Growing up, I never would have imagined myself to be a birder. I didn't even picture naturalist until I attended a summer camp called Agree Outpost Camp when I was thirteen. It was a camp for young teens that taught skills such as backpacking, canoeing, kayaking, and how to build fires and poop in the woods. That camp brought out and developed my appreciation for nature. Every year after that summer, my mom claimed I became a little bit more "granola." My ever-expanding love of nature and different landscapes led me to pursue Wildlife Conservation and Management as my major at the University of Arizona. There, I have taken classes such as ecology, geology, natural resource history and policy, and herpetology. I took my first ornithology class last year. In that class we memorized more than 120 birds — and a great many of their calls, to boot. For the most part, I hated that class. I loved our field trips because we hiked wherever we went, but birding with binoculars, a Sibley's field guide, and notebook in hand seemed like a chore to me. After all, in class we learned that most birds (with the exception of corvids and psittacines) are pretty dumb. So what made birds so special to birders?
Slowly, with the help of my boyfriend (an avid birder) dragging me out to riparian areas in the desert (nerdy hunting binoculars strapped to his chest), I began to familiarize myself with many birds in Arizona. I spotted magnificent hummingbirds, western tanagers, verdin, sandhill cranes, and gila woodpeckers. My favorite birds to see, graceful and terrifying, were the raptors. Without the homework or the grades pressuring me to do well, birding started to become more meaningful.
I drove from Tucson, Arizona all the way to Missoula before my wilderness ranger internship started, and by the time I arrived in Montana in mid-May, I had spotted a great horned owl, several osprey, black-billed magpies, and many other exciting birds I had not seen before. With the help and enthusiasm of other birders I have met during this internship, I have spotted and correctly identified a plethora of amazing western birds. Fellow intern Bonnie Ricord and I shared experiences of seeing American dippers on the river. We mocked the funny bobbing motion of the birds and fell into a hilarious giggle fit at the sight of ourselves. Without any context at all, staffer Claire Muller saw our awkward motions and exclaimed, “You saw a dipper!?” Birders out here know their stuff.
Moose Creek was an especially exciting birding spot. I saw my first pileated woodpecker there, a dinosaur of a bird, and nearly died of excitement. Fellow intern Mara Menahan acted as my own personal walking, talking field guide, and together we listed a collection of beautiful birds that frequent Moose Creek. One day in the forest I was startled to hear a whistle or a kazoo, and I thought Wilderness Ranger Anna Bengtson was trying to prank me. When I asked her later, she informed me that the noise I had heard was actually a varied thrush. That day we listened to many of their calls, pitches high and low. Any birder would feel lucky to have had the experience I have had out here in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. The opportunity to further my own education (and rack up bird points!) has been a real gift.
— Sam Sharka, Wilderness Ranger Intern | July 23, 2013