Story and photos by Karen Nichols/Daily Inter Lake
Columbia Falls teen pursues birds with an uncommon passion
When the alarm rings at 5 a.m., 15-year-old Josh Covill is already awake.
He always wakes before the alarm on these summer mornings.
Josh does not get up for a job or to go to sports practice. He gets up for birds.
It's an hour before sunrise, but the early birds are already singing and hunting for food.
And this morning, Josh is heading for Glacier Park with Dan Casey, who is perhaps the Flathead Valley's premier birder and a biologist for the American Bird Conservancy. Casey is more than three times Josh's age, but their passion for birdwatching is nearly equal.
"Not too many people my age are this into birding," Josh confided to Casey during a recent outing.
"Not too many people my age are this into birding," Casey replied.
For Josh, a fascination with birds began early in life.
Josh's mom, Jeny, says Josh has been into birds "since he was old enough to talk. He was always into nature - frogs, sharks, whales. Probably in grade school, he pinned it down to birds."
Josh's parents, Jeny and David Covill, are not birders themselves but fully support Josh's passion.
Bird-watching is one of America's fastest growing outdoor pursuits and a multi-billion dollar industry that primarily attracts middle-aged or retired people.
Among the mostly gray-haired participants at a recent Flathead Audubon field trip, Josh's baggy clothes and black "No Fear" ballcap pulled down over his wavy locks sets him apart.
So do his birding skills. Josh's iPod is loaded with bird songs and his brain is bursting with information about anything avian. And he's anxious to share the knowledge with fellow birdwatchers.
For Josh, birding isn't just a hobby - it's an obsession.
"I am birding all the time. Every second of every day I am birding. I have seen several cool birds from the window of my English classroom."
He has sometimes been so engrossed watching mountain chickadees or yellow-rumped warblers that his teachers have to snap him back to attention.
Josh maintains six bird feeders and a homemade bird bath in his backyard.
He is a talented artist, drawing detailed color sketches of the birds he observes. Every morning when not in school, Josh wakes before sunrise and walks his family's rural property, looking for birds. He has at least two dozen bird books on his shelves, in addition to birding videos and identification software.
Sunrise finally finds Covill, Casey and several other young birders at Logan Pass in Glacier Park, seeking a white-tailed ptarmigan. If they find it, it would be No. 316 for Josh's "life list," the number of birds Josh has tallied in his 15 years.
The high-country ptarmigan eludes them, but Josh is excited by their other finds: gray-crowned rosy finches, American Pipits, white-winged crossbills, a Nashville warbler. The group spends 12 hours birdwatching, with many stops between Somers and Siyeh Bend.
While some of his friends and family are somewhat puzzled by Josh's obsession, Casey, 52, can relate perfectly. In the 1970s, he was a teenager obsessed by birds in his native New Jersey.
Casey is impressed by Josh's field skills, particularly his ability to distinguish bird songs by ear and his joy of observing even common birds. Josh has exceptional skills, but remains humble about them and eager to learn from mentors like Casey.
Casey points out that, unlike during his own youth, Josh has access to a wealth of information about birds all over the world through the Internet, DVDs and other media.
Josh is the youngest participant in the online Montana Outdoor Birding Group, which has cemented his reputation statewide. Not bad for someone who doesn't even have a drivers' license yet.
On a Montana Outdoor Birding Group posting about a February bird sighting, Josh wrote: "I was just outside having a snowball fight with some friends, and a GREAT HORNED OWL flew over!!! This was not even 20 minutes ago!!! … Number 71!!! OH YAH!!! You can tell I still have an adrenaline rush, can't you."
For Casey, Josh's youthful enthusiasm is refreshing and contagious.
"Josh is ready to high-five when we see birds, or jumps up and down. Not a lot of adult birders do that," Casey said.
The pair met through a Flathead Audubon field trip when Josh was 12 or 13. Josh discovered Flathead Audubon in a newspaper article, opening a door to an entire community of people who share his interests and connecting him to experts like Casey. The pair have become regular birding partners, covering much of Flathead County together this year as part of Josh's desire to observe as many birds as possible on his 2008 Flathead County bird list.
Ever since that first field trip, Josh has become a regular participant in Flathead Audubon. Increasingly he plays a leadership role, even substituting for Casey on an August field tour looking at shorebirds, a class of birds that are problematic for even seasoned birders.
While a very good student at Columbia Falls High School, Josh's discussions about the upcoming months don't focus on classes but on fall migration.
"I am looking forward to watching gulls at the landfill in November and hopefully getting up to Mt. Aeneas to watch the hawk migration."
Few of Josh's peers can relate to his passion.
At school, "I kind of shift gears. I shift into normal kid mode, and as soon as the bell rings, I shift back to birding."
He was able to remain in "birding gear" among his peers this summer when he attended a Young Birders' Conference in Minot, N.D. Sponsored by the American Birding Association, the conference brought together 14 young adult birders from across the country. They spent a week learning from experts in the field and the classroom.
"It was so great to meet other young birders and make friends," Josh said. "Everyday, we got up at 3 or 4 a.m. and birded until early afternoon."
Flathead Audubon paid for half of the conference costs.
Josh's mother, Jeny, said the conference was a life-changing experience for him.
"At the conference, all the kids have the same interest and drive. He bonded with those kids like he's never bonded before."
Josh stays in touch with many of those friends via e-mail and a Facebook page. Two of the boys traveled to Columbia Falls this summer to bird watch with Josh.
Josh is hopeful that his obsession will lead to a career involving birds.
Casey is a real-life example of how a boyhood passion for birds can grow into a meaningful, fulfilling career. Josh is excited at prospects of leading birding expeditions or studying birds as a field biologist.
His mom and dad are encouraging that idea, and are pleased with his drive and academic success.
"God has given him these gifts for a purpose. Whatever his higher calling is, it will involve birds," Jeny Covill said.