I first heard about Luke Seitz last fall in a newsletter from the Maine Audubon Society.
It noted that he was giving a slide show of some of his beautiful bird photos—and that he was just 17 years old.
Pamelia and I couldn't make the three-hour trip to the Portland area for the talk, but I began reading his blog and following his birding adventures. I quickly discovered what an exceptional person he is.
Luke, who graduated from high school a year early (he skipped fourth grade), has a passion for life rarely seen in people of any age. He taught himself guitar and piano. He's such a good artist that at age 16 he was asked to do all 75 paintings to illustrate a birds-of-Maine folding guide. He has seen 1,800 bird species and has competed in the World Series of Birding four times. He spent the first few months of this year birding in South America. Still just 17, he is working as a naturalist on a whale-watch boat this summer.
We're lucky enough to be showing and selling some of Luke's photographs and paintings at The Naturalist's Notebook this season. He might come up for a visit. We asked him some questions about his background, his birding and his art. His answers are remarkably astute and inspiring:
Q: Did you grow up in Falmouth?
Luke: I was born in Rochester, N.Y., then moved to Simsbury, Conn., then to Phoenix and finally to Maine in 2003.
Q: When and how did you become interested in birds?
Luke: I was six years old when I saw a male scarlet tanager in my yard in Connecticut. That was the first spark, and there was a local nature center nearby where the director, Jay Kaplan, really got me interested in more serious birding. Wherever I've lived, there have been great mentors to keep me going and teach me. None of my family members are quite as obsessed as I am, but my mom and brother are both interested and know quite a lot.
Q:When did you start photographing and painting birds?
Luke: I started out using my mom's Nikon film SLR when I was about 11 years old. Then I gradually got more into photography, and started purchasing my own equipment over the next several years. I now use a Canon EOS 7D and a Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens. I've always been into drawing, starting with doodles when I was really young…and I just kept practicing and trying to improve over the years. Once I started seriously drawing birds (when I was 10 or 11), I actually had a strong aversion to using color. So most of my illustrations from back then are just black-and-white pencil sketches. I finally started using watercolor and gouache about five years ago, and that's now my medium of choice.
Q: Do you come from an artistic family? How and when did you get into art?
Luke: I remember being in elementary school and asking my mom to draw the birds from the book with me—and she was quite good! So while nobody in my family does anything artistic professionally, I think the members of my family all have an artistic mind in one way or another. My art was just a gradual evolution from doodles to sketches to serious attempts at illustration.
Q: What art mediums do you work in when doing birds?
Luke: I almost always use watercolor and gouache, though I will still occasionally do a simple pencil drawing.
Q: Do you have a favorite artist?
Luke: My two favorites, for very different reasons, are Ian Lewington and Lars Jonsson. I met Ian a couple years ago on Monhegan Island here in Maine and I consider him to be the one of the best bird illustrators in the world. He does phenomenal plates for field guides as well as full paintings with spectacular backgrounds. Lars Jonsson does amazing plates for field guides, too, but I am more in awe of his field sketching ability. This is something I've never been particularly good at, but he can sit down with paper and paint and recreate a scene with perfect lighting and shape in a style that is more loose and fluid…and I really love it!
Q:Describe how you did all those paintings to illustrate the Maine bird guide.
Luke: I did those paintings over the course of about a year, though I admit I procrastinated and did most of them at the last minute. I do most of my work from my own photos, but sometimes I'll gather a bunch of other guides, photos, etc., and try to create something based on all of those. My art desk at home is usually covered with books and papers and photos of whatever bird I happen to be painting. And I nearly always have music on in the background!
I'm surprisingly fickle with artwork, and I have to be in the right mood to do something that I am happy with. Music tends to help me find that state of mind…Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Swift are my (radically different) favorites! All the birds that I painted for that guide were common backyard species, so I had a lot of photos and field experience with them. I think field experience is very valuable when doing an illustration, because it allows you to draw upon your entire knowledge of the species, and make adjustments for the many variations found in individual birds.
Q: You also play piano. Do you have a good ear for bird songs? Do you have a favorite one?
Luke: I am a self-taught, not-very-good piano and guitar player. I mostly try to figure a song out after listening to it, which often ends poorly! But I am very passionate about many different kinds of music (some might say I'm obsessed with Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Swift), and that may translate into an interest in bird vocalizations. People often say that I have a good ear for birds songs and, especially, calls. I think of it as similar to any other learning experience. If you practice enough, you can learn the majority of bird calls.
One of my big interests right now is flight calls of migratory songbirds. A large percentage of songbirds migrate at night, so on a good night I can step outside and hear dozens and dozens of these flight calls overhead. The problem is, most of these flight calls are high-pitched, similar to each other, and last only a few milliseconds! Still, these flight calls are also given during the day, so enough practice matching them up and listening to them repeatedly can lead to a better success rate for identification. Songs are, for the most part, MUCH easier to learn (though it still takes practice, of course). It's hard to pick a favorite, but I am quite fond of the winter wren's song, especially for such a small bird. Leach's storm-petrel is probably another favorite—it's not exactly beautiful, but quite an entertaining noise to come out of a bird!
Q:Any idea how many species of birds you've seen? Do you have an all-time favorite sighting?
Luke: I've seen about 1,800 species worldwide, about 600 of them in the United States. It's impossible to pick an all-time favorite sighting among all of those! There are so many to choose from, especially in the tropics. One of my more memorable recent sightings here in Maine was a yellow-billed loon last fall. I work on a whale-watch boat, and on my last trip of the season late in October, I spotted a distant loon that I assumed was a common. I talked about it over the mic to the passengers, before we got closer and I realized that it had a massive, all-yellow bill! I was able to get many photos for documentation, as this was the first record of this species for New England (and, I believe, the entire Western Atlantic). There are a couple inland records of stray birds in the East (from New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia) but this bird nests in the high arctic of Alaska and winters south to British Colombia. So it was not supposed to be here!
Q:How many states, countries and continents have you traveled to look for birds? Which was the most interesting or unusual place?
Luke: I've traveled to Ecuador, Peru, and Costa Rica on birding trips, as well as many other states here in the U.S. (California, Colorado, Arizona, Florida, New Jersey). I think Peru ranks as my favorite, for the spectacular scenery as well as some incredible birds!
Q: How did you end up going to South America to bird this past winter? What did you do there?
Luke: I graduated from high school at 16, and decided I wanted to take some time before going to college. I had been to Ecuador twice before, so decided to go there again as a volunteer guide and artist at Tandayapa Bird Lodge (run by Tropical Birding tour company). I was at Tandayapa for about two months, and the rest of my four-month trip was spent traveling to other parts of Ecuador as well as Peru looking for birds.
Q: What have been some of your favorite birding experiences?
Luke: So hard to choose! I have really enjoyed every moment spent in the tropics. I've been lucky enough to see some very rare and interesting birds down there (like white-bellied cinclodes, a species with an estimated population of 50 to 200 individuals left in existence, displaying and singing right in front of me for about an hour!) Closer to home, the yellow-billed loon that I mentioned earlier is quite memorable.
But I think one of the cool things about birding is that even an average day can be simply spectacular—dawn chorus in the boreal forest around Rangeley, for example, or a nice fall day enjoying migrants on Monhegan Island.
Q:How many times have you been in the World Series of Birding, and how does that event work?
Luke: I have participated in the World Series of Birding four times (each year from 2007 through 2010). This is a competition to see as many species of birds in 24 hours as possible. It is held in New Jersey every spring, run by New Jersey Audubon. Many teams from around the country (and world!) come and spend days scouting out the route, trying to pinpoint all the difficult species. Then, on "game day," the clock strikes midnight and each team races around the state trying to see or hear as much as possible. It's ridiculously exhausting, but definitely a fun dose of the competitive side of this hobby!
Q:If you could be any kind of bird, what kind would it be?
Luke: Probably something pelagic [open sea]. I've always thought it would be fun to be an albatross or shearwater or something, just flying around effortlessly and enjoying the ocean. My work on the Odyssey Whale Watch in Portland has given me a real affinity for everything offshore!
Q: As you were growing up, did other kids think it was cool that you knew and liked birds?
Luke: It depends. Most kids accepted it just fine, but it wasn't really "cool" and I didn't talk about it much. I was quite shy in elementary and middle school, and not everyone even knew about it. But especially as I got older and found good friends in high school, it just became my thing, and more and more people got interested and wanted to hear about it!
Q: What would you tell a non-birding person to get him or her to try birding?
Luke: I wouldn't force anything, BUT….I think a lot of people don't really understand how many aspects there are to birding. That's one of the reasons why it's so appealing to me. Some people will just take a stroll in the woods and enjoy whatever they see, others prefer keeping a close eye on weather patterns and try to strategize finding vagrant birds, others take a more scientific approach and study a specific bird intensely (breeding habits, migration patterns, etc)...you can focus on drawing, or photography…there are birding competitions…so maybe ONE of these many different things might appeal. And a lot of people do it. There's a great community of people to learn from, and whatever specific thing you focus on (and it might be everything!), it's a great chance to enjoy something about the natural world that you may not have known even existed!
Q: What are your future plans? College? Career? Any goal related to birds, such as seeing a certain number of species or becoming an ornithologist?
Luke: I have no idea! I am planning on going to college some time in the next year or two, but I want to keep doors open. I love writing, art, science, music, Spanish…so maybe I can find some combination of these and make a career out of it. I definitely want this hobby to become a permanent part of my life. And I've completely fallen in love with traveling. I know there is no shortage of places to visit and things to learn about birds (and everything else!) all around the world.
What Is It?
Answer to the Last Puzzler:
Of the more than 1,000 Americans per year who are hit by lightning, what percentage is men?
Correct answer: 82%. Draw your own conclusions.
At the Notebook we have a display on the history of apples. Did you know, for example, that Maine once had 10,000 varieties? Anyway, here is an apple logic puzzle for you: If Granny Smith gives Mac one apple, they will have the same number of apples. If Mac gives Granny one, Granny will have twice as many as Mac has. How many apples does each have?
Margaret Krug's "Create a Field Notebook" workshop is this Saturday, Kathy Coe's art classes for children start next Monday (7/18) and our Earth News kid-reporter program launches on the morning of Wednesday, July 20.