Meet Braden Collard

Braden Collard, who grew up in Missoula, Montana, is an undergraduate at the University of Maine in Bangor. As of 2024, he says, “I have been birding for a decade, half of my life.” In fall of 2023, Braden started a Birding Club at the University of Maine. “If anyone reading this happens to be in Maine during the 2024–2025 school year,” he says, “please reach out to me and we can coordinate something!”—Teresa Connell, WFO Student Programs

How did your birding passion start?
When I was 10, my parents took our family to a water/skiing resort in Idaho called Silver Mountain for Thanksgiving. Growing up, we did not have cable television, so we never got the opportunity to watch a bunch of the shows that many of our friends and peers watched, like the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants. When we arrived at the resort, my sister and I wanted to watch SpongeBob. Instead, my mom made us watch a movie.

It was The Big Year, a movie during which three birders, played by Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson, compete to see as many birds in the United States and Canada as possible during one calendar year. After watching the movie, I turned to my dad and asked, “Can we do that next year?” He fully supported my idea, and a few weeks later we found ourselves at a wildlife refuge on a cold January 1, staring at a Bufflehead and trying to figure out what it was.

Do you have favorite species or favorite hotspots?
While I enjoy all types of birding, my favorite is ear birding while hiking in the mountains—I love learning and figuring out birdsongs. My favorite bird, or at least what I tell everyone, is the Northern Pygmy-Owl. I love how these owls are fairly easy to see as far as owls go because they are active during the day, but are still fairly rare, so I usually only see about one per year. They are adorable, especially when all fluffed up in winter, and represent my favorite habitat to bird in: the mountains. There’s nothing not to love about them!

I especially love birding underbirded hotspots, wild places that people rarely visit like trails in the mountains and overlooked city parks. One of my favorites is Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness, a large range a few miles north of my house in Missoula, home to a variety of fun birds including Northern Goshawks, Varied Thrushes, MacGillivray’s Warblers, and American Three-toed Woodpeckers. Along with the Northern Pygmy-Owl, I really admire Bohemian Waxwings, any chickadee, and just about every single North American warbler, although my favorites list, if I let it go far enough, would eventually be just about every bird species. It’s always hard to pick favorites.

You went to the joint WFO-CFO conference in Colorado last summer. How was your experience? Is there anything WFO can do to continue supporting young birders?
The conference was definitely a high point of my year! I really enjoyed the field trips and speakers, but the best part was getting to meet so many people interested in birds and learn from and about them! I think the youth scholarships helped bring together a good group of younger birders, and giving us our own field trips and activities was important. The camping trip before the conference also helped us bond a lot.

I think more opportunities for young birders, including at and beyond the conferences, would help WFO thrive as an organization. Holding conferences during times that young birders can attend them and providing ways for us to attend them are both vital given that many young birders do not have the resources/money and time that older birders do to attend events like this. I’m psyched about the idea of a youth birding camp that combines science and birding in the way that the big conference does.

Do you have a memorable day in the field you’d like to share?
Birding is especially exciting when I’m with my own age group. My birding buddy, Nick Ramsey, and I went on an adventure to seek out the elusive White-tailed Ptarmigan back in 2021. Nick and I met up with our friend Josh, whose favorite hotspot is Glacier National Park. Ten of us in total arrived at Jose’s house in Kalispell. Most of us were from Montana. Some were from California, Georgia, and Missouri. We pitched our tents in his backyard and were ready to depart at four in the morning. We were excited about this trek.

Braden and his friends in Glacier National Park.

We started up Piegan Pass Trail at dawn and saw many boreal species, such as Pine Grosbeak, Boreal Chickadee, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. We got great views and took many photos along the trail before we reached the top of the mountain. As soon as we arrived, we put our bags down and formed a line that stretched nicely across the area. We slowly walked forward, searching for movement. Skyler alerted us that he found a ptarmigan about three feet ahead of him. We quietly lowered our hands at the same time and watched the bird intensely. It walked about, seemingly not startled by our presence and even very curious about us.

White-tailed Ptarmigan. Photo: Braden Collard

As we walked down the mountain full of energy after finding our target, we high-fived Skyler for his expert spotting! Josh was thrilled to see the “Timberline” Brewer’s Sparrow (taverneri) subspecies. Everyone got a life bird and was happy to continue birding until dusk after we reached the parking lot. That day I saw more species than ever in Montana on a single list. The best memory is getting to share the experience with so many great young birders and new friends.

What do you enjoy in addition to birding?
I’ve always been a musician. My mother and grandmother played the piano beautifully, and I began learning around three years old. I still play today. I first learned with classical music. In seventh grade, I worked with a new piano teacher who gave me freedom to play jazz and pop. Fifth grade was a big year of change. I took up the alto saxophone, and I began birdwatching.

Bird songs came easy to me once I learned to listen to the songs. They just clicked for me. A family friend pointed out a Yellow Warbler singing “sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet!” and I started to ID birds by sound only—and this was before Merlin. My love of music wove into memorizing birdsongs instantaneously! I would be bushwhacking through the forest for about 30 minutes, listening to a singing bird, and wondering, Who are you? The more I recognized song patterns, my eBird lists doubled and tripled! I am especially drawn to warblers and vireos, and to Empidonax flycatchers, which are easy once you know their calls, because each is distinct. I look forward to expanding my playlist everywhere I go.

What do you envision doing in 10 years?
I see myself birding and fighting for birds! My passion for birds has only continued to grow these last few years, especially through meeting everyone else involved in the activity. Unfortunately, however, birds are declining across North America and Planet Earth, and they need our help. I’d like to help them by writing, expanding awareness of them through things like youth bird camps and clubs, and doing active conservation work on the ground to improve habitat, mitigate climate change, and eliminate threats like stray cats and window collisions.

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  1. Hi Braden, Thank you for being part of the Student Programs Committee and for your thoughtful newsletter article. I was drawn especially to your account of your music experiences and their relationship to birding. This is something I’ve thought about a lot. I think that becoming a musician no doubt helps in learning bird songs, but I am also intrigued by the ways that both music and birding allow a person to connect to something beyond their own experience. Playing in an orchestra, big band, or whatever (I’m a trombone player) allows one to participate in creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts; to me music somehow takes on its own life when the players are reacting instinctively to one another. Same thing in birding, watching a bird connects to the whole habitat, the bird’s migratory experience and so on.
    Rock on!