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A Pint-Size Ornithologist Earns His Bird-Watching Cred


Published May 3, 2016 at 6:00 a.m.

Isaac Wood-Lewis out bird-watching. - COURTESY OF VALERIE WOOD-LEWIS
  • courtesy of valerie wood-lewis
  • Isaac Wood-Lewis out bird-watching.

AGE: 9

Isaac Wood-Lewis loves birds. So much so that he once covered himself with leaves and birdseed and lay in the woods for 45 minutes waiting for one to land and eat.

Lauren Akin, director of Crow's Path Field School, thought of the experiment. And when she needed a volunteer, she knew that Isaac, who spends one day a week at the school, would want to participate.

Especially attuned to the natural world, Isaac spent lots of time last summer on his neighbor's porch watching monarch caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies.

But it's birds that really command his interest.

"I think it's cool that they're, like, one of the only animals that can fly and the only animals that have feathers," he says. "And also just how there's so many different types and, like, shapes and sizes and colors."

In spring, the Burlington 9-year-old gets up at 4 a.m. a handful of times to help band songbirds, a tracking method where a numbered band is placed on the bird's leg. On icy October nights, he stays up long past his bedtime banding saw-whet owls. And in January, he was the youngest member of Vermont's team at the Superbowl of Birding, a 12-hour bird-watching competition in Massachusetts.

Isaac's avian passion began about four years ago when, out shopping with his mom, a bird feeder caught his attention and he asked her to buy it. One feeder became four, and his short bird walks gradually got longer. Soon Isaac was using PowerPoint to create birding presentations for school kids and senior citizens. He saved his allowance to buy The Sibley Guide to Birds and had it autographed.

Isaac's mom, Valerie, recalls his first bird walk with adults in Colchester, when he was about 5 years old. "I'm his equipment carrier," she says. "And we come stumbling up. Everyone looks, and they're worried he's going to be a distraction — He won't have the attention span, he's going to scare the birds away," Valerie says. "And then he's the first one to spot [a bird]."

He even used birders' lingo to describe its location: "'Third branch up, three o'clock, on the dead part, move in a foot,'" Valerie says. "So he quickly earned his street cred with this group of gray-haired birders."

Birders have something called a "life list" where they log their sightings; Isaac's is already 270 entries long. Among his favorites are the plain chachalaca he saw on a family trip to Mexico and the spotted sandpiper he saw in Burlington.

He's excited to add to his tally.

"I have a lot of big-goal birds," he says, like the black-necked stilt and the gray jay. "Everyone who has seen one has hand-fed it," he says of the latter. And then there are birds-of-paradise, "probably the most amazing birds in the world," Isaac says. He watches their flamenco-like mating dances on YouTube.

Birding may seem passive, but it requires hiking to find birds and knowing about their habitats, diets, behaviors, colors and songs in order to identify them, says Larry Clarfeld, a teacher and naturalist at North Branch Nature Center, where Isaac helps band birds.

"I've never seen someone as young as Isaac who is so good at finding birds," says North Branch executive director Chip Darmstadt. Focus, curiosity, stamina and passion are all traits that serve the pint-size, yellow-tufted ornithologist well.

No birds came to feed the day Isaac lay in the woods at Crow's Path, though a cardinal came close, Akin says. She marvels at Isaac's willingness to be still, quiet and open: "He shares with the birds a gentle spirit and a curious nature."

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.