By Tyler Walston*

Bob Ross, the beloved artist most of us know from The Joy of Painting on PBS, once said, “Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do.” This quote has stuck with me since I first heard it years ago, and it applies to my passion and (limited) knowledge of birds, which started somewhat accidentally in 2014.

As a park ranger at Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County, MD, I was patrolling a heavily used area when a visitor stopped me and asked if I could identify a birdsong coming from the woods along the trail. I couldn’t. Back then, my knowledge of birds wasn’t just limited. It was virtually nil.

Later in the day, I heard the song again and asked another visitor, who seemed to be paying attention to birds, if he could identify the species. It was a northern cardinal, he said — a common bird not only in the park but also across the eastern half of the United States. I was somewhat embarrassed that I couldn’t help the first visitor identify such a common bird.

I think most visitors look to park rangers to answer their questions about not only the park, but also nature in general. It’s a reasonable expectation, I realized, and from that point I have made a habit of learning as much as I can about native birds — not only their songs and calls but also their appearances, behaviors, diets, and habitats.

Not long after my “awakening,” I had the good fortune of tagging along on a bird-banding project at the park that focused on saw-whet owls. I came away with tons of tidbits about the owls and their behavior, which only encouraged me to learn more about this and other owl species.

At another bird-banding ride-along, I learned how native cavity-nesting birds, like many owls, face competition from invasive birds, such as starlings and house sparrows. They also encounter a lack of habitat due to a shortage of mature forests, where the cavities are more common.

These discoveries led me to begin building nest boxes, which mimic tree cavities, and installing them on trees in my parents’ backyard. I then learned that native birds such as Carolina chickadees need their habitat to consist of 70% native plants, which serve as hosts for the native insects they eat and feed to their offspring.

After moving to my grandparents’ old farm in 2015, I began adding native plants to my yard, which until then had been mostly turf grass with a couple of ornamental, nonnative shrubs. Over the years I have noticed more birds using my nest boxes and hunting for insects in my gardens.

My interest in birding often spills over into my social life. Indeed, many of my friends likely tire of hearing me talking about birds or pointing them out whenever I see them. This includes a group of friends I met through my coworker, Clark Meadows, who lives in the same neighborhood on Rolling Road in Salisbury, MD. We regularly meet at John Timmons’ house for cocktails on Wednesday evenings.

While they initially weren’t as interested in birds as I was, they nonetheless maintained feeders in their yards and would tell me (the “bird guy”) that they often heard owls in their neighborhood. After some discussion and listening to recordings of owls, we determined that at least one of the species was an eastern screech owl, a cavity nester that I’d been able to attract to boxes on my parents’ property.

With last spring’s breeding season approaching, I persuaded Clark to put up a nest box sized for screech owls. He did so, and within a few weeks he had a nesting pair in his yard.

Over the next several weeks, Clark and his wife, Cheryl, spent their evenings observing the screech owl couple (named Lucy and Desi) from a respectful distance in their garage. They noticed their routines and were lucky enough to observe them hunting songbirds and bats in their yard.

John followed suit and built a screech owl nest box. It, too, had a tenant within a few weeks — a great crested flycatcher. Not disappointed in the least, John and his wife, Lisa, spent the spring learning more about the species and observing the nesting pair.

In the weekly hangouts that followed, both couples were regularly sharing pictures and stories about their nest box families. Before long they knew more about the owls and flycatchers than I did!

This year, as we approach another nesting season, it is exciting to hear the neighborhood buzz in anticipation of what birds we may (or may not) attract. Preparations are being made: the nest boxes are cleaned out and backyards have been altered to improve habitat. The Rolling Road Nest Box Crew is anxious to see what birds decide to raise families in their yards.

Given what seems like a daily bombardment of bad or worrisome environmental news, it’s easy to understand why people who don’t work in the environmental field think there’s nothing they can do to help. Admittedly, citizen stewardship isn’t the answer to all of the planet’s problems, but I can't help but feel that giving people agency to effect change in their own backyards can lead to a citizenry more engaged on environmental issues.

Ultimately, I believe stewardship allows people to open their eyes to worlds they had little to no awareness of to begin with. And as happened with me, one thing leads to another. To be a well-rounded birder, you need to learn about bird behavior and habitat and biology. And that might eventually turn you into a well-rounded amateur ecologist.

I encourage you to consider planting some native trees, shrubs, and flowers and installing a nest box or two in your yard this spring. You never know what pursued interest might turn into skill, knowledge, or mayb even a lifelong passion.

*Reprinted with permission from the Bay Journal. 

Tyler Walston Virginia Tech XMNR alum

Tyler Walston is an XMNR ‘19 graduate. He credits the graduate program with giving him the skills he needed to join the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, where he works to help Maryland farmers secure funding for conservation practices on their farms. He lives in Salisbury, MD.

Read more about Tyler's experience in the XMNR program and how he was able to immeadiately apply lessons learned.