On an early morning hike in the Traylor Ranch Nature Reserve and Bird Sanctuary, 13-year-old Fiona Gillogly dashes forward and holds up a pair of binoculars to her eyes.
No, she didn’t spot a rare Pokémon. An avid birder, Gillogly was trying to identify birds from their physical features as well as their songs.
Birders often keep a life list of each species they have successfully identified in the wild. Gillogly’s list hovered at about 100 until earlier this summer, when it got a large boost.
In June, Gillogly, along with her mother, Beth Gillogly, attended a five-day birding course at San Francisco State University’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus to learn bird identification by song. The Gilloglys were given recordings of 150 songs and learned mnemonics to help remember some of them. Mornings were spent outdoors listening individually at first before rejoining the group to share findings with the other students. At the end of the course, Beth recalls seeing a total of 108 different bird species, and 56 were new additions to Fiona’s life list.
“It was a very, very, very great class,” said Fiona, an Auburn resident who received a youth scholarship to cover fees for her and her mother at the Sierra County nature camp.
Teenagers like Fiona are rare finds in the birding community. At local chapter meetings of the National Audubon Society, most people are over 60 years old, said wildlife ornithologist John Sterling.
As vice president of the Central Valley Bird Club, Sterling runs the youth scholarship program that Fiona applied to. While he thinks more young people are interested in birding, he said they can quickly lose interest without mentoring and guidance.
“The idea is to foster the new generation of birders,” Sterling said of the scholarship program. “We want that young blood.”
The course instructor was Jim Steele, who has conducted bird surveys for the U.S. Geological Survey and was director of the Sierra Nevada Field Campus for over 25 years before retiring recently. Steele quizzes students at the end of the course with 50 bird songs. He said most beginners get about half right, but recalled that Gillogly correctly identified 43.
“On so many levels, she was a great kid,” said Steele. “She’s very studious, but she also has this spunk that lets you joke with her and trade insults.”
Fiona Gillogly’s fascination with birds began at around age 6, when her family began raising chicks. She loved cuddling with them, and soon after, took more notice of the other birds around her. Studying bird guides, she realized what she had thought were blue jays were actually scrub jays frolicking in the bird bath outside the family’s kitchen window. She also filled feeders with different seeds and even peanuts, which attracted birds such as acorn woodpeckers and lesser goldfinches.
The family’s backyard in Auburn leads to trails stretching for hundreds of miles that Gillogly and her parents walk along several times a week. They regularly spot about 14 bird species. While every bird sighting brings a fresh wave of excitement, Gillogly is enchanted by the idea of traveling to see more types of birds.
“I really want to go to Point Reyes in migration season and see all these crazy little birds who got off track in migration,” she said. “There’s all these really weird warblers that you never get here. There’s vermilion flycatchers, which I really want to see.”
Gillogly, who will be a seventh-grader at Live Oak Waldorf School this fall, carries a sketch book during her walks to journal her observations. Birds and other wildlife are difficult to sketch because they don’t hold still. Lately, Gillogly has worked with her mother to vocalize what they see, describing to one another the color and shape of the bird from crown to tail. In this way, when the bird flies away, they stand a better chance of remembering and drawing what they saw.
On Gillogly’s birthday this year, her family took a trip to Sierra Nevada Field Campus, where she had a chance encounter with John Muir Laws, a naturalist who wrote and illustrated Gillogly’s favorite bird guide. He agreed to draw with Gillogly for an hour, which quickly snowballed into several hours. At the end of the day, the two fast friends began making plans to bird together the next morning.
“She’s actually much further advanced as a naturalist than I was at her age,” said Laws. “You’re on the ground level of meeting the next Rachel Carson.”
Fiona Gillogly’s sketches can be purchased as blank greeting cards. Email Fiona’s mother, Beth, at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Proceeds go toward Fiona’s college fund.