At the Lowry Nature Center in the Carver Park Reserve, the old adage holds true: Birds of a feather flock together. Just ask Kirk Mona, interpretive naturalist, who leads the Minnesota Young Birders Club, a group that meets monthly for birding workshops, demonstrations, hikes and competitions. The club members, ages 13-18, have a diverse span of interests, from football to band, but when they meet up at the Lowry Nature Center, they are birders.
Mona noticed that at any given school there were generally only a handful of kids interested in birding, so “they didn’t have anywhere to share this interest with other people their age,” he explains. The Minnesota Young Birders Club is a place, outside of school, where young birders can gather. “It’s a chance to introduce them to birds and also their peers,” Mona says. “I think peers is a big part of it.”
When Mona started the club a few years ago, he knew the focus would be on the older youth, since there are many nature programs for school-aged kids already. “These are kids discovering career paths and who they are as a person, so being active in that part of their life is incredibly important,” he says.
Club member Julien Ueda, who lives in Edina, hopes to earn a degree in a biology field, but no matter where he ends up, he already knows that he will be a lifelong birder. “Birding is a passion that I will continue far after high school and enjoy for the rest of my life,” he says.
Members of the Minnesota Young Birders Club pay an annual fee of $20 and can then attend any birding event at the Lowry Nature Center for free. Otherwise, it is $5 per event. The calendar is filled with fun activities and learning experiences, from bird banding (where wild birds are safely trapped, studied and tagged) to owl hikes to Big Days, where participants count how many birds they see in a given day.
Members also get a taste of the greater birding community by participating in a couple of larger events such as The Hastings Area Youth Big Day, where club members compete as a team in southeastern Minnesota, and The Christmas Bird Count, a nationwide census performed annually for more than 100 years. Someday Mona would like to take the kids to the North Shore and visit Hawk Ridge during migration season.
Although it’s thrilling to be a part of the larger birding community, some of Mona’s favorite moments are when he is helping club members identify a new birdcall or find that special bird on their list. “Once you learn where a bird lives, what it sounds like and what kind of habitat it prefers, it’s kind of like unlocking this code,” Mona says. “It’s like a big treasure hunt, and that makes it really fun.”
Ueda couldn’t agree more; he was hooked after his first meeting a few years ago. “On my first hike with the Minnesota Young Birders Club, I saw at least 10 species I had never seen before and enjoyed every second of it,” he says.
Besides providing a built-in reason to get outside and enjoy nature, the club offers Ueda the perfect setting to learn. “Kirk knows so much not only about the birds in our region, but also about the plants, animals and stars of Minnesota,” he says.
Of course, most facts about birds can be read in a book, but Mona is quick to point out that some things are simply best experienced. “When you’re with someone in the field and they say, ‘You hear that call, it sounds like a ping pong ball being dropped on a table? That’s a field sparrow’—you’ll never forget it,” he says.