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.
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