Can you identify a Short-eared owl, a Long-eared owl, a Lapland longspur, a Northern Shrike, an Eastern Meadowlark, or a Golden-Crown Kiglet? These bird species are the “exciting sightings” from this past week in Merry Lea’s Spring Birding Challenge.

From March 1 until May 31, Merry Lea is challenging teams of bird watchers in a competition to spot the greatest number of bird species in a 100-mile radius from Merry Lea. According to Lisa Zinn, coordinator of the event, there are 16 teams of four members (plus children in the novice groups) with over 60 participants. Each team must submit a team name and a $10 registration fee. At least two of the team members must spot each bird species, reinforcing that this is a team competition.  The migration of certain bird species are tracked using the data collected during this competition.

The participants are divided into three categories: novice (can identify 25 or less bird species), experienced (can identify 50 or more bird species, a few by call) and super-crazy (can identify 70 or more bird species by sight and call).

Luke Zehr, first-year biology and environmental science double major, is the only Goshen College student represented in this competition. While Zehr does not consider himself a birder (avid bird watchers refer to themselves as “birders”), he has found himself on a seasoned team that goes by the name of “The Migrant Workers.” Through a connection Zehr formed by helping with the Science Olympiad at Merry Lea, his name was given to birding groups seeking an additional member with the caveat that he is a busy college student with little spare time. However, he is now an official member of a team who has a history of winning and is in the most difficult category: super-crazy.

Right before the interview, Zehr completed his first official birding expedition with one of his teammates.  He entered Java with his three field guides and binoculars in tow.

Unlike his teammates, the competition for Zehr is “more about learning and studying birds than just creating a lifelong list of sighted birds.”

Zehr considers himself a novice birder, but admits he knows more about identifying birds than his peers. He can identify over 70 bird species by sight; however, he is able to identify fewer birds by their call.

Growing up on a small organic vegetable farm has influenced Zehr’s choice in major, along with the teachings of his parents; his father is a Goshen biology alumnus.

“While I was growing up, the scope of my experience was geographically limited, but I was quite aware of what was going on in the natural world around me.”

This birding competition continues into May term when Zehr will be living and studying ornithology (the study of birds) at Merry Lea.

“I hope to learn [while participating in the Birding Challenge] a lot more about the ecology of birds and be able to know Latin scientific names of birds, not just common names.”

According to Zehr, more than simply creating a bird list, birding “helps people learn more and become more involved with conservation efforts.”

Zehr and the rest of The Migrant Workers have two more months to add to their bird-sighting list, ending on May 31.

The next time you see people on the side of the road, walking the perimeter of a pond or trekking through the woods with binoculars and field guides, those birders just may be competitors in Merry Lea’s Birding Challenging.  Happy birding!