In the five years since Asher Perla became passionate about birding, he has been busy. He did a record-breaking big year in Yuba County where he lives in 2020, joined WFO in 2021, participated in the 2022 Reno conference, and became at age 15 an eBird reviewer. Asher is not slowing down in 2023. He has joined Ed Harper, Mark Martucci, and Ed Pandolfino on their the WFO Birdathon team, called Valley Guys. Asher is the guest on WFO’s inaugural podcast, The Word Is Bird, hosted by Nicholas Earnhart, to be released this spring. “Nicholas interviewed me on several aspects of the young birder experience and my personal plans,” Asher says, “and we connected as young birders.”
What drew you to be interested in birds?
I have noticed birds for as long as I can remember, but I only began seeking them out and identifying them when I was 11 years old. That’s when my passion for birds started. I was captured by the accessible diversity of birds and the fun of classifying and making lists of the birds I had seen. I slowly became part of my local birding community, learning from others and finding new mentors and friends. Today, birding consumes my life, taking me on many adventures to wonderful and exciting places.
What are your favorite places to bird?
I love birding pretty much everywhere, as long as it is somewhere fairly free of other people. I love the serene calmness of birding somewhere esthetically beautiful like an old-growth forest or a mountaintop. I love the joy and excitement of birding mountain meadows in the morning, or oak woodlands in April when all the birds are singing. I love scoping through shorebirds at dusk at any marsh or water treatment plant. Most of all, my favorite places to bird are the ones I know. There is almost nothing more rewarding than finding a new bird at a place you’ve visited dozens of times, or visiting an old friend you know quite well. Discovering new places with new birds is also a thrill, but I find that the calming effect of revisiting and getting to know certain places is my favorite.
Do you have a favorite group of birds that you like to watch?
There is something magical to me about the grind of waterbirding. In Yuba County, my county, wetland habitats are limited throughout the year. In order to find shorebirds, ducks, or gulls, I need to get creative and commit to visiting the same area over and over and over in the small hope that something new could have arrived. The struggles of hiking in 100-degree-plus temperatures at a stinking water treatment plant or withstanding wind and rain while scanning gull flocks and the excitement of finding something rare among the large flocks of similar birds are some of the most intense lows and highs of birding for me. The hard work of identifying and repeated searching makes the joy of eventually finding something even more wonderful. And, of course, the habits and life histories of all waterbirds are fascinating and great to watch.
What activities did you enjoy at the WFO Reno conference last year?
I had a blast at the conference. I enjoyed everything. My favorite parts, though, were the social and educational opportunities during the various dinners, presentations, and other activities. I loved hearing about fascinating new discoveries at the Plenary sessions, and participating in the sound ID challenge and photo ID panel! In all of these things, my favorite aspect of the conference was getting to reconnect with old friends and to meet fantastic birders and ornithologists for the first time while learning and sharing my passion for birds with others who were just as excited as I was!
How to you think young people like yourself can get more involved in birding and in WFO?
I had never heard of WFO until an older birder friend told me I should join after I noticed his WFO hat. I think WFO could attract more young birders by making its presence known at the level where young birders are more likely to interact with the organization. When I was starting, most of my connections to the birding community were through local Audubon chapters and online resources. Maybe if WFO had more of an online presence on such sites as Audubon or eBird or ABA (or at least was mentioned with links there), WFO would be easy to find. Particularly for young birders, there are several online resources with compiled lists of young birder groups. Perhaps WFO could find a way to get on those lists
I think that part of what makes WFO inaccessible to youth is the very thing that makes it great: it is a collection of some of the very best birders and ornithologists in the west. So it isn’t exactly focused on beginning birders, which many young people tend to be. Of course, if young birders joined WFO and went to a conference, they would fairly quickly stop being beginners, and that would be great. Organizations such as Audubon and Cornell and ABA are focused on a super-broad, diverse community, and their online presence shows that. Since WFO is not (at least currently) such a generalized organization, it makes sense to me that it has a bit more trouble finding and engaging youth. It takes a great deal of dedication and commitment to loving birds before something like WFO is even interesting. It makes sense that kids who aren’t yet sure they love birds don’t find their way to WFO.
It’s honestly a bit intimidating to be part of a community that includes some of the most “famous” and revered ornithologists in the US, especially if you don’t think you belong there. That’s why I’m so glad I came to the conference in 2022, because I felt like I did belong, and that feeling was one of the greatest in my life. But I can certainly understand how someone who feels shy or does not enjoy networking and socializing as much as I do might not be as stoked about the conference as I was (and, by extension, about WFO).
However, if WFO did more outreach to youth who are already fairly into birds (as they are beginning to be), WFO could perhaps both foster a new generation of people in the organization and make the organization easier to discover without relying on word-of-mouth. I think online resources for young birders would be great, but maybe also localized field trips? WFO representatives could lead youth field trips in given areas (northern California, for example) and give an opportunity for these kids to go on a next-level bird walk. That would be a great way to get them excited about WFO.
How did you become a primary regional eBird reviewer for Yuba County?
This was a long process. I started using eBird every day (1,492 days in a row as of March 25, 2023). I made lots of misidentifications and therefore was frequently in contact with the local reviewer. As time passed, I developed a relationship with the reviewer as my identifications were more on the mark. He had fewer sightings to review, and I actually was listing more unusual birds. My friend Liam Huber, who loves birding as much as I do, was also in contact with the reviewer. We approached the reviewer and found out he might be interested in assistance. The reviewer covered six counties: Yuba, Butte, Colusa, Tehama, Sutter, and Glenn. John took on Butte County, and in 2022 I took on Yuba County. By then, I had a better understanding of the distribution of birds. My initial role was to change filters, meaning what is an acceptable number of birds at one time in a given year, and to edit hotspots. I now review most records as well as some problematic ones. This keeps the science pure.
Share some highlights of your Yuba County Big Year in 2020.
The Yuba County record was 220 until I broke that record by seeing 241 species. This started out as a friendly competition with high hopes of seeing more than 220 species. It was a tight race as John and I paced nearly side by side and birded together often. I finished the year with one more species than he did. Sharing the birds each of us saw helped breeze pass the old record by adding 21 species.
My favorite memory was spotting a male Costa’s Hummingbird in chaparral while looking for gnatcatchers at about 2,000 feet above sea level. I saw it briefly. I returned the next day. John, who is a photographer, took many beautiful photos of the hummingbird. We put up a feeder, and the bird buzzed around and displayed in flight. It stayed for a month as we continued to feed it, noticing its personality, and it was quite friendly. In 2021, it showed up at the same spot, and we put up the feeder again. John and I felt a special connection to this hummingbird. I’m happy to say that it was also a first county record! County bird #205.
Another memory was a stormy day when I scoped next to my open car door to stay dry. The wind and rain were making their way fast inside my car. My scope view was blurry from the droplets of water. I was looking at a bunch of Herring and California Gulls. Yes! An Iceland Gull was in the flock. County bird #236. It was as wet as I was.
After I won by one species, John awarded the prize: a print of the Costa’s Hummingbird. What a memory. It was a great year.
Thank you, Asher, for your comments and suggestions about attracting more young birders to WFO. I think you are right in your observations about the differences between WFO and other birding organizations like Audubon chapters, ABA, or platforms like eBird, Merlin, etc. In addition, I would add that WFO membership is spread rather thinly over a very large area, with concentrations in a few areas.
I like your suggestion of field trips targeting youth who are ready for the next level and will be sure that our Student Programs and Field Trip committees consider this idea.
On another note, congratulations on your breeding record of Say’s Phoebe for Yuba County!