For some teens, getting a license means offering rides to friends, taking trips to the mall, freedom. For one Evanston, Illinois senior, it was mostly about the birds.
Isoo O’Brien, 17, is expected to break the Cook County record for individual bird species spotted in a year, clocking 282 species by the end of October. With a little more than a month left before 2021, O’Brien is still working to check off a few final species in the hopes that his record holds for years to come. Topping the record was a big deal for O’Brien, and for other birders, who banded together to offer tips so O’Brien could drive — or sometimes sprint — to a yet unseen bird.
O’Brien hoped to hit 270, maybe 275 species this year.
“But in the back of my mind all I really wanted to do was to break the record,” which was 281, he said. “The record was so high that I just was like, I don’t want to set that expectation for myself and be disappointed it doesn’t happen. But it ended up happening.”
O’Brien got into birding through his grandparents. Swapping stories of birds was a way to stay in touch. Then came field guides, databases, apps and a club for fellow fledgling ornithologists.
“This might be kind of shocking,” O’Brien said. “But there’s actually enough young birders in Illinois that there’s a club called the Illinois Young Birders.”
In the last year, O’Brien finally had his driver’s license. And he had only one year left before college. So he decided to embark on what is known as a “big year” — a challenge for birders that entails finding as many species as possible in a specific geographic area.
“Let’s say a rare bird shows up,” O’Brien said. “You have to drop everything and get in the car and go get the bird.”
Undertaking a big year requires a serious commitment, said Carl Giometti, a board member of the Chicago Ornithological Society.
“You need the birds to show up,” Giometti said. “And you need to be lucky enough to get there in time.
“The key is just to always be birding.”
Giometti said one birder’s quest for rare birds can inspire the larger community, and “Isoo covered every corner of Cook County imaginable.”
“Yes, it’s one person’s achievement, but it’s really only achievable, especially in a place like Cook County, if everyone chips in and reports rare birds quickly and gives good locations and helps out,” Giometti said.
When Giometti saw a prairie warbler one day in Grant Park, he was happy to pass along the tip. “I texted him right away, like, ‘Hey Isoo, we’ve got a prairie warbler right here.’ “
Dozens of people from the birding community have helped in some way, O’Brien said. “And also my family as well. They let me take the car a lot and they’ve really understood that this is a passion.”
The key to breaking the record was putting in the work for rare birds, O’Brien said. There’s a limit on the birds likely to fly by, and O’Brien expected to hit the majority of the species he might see in the first half of the year. By the end of May, O’Brien had counted just over 250 species. There’s a gradual slowdown after June and it’s tougher to make substantial progress.
While balancing Zoom classes, family time and a social life during the pandemic, O’Brien also contended with the lakefront shutdown, a challenge some birders thought would pose a threat to breaking any record.
But O’Brien has a unique focus, said Matthew Cvetas, former president of Illinois Young Birders. Cvetas came to accept that the young birders were likely to be chattier than some of his adult counterparts, who were generally more mindful not to spook the birds. O’Brien, however, was quiet and watchful.
Cvetas remembers a trip to northern Illinois to spot snowy owls. The group found one, sitting on railroad tracks. O’Brien hunkered down on the ground to get the perfect shot.
“I don’t think there’s any question that Isoo is having a phenomenal year,” Cvetas said. “I think it just shows his intensity, his focus, his skill, his perseverance.”
O’Brien’s level of dedication is emblematic of a strong group of young birders coming up, Cvetas said.
“Not only are they interested in the hobby, but they’re really good at it,” he said. “To the point where they’re already leaders in their community. You’ll find many of them leading volunteer bird walks, or discussions on social media about complex identification issues.”
The Cook County record was last broken in 2013, also by a teenage birder. Before that the countywide record had been in place since 1990. The statewide record was also broken this year, with 335 species spotted all over Illinois.
A black tern — a smoky-colored seabird — was O’Brien’s favorite find of the year. It was September, late in their migration. “So I was expecting, ah, I think I might have missed this one,” O’Brien said. But a friend working along the lakefront saw some birds flying by and alerted O’Brien, who booked it a few blocks over and glimpsed the species before they were gone.
O’Brien reports his sightings on eBird. At the end of the year, a committee with the Illinois Ornithological Society will review records from those who have reported high numbers and flag any particularly unusual birds.
“No one’s going to question if you saw a really common bird, like a mallard or a house sparrow,” O’Brien said. But for more uncommon ones he’s careful to snap a photo or make sure he has a second witness.
O’Brien’s looking forward to meeting more birders in college — and hopefully seeing new birds. He’ll be ready for the return of warblers in spring migration, his overall favorites. As for advice for young birders, O’Brien recommends not rushing into anything and getting to know one habitat really well.
“Take your time with learning the birds,” he said. “There are a lot of people that, when they’re first starting out, will overestimate their abilities and they’ll say, ‘oh I saw this and this and this and that,’ and the best way to get into it is just study the birds. Learn them. Look at them as much as you possibly can.”
There’s no reward for breaking the county record, other than the personal reward of finding the rarities and having an excuse to get out and see as many birds as possible. But, O’Brien said, “birders all get it.”
Story by Morgan Greene
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