with senior Allison Cunningham

By Katie Long
  •  Senior and birder Allison Cunningham stands in front of the bulletin board at Daubenspeck Community Nature Park. Allison said her interest in birding began with her father.

    “My dad has worked at Wild Birds Unlimited as their (Nature & Hobby Education Manager) for over 20 years now, so he’s been doing birding before I was born and all that,” Allison said. “I just grew up with all the nature knowledge, mainly focused on birding and forestry, which is what he went to college for. I‘ve just kind of grown up with (birding) so it’s been something pretty normal and natural to me. Like, ‘Oh it’s a weekend? It’s really nice out? We’re going to head out to Daubenspeck and bird.’ I’ve come to the park more times than I can count.” 

  •  Allison scans the sky for birds while she holds her binoculars. Allison said there are only a few people around her age in the area who also enjoy birding.

    “I think for a young birder, it’s not as advertised. It’s more of like, ‘Oh that’s something you do when you get older, or like, there’s more interesting things to do, like, ‘Oh, Saturday mornings I’m going to sleep in; I’d rather not go and look at birds.’

    “For the most part, it’s older people. It’s a nice, easy, fun hobby walking around in the woods looking for birds. I have participated in young birder events, and there are about a dozen of us in Indiana who actively bird. I know another high schooler more toward Indianapolis who doesn’t have his driver’s license yet but knows every single birder in the community and calls them up for rides to see different birds, but it’s definitely more rare. Like I said, I only know about a dozen of teenagers who are birding, but when they are really into it, they know it all. It’s really cool,” Allison said. 

  •  Brian Cunningham, member of the Daubenspeck Community Nature Park Board, Wild Birds Unlimited Nature & Hobby Manager and Allison’s father, spots a bird with his binoculars while guiding a bird walk. Mr. Cunningham said he enjoys teaching others about birds.

    “I love it when someone else gets excited and learns something new about a bird,” Mr. Cunningham said. “When someone sees a bird for the very first time, just to hear that exclamation or that excitement in their voice of ‘Wow!’ or ‘I see it!’ or ‘That’s so cool!’ when they get excited about a bird on a walk that I’m leading. That’s why I really enjoy it.”

    Mr. Cunningham has been birding for about 15 years and has guided bird walks for about 10 years, with 10 to 20 bird walks each year.

    “There was a little bird in the middle of the woods on a backpacking trip when I was a teenager, and I didn’t know what it was and I wanted to find out, so I stopped and sketched it out and when I got home, I looked it up, and it was a chipping sparrow,” Cunningham said. “That was the first bird I remember just really sitting down and identifying, purposefully looking and trying to figure out, ‘What is that bird?’ Since then it’s just been love for watching the birds and learning more about them.” 

  •  Mr. Cunningham points out the bird he sees to the other participants of the bird walk. Despite beliefs that birding is not a very common interest, Mr. Cunningham said he has seen more interest develop.

    “In the United States with birdwatching, in one of the recent studies, there are about 47 million people who watch the birds. They are birders, people who go birdwatching, and more young birders are getting into birdwatching, young birders being basically teenage (age) and on up and we’re seeing a lot of young birders clubs starting to form, and so kids are starting to find other kids that like to go birdwatching and that is a growing trend that we’re seeing in the birding world.”

    “It’s still very much what a lot of people would call an ‘old people’ kind of hobby, because it’s pretty easy for people are retirement age to get interested in watching birds because it’s easy and it’s low impact and it’s inexpensive, but being in the birding world and being part of the education area and paying attention to it, I’m seeing more young birders starting to come into it,” Mr. Cunningham said. 

  •  Allison takes a closer look at the bird with her binoculars. Allison said one of her favorite parts about birding is finding rare bird species to add to her life list.

    “I like finding rare species that are in the area. I am not as good at remembering the calls or anything, but I’ll look up everything that one needs to know for it, go out and find the bird, and that’s what I really like.

    “For birders, a life list is a collection of all the birds you’ve ever seen in your life, so whenever you find a new bird that gets added to your life list, so you look for ‘lifers,’ so that’s a lot of what I’ve been doing. There’s a huge birder community, and there’s social media for them, so they’ll be posting, ‘I saw this, this and this here, and it’s rare’, so (my dad and I will) be like, ‘Oh, we don’t know what that one is. Let’s go,’” Allison said. 

  • Mr. Cunningham uses a spotting scope. According to Mr. Cunningham, spotting scopes help birders view birds with more detail.

    “Birders use binoculars but they also use what’s called a spotting scope, and a spotting scope is kind of like a telescope but it’s set up a little bit differently so you can look at things closer than stars and planets and such, and so a spotting scope goes on a tripod, and you can view birds a lot closer,” Cunningham said. “Most binoculars are about 8 power, like an eight times magnification, and a spotting scope generally can go from about 20 power to 45 or 60 power, so you can really zoom in on birds, especially if they’re a little bit farther away.” 

  •  Mr. Cunningham adjusts the focus on the spotting scope so participants of the bird walk can view the bird as well. Mr. Cunningham said Daubenspeck Community Nature Park offers a variety of programs to help generate interest in nature among the community.

    “We do lots of educational programs as well. Most of our successful programs are doing bird walks as well as wildflower programs and bat programs. So the bird walks are pretty much going birdwatching, and we do a lot of education from the beginning where we give people binoculars to borrow and we teach them how to use the binoculars as well as how to find and follow birds with them, and how to identify the birds and what kind of birds are around, what kind of habitats they like to live in, when are they there and not.

    “The wildflower walks we do every other year, and we have different professionals or experts come out and lead those and it’s with wildflowers and plants and sometimes fungus, some mushrooms and other kinds of things that are in the park that people can come across. Those are very very successful programs, and then also every year we do a bat program late summer and early fall. One of the only licensed bat banders in the state, someone who studies bats and actually can band them for research purposes and for tracking as well, leads them. They do a program that tries to catch bats in the park to show people before the bats are migrating out to their hibernaculums for the winter,” Mr. Cunningham said. 

  •  Mr. Cunningham uses an app on his phone to display a picture of a bird he sees and play its song to the participants of the bird walk.

    “I use an app on my phone to help identify birds. Basically, it’s like having a digital field guide, but then it takes it to another level where it also plays calls and songs that the birds make, and there are two that I use all the time, one is called the Sibley bird guide, and the other one is Merlin. Both of them are very good.

    “Sibley uses drawings or artwork for the birds, and you can compare things side by side, and then Merlin is one that uses photographs.  So both of them have lots of really good information to learn about birds, what do they look like, what kind of things to look on the bird to help identify them, where do they live in summer, winter or where can you see them during migration, as well as being able to listen to calls or songs that they do, and lots of other information,” Mr. Cunningham said. 

  • Allison models the beak of a white-winged crossbill with her fingers. Allison said one of her favorite memories of birding was spotting white-winged crossbills at Eagle Creek Park.

    “It was middle of winter, and white-winged crossbills were spotted at Eagle Creek, and white-winged crossbills don’t usually come down this low, and my dad was like, ‘We’re going. Let’s go.’ When the two of us got there we were talking to people and they were like, ‘Well they’ve been coming to this row of pine trees, in and out, in and out’ and all that.

    “We sat down in the snowbank and we were looking up at the trees trying to look for them and my dad had his phone out and he’s like, ‘Here’s the bird, here’s the call, here’s what you’re looking for, here are their behaviors.’ Their bills are really cool because instead of closing it crosses so it’s twisted in half, and so he’s describing this bird and I’m just playing with my binoculars and there’s a group of like twelve and I’m just like, ‘Is it just like those birds up there?’ and he’s like, ‘Yes! Exactly like those birds up there!’ So since then I’ve been like a good luck charm for lifers,” Allison said. 

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Katie Long