Students Explore Rocky Mountain Country

Students at Ute Pass summit. Photo: Maci Macpherson

The Western Field Ornithologists program for students at the July 2023 WFO/Colorado Field Ornithologists joint conference brought together amazing young minds from California, Nevada, Colorado, Texas, and Montana to experience birding in the Colorado high country. The experience was all we thought it would be: big, expansive Colorado views, large, loud thunderstorms, lots of laughs, wonderful bird and wildlife sightings, and even some life birds for many of the student birders.

This year, WFO’s expanded offerings to next-generation/student birders featured a preconference camping trip. Thanks to the generous WFO Student Programs budget, the trip, including food, was free to the birders and their families.

This fun addition brought six birders and their families to a US Forest Service campground near Frisco, Colorado. Students enjoyed setting up camp, eating tacos and hot dogs and s’mores around the campfire—and, of course, birding! Among the bird walks, the group meandered along the Lake Dillon Reservoir shoreline and went on a nighttime owling excursion which, unfortunately, was met with rain and lightning as a storm rolled in.

Field trip in Corduroy Canyon. Photo: Maci Macpherson

Discussions at the camp among the students and their parents, as well as two WFO Board members and myself, covered ideas for how WFO can adapt to and evolve with this engaged, young audience and take their enthusiasm for ornithology to the next level. The bonding and open discussion allowed friendships and respect to build even before the conference began.

At this year’s conference, students had additional options for student-specific field trips, including one I attended called the Grand County Big Day. Leaders Nathan Pieplow, author of field guides to bird sounds, and David Tønnessen, CFO Youth Ambassador, shared their knowledge of species and vocalizations throughout the day. On this all-day field trip, the group searched for species in juniper- and sagebrush-filled valleys and meadows, along reservoirs, and on the high-elevation Ute Pass Trail, which begins at 9,500 feet. The most exciting sightings included a female Dusky Grouse early in the morning, and a badger later in the morning as we looked for birds at a reservoir. Overall, the group saw over 90 species of birds!

The students continued to bond through the famous Bird Sound Identification Team Challenge moderated by Nathan Pieplow, the science sessions, additional field trips, an evening pizza party, and an evening of birding in the Copper Mountain Resort area. Through my eyes, the true magic of the student-specific programs and field trips is to see the future of ornithology, science, and community building in these next-generation birders.

Pizza party at Copper Mountain. Photo: Maci Macpherson

From the momentum and feedback at the conference, we now have four student members on the WFO Student Programs Committee who will help guide our programs for the next year. I am honored to work with and grow our WFO student members and activities with these amazing individuals who are going to shape the avian world in the near future.

—Maci Macpherson

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