In it for life: Meet a 15-year-old champion birder

Ewan Pritchard
Ewan Pritchard, photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Credit Ewan Pritchard’s older brother with getting him hooked on birdwatching. The kid tagged after him for so long that –

No, wait; it was earlier than that. Ewan recalls younger days, looking out the back door at his home a few miles east of Atlanta, where a suet-and-seed feeder drew birds to the deck. Another feeder attracted hummingbirds; they swarmed with a vibrant energy that mesmerized the toddler.

Or maybe it was even before that? When he was just a baby, a bundle of young humanity bundled tight in his parents’ arms as they walked the woods?

“I’ve been [a birder], I guess, forever,” he says.

For Ewan, “forever” is 15 years. A high school sophomore, Ewan is among a growing number of young birders.

He’s good at it, too. Ewan and four friends earlier this year took first place in the annual Georgia Youth Birding Competition. The quintet went on a birdwatching romp that began at the coast and wound up, 200 miles and 24 hours later, at a state-owned wildlife tract in east Georgia.

For Ewan, the first-place finish underscores a simple fact. “I like this,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever give up birding.”

Young Mr. Pritchard has embraced a hobby millions enjoy, says Dottie Head, communications director of the Atlanta Audubon Society. The organization, a subsidiary of the National Audubon Society, teaches advanced birding. In recent years, she says, the chapter has responded to public demand and now offers two courses instead of one.

“It’s growing in popularity,” says Head. The hobby, she says, appeals to a wide range of enthusiasts, from people who hike in national wildlife refuges to folks who gaze out their kitchen windows.

National figures underscore the hobby’s appeal. A 2016 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that more than 45 million people are birdwatchers.

‘Really cool’

Ewan is a member of the Wood Thrushers, a team comprising himself, two classmates from his school and a couple of other enthusiasts he met through birding. The team takes its name from the Wood Thrush, a songbird found across North America that’s related to the robin.

It’s also the name his older brother, Angus, used for his team. When Angus joined another group, kid brother Ewan promptly appropriated the name.

Angus, says Ewan, may be responsible for his fascination with birds. When his brother went birdwatching, Ewan sometimes came along. Getting his own copy of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds,a must-have for birders, completed the transformation from bystander to participant.

That interest paid off this spring, when the Wood Thrushers and other birders participated in the annual birding competition. The event, sponsored by the state Department of Natural Resources, began at 5 p.m. April 27 and concluded at 5 p.m. the next day.

Ewan’s team began at the coast, prowling the St. Simon’s area, binoculars and field guides at hand. The birders stayed up late, spending the night with a Brunswick couple. They rose early the next day, April 28, and headed inland. They stopped at the Altamaha Wildlife Management Area, as well as the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge.

At each stop, they added more birds to their list. They wound up at the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center in Mansfield, where 27 teams turned in their totals. When the counting was done, the Wood Thrushers’ 161 species took first place.

It was, says Ewan, a team effort. He and his friends had been practicing for a year or more. When the clock started ticking, they started watching.

His favorite bird? Ewan paused. “An Osprey,” he says, naming the coastal raptor noted for creating immense nests. “I think they look really cool.” He’s partial to Carolina Wrens and bluebirds, too.

Also cool: the Philadelphia Vireo, a small songbird that breeds primarily in Canada. Its migratory pattern encompasses part of Georgia. Ewan identified one this year. It was a “lifer” – one he’d never ID’d before.

This summer, Ewan and his brother spent a month in Ecuador, looking at birds. The boys pitched the proposal to their dad, Rusty. He gave it some thought and said OK. Ewan took over all the household chores he and Angus had shared while big brother got a job washing dishes at a pizza restaurant.

The money they made from those tasks funded a four-week excursion that wound from the Andes Mountains to the Amazon River. The brothers counted 652 species — more, says Ewan, “than I had seen in my life.”

Now, says Ewan, he and the other Wood Thrush guys are looking toward the forests of north Georgia, 100 miles or so from Atlanta’s asphalt tangle. They’re thinking about scouting out the good birding areas in the mountains.

It’s not too soon to start thinking about the next birding competition.

“It’s about finding out where the birds are,” says Ewan. “That’s what I like.” — Mark Davis, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service