Spark Birds: Learning to Love Birdwatching
A single spotting of your personal “spark bird” can ignite a lifetime of birdwatching.
Do you remember the moment you were first fully captivated by nature? Can you pinpoint the split second that changed you from a casual observer to someone passionate about the outdoors?
Many of us have had a lifelong love of nature, but there’s usually a point in time that stands out in our memories. This is our spark moment. While spark moments can happen with all things natural, the concept is especially popular with birders. A spark bird doesn’t have to be rare to have an appeal. Many people admit that they never paid much attention to birds, overlooking even the most abundant ones, until their spark moment captured them.
My own spark bird tale is quite atypical. When I was a teenager, a beautiful bird caught my attention. What makes my spark story unusual is that I didn’t actually see the bird itself. I was on a hike at a youth conservation camp in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. At the trailhead I noticed a sign with a duck on it. I assumed it was a rare species, because the sign said the state game and fish department was interested in sightings. I’d been duck hunting with my dad, but I’d never seen a duck that looked quite like that one. It was slate gray with vibrant rusty sides and bold white markings along the head and body. I thought it was stunning.
The rest of the week I was distracted by thoughts of that duck. Though I didn’t find one on that trip, my spark had been ignited. For the first time ever, birds were on my radar—and at that moment I became a birder. The experience even shaped my future career, pushing me toward the field of wildlife biology. I spent the next decade searching for the dapper harlequin, but I didn’t see this magnificent duck until just a few winters ago off the Rhode Island coast. It was a special moment, a culmination of the 11 years since I had seen that sign in the Wyoming wilderness.
Spark birds may be flashy, like bright-red cardinals, yellow goldfinches and blue buntings, or they may be relatively plain, fading into the background. Perhaps it’s an interesting behavior that catches your eye, or maybe a friend helps you identify a species for the first time. No matter the scene, spark moments are life-changing events. Spark birds ignite curiosity and fuel the desire to learn more about nature, leading you to a lifetime of birdwatching.
If you haven’t met your spark bird yet, don’t worry. It’ll come when you’re ready. And until then, you’ll sure have a lot of fun looking!
Real Spark Birds
Enjoy these experiences from birding celebrities and Birds & Blooms readers to learn how they got hooked on birds.
AUTHOR AND NATURALIST, DULUTH, MINNESOTA
My spark bird was a dead one, lying feet up on a sidewalk in downtown Chicago in 1968. It was exquisite, a tragic yet beautiful mystery: a tiny bird with an olive-brown back, white underside with black spots, white eye rings and an orange cap outlined with black. A few years later my mother-in-law gave me a field guide for Christmas, and I opened it right to the page with the ovenbird. This little book was my passport to a whole new world, and that ovenbird sparked a lifetime of love for birds.
Alexis HayesJeffrey Gordon
PRESIDENT OF THE AMERICAN BIRDING ASSOCIATION, COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO
In 1977, I was looking at the birds visiting our feeders, something I’d been doing casually for years. I knew the regular visitors—house finches, towhees, nuthatches and so on. And of course I knew goldfinches. I knew they were yellow in the spring and duller in the fall, and that the females were heavily streaked below. But that day, while looking in my field guide, it hit me: Those streaky birds weren’t goldfinches at all. They were pine siskins. The sense of discovery was electric. In that moment, I became a birder.
2010 YOUNG BIRDER OF THE YEAR, COLFAX, WISCONSIN
The bird that truly sparked my interest was one special song sparrow. If I had known it was a song sparrow, it might not have made a difference. The intrigue of the unknown drew me to an old field guide. I waded through the pages of sparrows and finally identified my quarry. I was tickled to find something so delightful right outside my window! That first childlike delight of discovering something new still drives my birding today.
Ramona DoeblerJen St. Louis
I went a little nuts when I saw reports of snowy owls in our area. Not 20 minutes into our search, we spotted a female. That started my obsession with bird photography. I’ve started planning my feeders and gardens according to what birds I can lure in. To date, we’ve had 59 species in our yard!
Chickadees always visit my feeders. They chatter so sweetly and are not afraid to come close to me. One day I held out my hand with a small piece of walnut in it. I was surprised when I felt the sweetest little peck as one of the chickadees took the treat from my fingertips. This experience changed things for me, and I have been a birder ever since.
Roland JordahlTiffany Hawkins
PORTER RANCH, CALIFORNIA
One spring afternoon, I looked out the window at my new bird feeder and saw a strange visitor, which I eventually learned was a house finch. That bird opened up a whole new world to me. Birdwatchers have a term for birds that they see for the first time: lifers. Although my life list has since grown to 299 species, the most important lifer I ever saw was that little house finch. It truly was a life-changing bird.