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Competition gives young bird watchers chance to search for a few feathered friends

POSTED: April 26, 2009 12:04 a.m.

BRASELTON — With binoculars poised, heads tilted back and eyes trained on the treeline above, Esther Lloyd, 11, Jamie Pearce, 11, and Lindsey Pearce, 10, scan the sky intently until a small body flits past them.

"It’s a blue bird," yells one girl. "No, it’s a robin," another replies, while all study the small, feathered mass that has landed amid a patch of leaves in the Pearce’s backyard in Braselton.

The Pearce sisters have spent almost three years cultivating their bird-watching skills, while their friend, Esther, joined the world of birding two years ago.

This weekend, Esther and Lindsey will test their ornithology skills during the fourth annual Youth Birding Competition. This is Lindsey’s third year competing in the 24-hour event and Esther’s second.

The competition is hosted by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and based out of the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center in Mansfield.

About 140 children, divided into teams of two to five members, have from 5 p.m. Saturday until 5 p.m. today to canvas the state and catalogue as many feathered friends as they can find. An awards banquet and live animal show will follow today at the wildlife center.

Esther and Lindsey are part of a four-member team that has dubbed itself the Terrific Titmice, after the tufted titmouse, a small, gray bird commonly found in the eastern U.S.

Lindsey and Jamie’s mother, Chris Pearce, first registered her daughters for the competition three years ago after talking with event organizer Tim Keyes.

"He had come out for several years to our homeschool group and done a birds of prey presentation," she said. "That’s how we got to know Tim, and he just e-mailed us about it and so I signed them up."

Keyes, a wildlife biologist with Georgia DNR, started the competition after he attended the annual World Series of Birding in New Jersey.

"I was super impressed with the number of kids out there and thought about doing something similar in Georgia," he said.

Sponsored by the New Jersey Audubon Society and billed as North America’s premier conservation event, the World Series of Birding has raised more than $8 million for bird conservation, according to its Web site.

Keyes decided to emulate the event on a smaller scale and open it exclusively to children. He applied for and was awarded a grant and had 60 participants at the first competition in 2006.

A self-proclaimed bird enthusiast, Keyes said a college trip to Newfoundland and Labrador, where he encountered "stunning 2,000-foot cliffs" covered with thousands of birds, helped foster his love for the winged creatures.

Keyes has now spent much of his DNR career working with birds through education initiatives and field work.

With the competition, Keyes said he hopes to share his love of birds with younger birders.

Keyes’ aspirations may be working. The Pearce sisters have come a long way since their first competition in 2007 when they came in last place. Last year, the girls won the most improved team award.

To secure the title, the young birders spotted or heard 42 bird species while exploring Eagle Ranch in Chestnut Mountain and Elachee Nature Science Center in Gainesville.

This year, the team will probably frequent the same spots, which may give them an advantage in the competition, according to mother Chris Pearce.

"If you go and practice in one spot, then those are the birds you’ll probably see on the competition," she said. "They stay in the same general area, so it’s good to stake out where you’re going to go in advance."

Teams are allowed to use bird calls, books, binoculars and other equipment to spot and identify birds, but can receive no help from adults.

Fifth-grader Esther said she has prepared for the contest just by stepping outside her Flowery Branch home.

"I have a really big back porch, and we just take bird seed and put it on the railings, and we get so many birds," she said. "Some days they just flock to there and it’s all different kinds."

In years past, the trio has received training from mentors such as Peter Gordon, director of education, at Elachee.

"He showed us the best places to go and the best kinds of habitats to go to look for lots of birds," said Esther.

This weekend also marks the peak of spring migration, or what Keyes referred to as the "holy grail" for birders.

"This time of year, there’s tons of birds moving through the state," he said. "There’s a tremendous diversity of birds that are really transients through Georgia right now."

With that in mind, Esther and Lindsey may have a chance to improve last year’s species count and possibly nab one of several competition prizes.

Awards are given to the best rookie team, the team that identifies the most birds, raises the most money for a conservation program, and to the winner of the T-shirt design contest and nature journal.

While a little competition can be good, Keyes said he hopes participants won’t get too wrapped up in it. He’d rather they learn to better appreciate the birds, great outdoors and conservation.

But getting children to do this in today’s society can be a challenge, one that Keyes is willing to tackle.

He cited findings from "Last Child in the Woods," a book that explores what author Richard Louv coined the nature-deficit disorder. The term describes how children’s outdoor playtime has diminished and how their fear of the natural world has grown.

"It points out what I felt in my gut all along," said Keyes. "It’s really important to have unstructured outdoor time."

But video games, movies, computers and other electronic devices now consume much of the younger generation’s free time, he said.

"There’s more of a pull to keep kids plugged in and inside than ever," he said. "So, I’m desperately fighting that trend."

Chris Pearce agreed. "It (birding) is a neat hobby and it kind of slows you down from the fast pace of TV and Internet."

Jamie, Pearce’s older daughter, won’t compete this year due to a school trip to Washington, D.C., but the fifth-grader said she will miss the competition.

"When we started out, I did not like it, but I’m really mad that I’m missing it this year," she said. "At one point in my life, I hope to be a mentor or something or work at a nature center because of this."


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