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Young Birder Recognized for Dedication and Talent
In Haines, Alaska, a town of 2,800 where bald eagles can literally outnumber people, a young birder has distinguished himself with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Chris "Bird" Allen, 14, was awarded a Gyrfalcon Certificate this week by Fish and Game. Allen is the youngest wildlife watcher to qualify for the certificate, part of the state's Wing's Over Alaska birding program. The Gyrfalcon certificate acknowledges that Allen has identified more than 125 birds in Alaska.
Chris 'Bird' Allen
Chris "Bird" Allen on a school field trip along the Chilkat River, studying plant communities, with Deb Kemp, a chaperone, and parent of a classmate.
"I have a birding journal I keep of the birds I've seen," Allen said. "I've seen about 132 birds now."
Allen said he goes birding with a family friend or a teacher at times, but he does most of his birding alone.
"I get on my bike and go birding by myself, I just ride around," he said. "I see common birds like eagles all the time - the winter is completely different than summer for birds. I've seen some really cool birds. My favorite birds are the chickadees, they're really active, and you can see them in the winter - not so much the black-capped, mostly the Chestnut backed."
Allen is an eighth-grader at Haines Middle School. His science teacher, Patty Brown, is also an active birder. When she met Allen two years ago, as a sixth-grader, he was already an accomplished wildlife observer.
"He came to me already a birder," Brown said. "I've spent a lot of my adult life birding, and I recognized this was not an ordinary kid when it comes to nature watching."
Brown said she and Allen talk about birding, and they did the Christmas bird count together two years ago. On field trips with other students, she said Allen is a valuable asset and a good teacher.
"I grew up birding, but I didn't start out with his precision and dedication," she said.
Allen's skills have given him a reputation - and a nickname - among his peers.
"In sixth grade, there are not too many kids that bird (watch)," Brown said. "Once it leaked out, kids starting calling him 'Bird.' He wasn't sure at first if it was a put down, he wasn't sure if that was the identity and nickname he wanted to have, but he decided it was okay, and now he's called Bird. So a new kid in school wouldn't know he had another name."
Allen said that Al DeMartini, a family friend and seasonal worker with Fish and Game, introduced him to bird watching about five years ago.
"I started in fourth grade," Allen said "Al stopped over to see my dad and he brought me a National Geographic Field Guide to Birds. My dad gave me a pair of binoculars, and I started seeing what birds I could see out of the book. It was really hard at first - birds confused me at first. It gets easier to identify species once you start learning how."
"Some are still really tricky - like gulls, they interbreed and stuff," Allen added. "Sandpipers can be really difficult, they get mud on them, and the peepers, the little species of sandpipers - they can be tricky."
Allen's reputation reached Juneau last year, before he learned of the Wings over Alaska program. Karla Hart, the statewide coordinator of the program, said she had hoped he would get involved with Wings Over Alaska. A number of Alaska science teachers have been introducing students to the program - and Brown encouraged Allen to share his observations with Fish and Game.
"Last year I heard there was an amazing young Haines birder, so I was excited to receive Chris' application for the Gyrfalcon certificate," Hart said. "With his passion for birds, I expect that he has the potential to make substantial contributions to bird conservation and knowledge, as well as having a great time birding."
The Wings over Alaska program acknowledges wildlife watching experience at four levels - A Ptarmigan certificate for observers who have identified at least 50 and up to 124 birds; the Gyrfalcon certificate for 125 to 199 birds; the Eider certificate for 200 to 274 birds, and the Bluethroat certificate for 275-plus birds.
"We've awarded about 45 Gyrfalcon certificates, and Chris is the youngest," Hart said. "We've awarded about 15 Eider and just four Bluethroat certificates to date."
Allen has also been learning to identify birds by calls and songs, and said he hopes to go to college and study ornithology. He'd also like to visit Australia and see birds of paradise, emus and platypus. He plans to continue with the Wings Over Alaska program and earn his Bluethroat Certificate in coming years.
"It's a good program, you can collect data about what birds are around Alaska, and it gets people involved in birding," he said. "Birding is way safer than watching bears or moose. I've always liked all kinds of animals, it just seems that birds are special."
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