Cape May Bird Observatory
Take a Kid Birding®: Young Birders

The Importance of a Solid Foundation
by Tom Reed

The question presents itself more often than not, usually accompanied by an envious smile from a participant on a CMBO walk: “What’s it like growing up in Cape May?” For years I never gave the question much thought. My reply was pretty generic, something along the lines of, “Well, it’s great…I guess I‘m pretty lucky.” It’s great to be able to witness some of the best bird migration North America has to offer. I’m lucky to happen to live in the middle of it all. Sure, that is all well and good, but I was neglecting one major aspect of my appreciation for Cape May- the people who made it happen for me.

In the birding world there may not be a better bunch of folks than there is in Cape May, and their offerings to a budding young naturalist are endless. My own birding career “officially” began in late-September of 1999, during a beginner‘s workshop taught by the late Fred Mears. Fred was the first birder I ever came in contact with and even as a shy, reserved pre-teen, I found him to be approachable, supportive, and rather likable. He referred to me by name, congratulated me on correct identifications, and made it known that he appreciated my interest in birds at such a young age. We crossed paths a few more times that autumn and, every time, after greeting my mom and I with a smile, he’d proceed to carry on a conversation with us as if he’d known us for years.

I was impressed, and understandably so. I participated in other activities, namely sports, and had never encountered a coach or mentor who came across as cool, as nice, or as wise as Fred. In the months that followed, I began to attend CMBO walks and programs with my parents on a regular basis and seemed to meet someone new every time. Much to my amazement, everyone I met seemed as amiable and encouraging as Fred was. After a few years I had essentially met all the members of the Cape May birding community and usually wasn’t required to pay the fee on regular CMBO walks (shhh…don’t tell Pete). I was able to refer to people four times my age by their first name and discovered that I had found a place for myself, oddly enough, among adults.

Unfortunately, I lost sight of the importance of my network of mentors for awhile. I became obsessed with learning everything I could, yet at the same time felt the need to go birding by myself, experience things on my own, and find my own good sightings to report…I guess it’s a natural tendency for a mid-teen. And while I had success in doing this by simply walking or bicycling my home patch on a regular basis, I continually found that some things were just easier to learn or understand when they came from the mouth of a mentor. So I took a new approach, and while still trying to learn as much as I could on my own, I also tried to increasingly pick the brains of my teachers, hoping to emulate them and in turn become a teacher myself. It worked, and I found that I was learning more than ever before.
Today I help lead walks and field trips for CMBO, engaging and teaching others on a regular basis. Without the years of selfless guidance from the members of Cape May’s birding community and my own parents, I would never know as much as I do today. It is to them that I owe my birding career.

To end, let me say that even though every young birder doesn’t have the opportunity to develop their birding skills and appreciation for the natural world in a place such as Cape May, a universal message remains:
1) If you are a prospective young birder, seek out a mentor—be it your parent, local NJ Audubon naturalist, school teacher, YMCA leader, or any other person of good standing who will listen to you, offer advice, take you birding and most importantly, offer endless encouragement.
2) If you are a prospective mentor to a young birder, give them every possible opportunity to enjoy and explore their world— supply them with the proper tools, feed (not force) information, answer or seek answers to their every question, and leave the rest to time. You’ll be impressed with the results.

Need more help? Just ask. That’s why CMBO has set up the Take A Kid Birding® portion of this website. And as for that question about growing up in Cape May? Let’s just say that my reply is slightly different these days.
—Tom Reed, Mentor


Q: What is your favorite aspect of birding Cape May?
Combining superb year-round birding with some of the greatest personalities and talents the birding world has to offer. It truly doesn’t get much better.

Q: Can you name one of the most memorable birding experiences you have had in Cape May?
Yes, my first day of “real” birding. It was at the South Cape May Meadows, the day portion of a two-part beginner’s workshop sponsored by CMBO and presented by the late Fred Mears. I couldn’t believe that 90% of the birds I had seen projected on a screen the night before were actually right there in front of me that morning. I was hooked- for life.

Q: What is your favorite time to Bird Cape May?
It’s a tough pick, but my favorite has to be the period between the end of September and the beginning of October. Hawk flights are picking up, neotropical and short-distance songbird migrants share the same airspace, waterbird migration starts in earnest, and the general social atmosphere that makes Cape May such a unique place really becomes obvious. It’s a great time to be here.

Q: Do you have any advice for young birders visiting Cape May?
Go slowly and see everything Cape May has to offer. Join a CMBO walk or stop in one of the centers, ask questions and learn all you can- everybody here loves to see young birders in the field. You’ll never forget your first trip, and you’ll definitely want to come back again and again.

Link to Young Birder Resources