In a dimly lit room, avid bird watchers gather for the annual Wabash Valley Audubon Society Photo Night at the Vigo County Public Library. One by one, presenters flipped through their photos to show off unique birds they saw throughout the year. When a presenter is stumped on the identification of a bird they photographed, the crowd works together to identify the bird. One photo in particular took these veteran birders longer than average to call out the identification.
From the middle of the meeting room, a quiet voice called out “it’s a … ” Emerging from the crowd was 15-year-old Amanda Beals. As folks looked in her direction, her father, Allen, said, “it wasn’t me, she is the one who knows them.”
It all started about five years ago when Allen noticed his wife enjoyed looking out the window at the birds and squirrels, so he bought her a bird feeder for her birthday in October. Little did they know the present was going to be something their daughter Amanda would get the most joy out of.
Their first visitor was a Carolina chickadee. “I was so excited to see it,” Amanda said. The very next day they had a red-bellied woodpecker. “That was what kind of set it, because here is this big, beautiful bird, somewhat zebra-striped, red-headed. It just kind of intrigued me,” she said. That Christmas she got her first field guide.
Passion spreads throughout family
The Beals’ yard is now dotted with an assortment of up to 10 bird feeders, depending on the season. Amanda spends on average six hours a week bird =watching. Out of the more than 800 species in North America, she can identify about 500 of them.
“I know most birds before I see them for the first time,” she said.
Her passion for the feathered friends has turned her parents into birders. Together, they travel around Indiana looking for birds.
“On a recent local bird count, Amanda couldn’t make it because she was sick,” Allen said. “Myself and another guy were on cell phones with her, saying help us out, identify this bird we are looking at and let us know what it is. We described it to her and she said it was a Lapland Longspur. We looked it up and sure enough it was.”
Their favorite places to visit are Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area near Linton and the Chinook Fish and Wildlife Area near Staunton. When they set out to go birding, they make it an all-day affair. They wake up early in the morning and don’t return home until sunset.
“When we go down to Goose Pond, we base it on where we want to eat for the day. We may hit Dairy Queen on the way down, grab some milkshakes, go bird for a little bit, then come back and eat in town, then go back out and do some other stuff. We try to make it as enjoyable as possible. It gives us something to do as a family together,” Allen said.
From birds to bugs
Amanda is not just known for having a knack for birds, she has the Snow White luster with insects too. She can catch butterflies and dragonflies with her fingers, although her interest is pointed toward praying mantises. Her father points to the fact she can spot one from up to 40 yards away. They will be out on a hike and she will notice their egg sacs on a rock.
Her interest in insects has earned her membership in the 4-H entomology group in Putnam County. When she first got into studying insects she would pin them. Over time she has developed a distaste for killing them, so she captures them and lets them go later. Every year there is a Junior State Entomology contest, where participants have to identify a dead bug in a box in less than 15 seconds. Additionally, they have to take a quiz on the identification of 150 different bugs. In past contests, Amanda has won first place for her county and placed second and third for the entire state of Indiana.
“I have always liked nature for as long as I can remember,” she said. “Over time, I have gotten more into conservation.”
Changes from extreme weather
During the drought of 2012, a brown thrasher visited Amanda’s ground feeder, which is not normal; they are pretty reclusive, she says. At the time their two bird baths were full of starlings, so she rushed outside and put a spare aluminum roasting pan filled with water on the ground.
“First it was one, then it was two, then they brought a baby. It was really neat. It was the only source of water around and they needed water. We had to fill the bird baths three times a day,” Amanda said.
Before the polar vortex cold spell hit a few weeks ago, Amanda made sure all of the feeders were well-stocked. Winter is hard on birds, since the days are short, and nights are often cold and long. The natural food supply has been consumed or is hidden by snow. Most insects are dead or dormant. Water can be hard to find, and food needed to provide the energy to keep birds warm might be scarce.
“During the cold snap, we had a field sparrow, which don’t normally come to feeders,” Amanda said.
Amanda is one young lady I look forward to following over the next decade. She would like to have a career as a naturalist and work in a park when she gets through school.
Jane Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Santucci is a proud volunteer with TREES Inc. and sits on the Wabash Valley Goodwill Industries Board of Directors. Share your environmental stories and tips with her at JaneSantucci@yourgreenvalley.com.