird turned out to be a huge bird that went extinct 1000 years ago. 
-Jennie MacFarland 

I’ve long enjoyed hiking, and I took a casual interest in the woodpeckers and blue jays in my local forest when I lived in New Jersey. However, I did not become a birder until I stepped off a plane in Central Australia in 2017 and saw my first Galah. These pink and gray cockatoos, with white crests that they extend on alert, comically waddle around on the ground chomping away at grasses and seeds. Uneducated about birds, I’d always imagined that cockatoos and parrots were inhabitants of humid jungles, and here I was, in a hot, dry environment (much like Tucson’s) surrounded by them! It was a lightning flash moment in which I realized there was so much more to birds—and so much more bird diversity—than I had ever expected. The very next day, when I got my library card, the first book I checked out was Pizzey & Knight’s Birds of Australia, and I was off! I’m pleased to say that my fascination with birds has remained since moving back to the United States, where I have found the birds of the Sonoran Desert and Sky Islands to be just as novel and fun to get to know.
-Jennifer Van Boxel 

Hello. I’m Holly. And, um, I’m a Birder. I used to just be a casual “Birdwatcher,” now I’m a fully addicted Birder. This condition runs in the family. My grandma loved birds. My parents were nature enthusiasts, and later became full-blown Birders, so I grew up identifying the birds in our backyard or along hiking trails. But then I inherited my mother’s good binoculars after she passed away and could now get on birds quickly and see them well. Quality Optics was the first step in my descent from casual Bird Watcher to Birder. The second step? “Chasing” birds. My boss had spotted a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a bird I had never seen or even knew was possible in our area. My ego found this unacceptable, and it had to be corrected! I set out on my first “Chase,” and quickly found a pair! What a high! They were glorious, and oh those cackling calls! The clinching step of my descent into Birder was “Listing” in eBird. eBird made it easy to chase other new birds, and simple to list them. The enablers at eBird told me entering lists is “good for the birds.” Soon I’d spiraled into an endless loop of Chasing and Listing, the defining behavioral traits of a Birder. And thus I have fallen into the same behavioral trap as my parents. The high from the next Chase awaits. The List will never be long enough. My family will have to endure this affliction the remainder of my life. Don’t ask me to quit, because I don’t think I can.
-Holly Kleindienst

In 1968, my girlfriend and I skipped school and went out on the Mississippi River in NE Missouri. We were in a slough and a Whooping Crane flew over and filled the sky in this narrow place. We were hooked.
-Nancy Abrams

When I started drawing Raven, he came to see me, perching on the blue wood railing of my front porch, watching me as I drew his kin. If he couldn’t find me, he would make a sound like gargling gravel and dance on the corrugated tin roof covering the back stairs. I’d come out and he’d cock his head to get a good look. Even with the lapis-colored jays giving him a noisy what-for—fearing Raven might well steal their babies—that bird never missed a day for three weeks.

In the beginning, I had no idea that my spirit guide had found me. Some people go on vision quests, hiking up a mountain, isolating themselves for days in hopes that their spirit animal will show. I didn’t do that—my animal did everything short of crossing his wings, tapping his foot impatiently, and saying, “Hey babe, when are you coming to New Mexico? We have work to do!”

Raven presented himself to me and became my Spirit Totem, my messenger and guide. Along our journey, Raven introduced me to his friends and enemies, supporters and detractors, animals and humans, and spurred me to create the ongoing Art of Paying Attention illustrated radio series.

Raven brought me to Tucson, when my illustrated essays, Listening to Raven, won the 2013 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Award for Non-fiction. Getting to know a wild creature is akin to starting a genealogy chart—an opportunity to map an intricate network of the universe.
-Beth Surdut 

In the late 90’s, while eating at a bayside restaurant in St. Pete Beach, Florida, we spotted a large black and white bird on the rocks outside the window. It looked like it was carrying a carrot. On closer inspection, we saw that was its bill! We had never seen anything like it. We went immediately to a bookstore to purchase a field guide and discovered we had seen our first American Oystercatcher. Soon afterwards, we found out about the Great Florida Birding Trail, and we started visiting every location we could. When we started checking, other states also had birding and wildlife trails. It became a passion to go birdwatching in as many new locations as we could from that point on. My Life List crossed the 600 mark on our recent trip to Arizona this year.
-Alan and Alice Collier 

I’ve always loved the outdoors, but didn’t pay much attention to birds. Then, I saw the movie “The Big Year.” Although mostly a comedy, it had poignant moments where an appreciation and love for birds was evident. After that, curiosity led me to go on my first birding field trip. It was then that I saw my “spark bird.” Amongst the greenery of a mesquite tree, a solitary bird glowed red like a shiny ornament. It was a male Vermilion Flycatcher in all its glory. I’ve lived in Tucson most of my life but never noticed these beauties. After seeing that bird, I knew I was hooked. I shared news of my new found passion with my mom. I recommended she watch “The Big Year.” After watching it, she too was inspired. We knew we had found our new calling in life, a mother and daughter birding duo! That was almost 15 years ago and we still go out birding often—a love for birds was ignited in both of us. It opened a door to a world we hadn’t taken the time to notice before. Above all, birding has given both of us the gift of invaluable time spent together.
-Christina Stark

5th Grade, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We were starting a bird unit and were to choose a bird and give a report. I chose the Baltimore Oriole. I had never seen one. My parents were wonderful at sharing my interests, so my dad and I visited the county parks and we looked for birds. They bought me a set of four little bird books: “The Red (also Yellow, Green, Blue) Book of Birds.” Each time I saw a new bird I would make a checkmark on that page. And one day, there it was! A beautiful Baltimore Oriole. I was beyond excited and my interest in birds was sparked. I moved to Tucson as a young teacher and here was a whole new world of birds waiting for me. I graduated from my dad’s old binoculars and my little books to shelves of books and high end binocs. It has been a lifelong interest and spurred me on to a fascination in all forms of natural history. Today, a lifetime later, I enjoy photographing them (one photo made the cover of the Vermilion Flycatcher), wrote the Birding Curriculum Guide, and always incorporate birds into my nature walks and presentations. Today my dad’s old binoculars sit on a shelf along with my set of four little bird books. Thanks to one Baltimore Oriole.
-Doris Evans

My grandmother started taking me birdwatching when I was 12 and I have been hooked ever since. I still remember the first time I saw a breeding male Wood Duck with her at the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in suburban Chicagoland. Every time I see a Wood Duck, I think of my grandmother and am grateful she introduced me to birding. 
-Laurel Salvador

Thirty years ago, my friend Sam from Minnesota wanted to come for a visit and he asked me to take him birding. At that point, I had never looked at a bird or a leaf or a blade of grass. When he arrived, we headed out, and of course I had no idea what we were doing. At one location, he said, “Stop.” He told me to look on the stump at the side of the road. I asked him what it was, and he said, “Use your binoculars.” I finally focused in and again asked him what it was, and he said, “A kestrel.” And I asked, “What’s a kestrel?” And he said, “A small hawk.” And so I watched this kestrel eating a little mouse, and I thought, this bird is just like us. It has to eat and avoid predators and find a place to sleep and be with a family. So Sam and I unwrapped our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we smiled, and I started looking at birds.|
-Charles “Carlos” Oldham