Semester I Special: Kaija Gahm enjoys participating in Teen Birders


Sophomore Kaija Gahm goes on birdwatching trip with other students who are passionate about birds.

The Newtonite

[media-credit name=”courtesy Kaija Gahm” align=”alignleft” width=”260″] Sophomore Kaija Gahm goes on birdwatching trip with other students who are passionate about birds.
by Perrin Stein
Northern mockingbirds can mimic the calls of dozens of other songbirds: one second they can make the call of a song sparrow and the next the call of an American robin. A New York City resident even reported a northern mockingbird that mimicked the sound of a truck backing up.
Sophomore Kaija Gahm, who is a birdwatcher, said the mimicking ability, the beauty and the intelligence of the northern mockingbird make it her favorite bird.
“A pair built a nest on my street, and when my brother and I tried to peek into it to see the babies, the parents started to dive bomb us,” Gahm said. “It kind of reminds me of Newton parents.”
Gahm’s interest in birds and birdwatching began three years ago when she learned about the Drumlin Farm Teen Birders from her friend sophomore Becca Webster.
The Teen Birders is a group of about 20 kids between the ages of 12 and 18 who go on monthly trips to different birding hotspots. Not all students go on all the trips.
Drumlin Farm instructor Becky Gilles, who teaches the Teen Birders, said the Teen Birders “get like-minded teens together to enjoy a day of being outdoors and learning about birds.”
According to Gahm, the goal of the trips is to teach kids about birds and bird wathcing.
“During the trips, the instructors point out a bird in a tree through a spotting scope, and then they let each of us look at the bird and the picture of the bird in the field guide, helping us understand the relationship between the real bird and the one in the book,” she said.
In addition to the monthly trips, the Teen Birders participate in two annual competitions organized by the Massachusetts Audubon Society: Birdathon and Superbowl of Birding.
The Birdathon is a fundraiser in which teams compete to find the most birds on a list of 270 species. Gahm has never competed in the Birdathon.
However, she has participated in two Superbowls of Birding.
In this competition, birdwatchers have 12 hours to find the most species on the competition list and to accumulate the most points. Point values are based on the rarity of the bird species.
This year’s Superbowl is Saturday, Jan. 26, and Gahm said she plans to compete.
Last year, the Drumlin Farm team won the Seekers’ award for finding 29 of the 30 birds on a list.
In order to win the Superbowl, the Drumlin Farm team drove around northeastern Massachusetts and southeastern New Hampshire, going to specific hotspots in order to find the most number of birds on the competition list.
Similar to most bird watching competitions, according to competitions rules, three people on the Drumlin Farm team had to see or hear each bird before they could check it off the list. For rare birds, such as the townsend warbler, competition rules indicate that a team must call a competition coordinator to report the bird.
One of Gahm’s favorite memories of birdwatching happened at last year’s Superbowl of Birding.
“We drove to a random guy’s house who had called in that a townsend warbler was in his backyard and invited all the teams to see it,” she said.
“We were standing still for a while and then saw a quick flash of yellow. It was so exciting to see the bird for the first time and to check it off of our competition list.”
In fact, Gahm’s first time birdwatching was at a Superbowl of Birding three years ago.
“It was a stressful experience because everyone was running around frantically trying to find birds, and I had no knowledge of what was going on,” she said.
Despite the chaos, Gahm said she found the experience fun and enjoyed the camaraderie of the other birdwatchers.
As a result, she started participating in Teen Birders trips on a regular basis.
“I like competitive birdwatching because it is really rewarding,” she said.
“For example, last year, I saw a bald eagle during the Superbowl, and if I hadn’t spotted it, our team would not have been able to check ‘bald eagle’ off our list.”
However, Gahm said her favorite part of birdwatching is seeing new birds and learning to identify them.
In order to keep track of all the birds she sees and the exciting memories associated with these discoveries, Gahm said she plans to start a lifer list, a catalogue of all the birds that she has ever seen.
According to junior Eliana Gevelber, who joined Teen Birds on Gahm’s recommendation, Gahm’s “interest in ornithology is contagious.”
At one point on a hiking trip, Gevelber said she “spotted a small bird in the nearby brush and called to Kaija. You could tell she was exploding with excitement as we scoured the pages of the field guide to determine the bird’s identity.”
Similarly, instructor Giles said, “Kaija has a great sense of humor and is really fun to have on the trips. She is mature and calm in the face of unexpected obstacles. She is knowledgeable on birding.”
Upon hearing Giles description of her, Gahm laughed, saying “‘unexpected obstacles’ refers to the time a few months ago when we drove our van into a cornfield after a rainstorm, and we ended up getting stuck in the mud.
“We tried to push it out, but we ended up waiting two hours for a tow truck. We spent the time chatting, watching a crazy stunt pilot and randomly shucking corn into our lunch containers.”
Adventures such as this keep Gahm interested in learning about birds, birdwatching and the Teen Birds.
Thanks to her participation in the Teen Birders, the Birdathon and the Superbowl of Birding, Gahm said, “I used say: ‘There is a bird,’ but now I can say: ‘There is a black throated green warbler.’”