Luke Seitz learned about birding in Falmouth, but once he got to Cornell University he spread his wings, so to speak.
Seitz was one of the six Cornell students to take first place in the World Series of Birding in May in New Jersey. The 24-hour birding competition, held by the New Jersey Audubon Society, has helped make the art of birding cool and competitive. The fundraiser draws thousands of participants who help raise money for bird conservation, as well as public awareness about birds.
Seitz’s team identified 218 of the 255 species counted that day.
A Falmouth High graduate, Seitz, 20, spends his summers birding and guiding in exotic locations.
When did you start birding?
I started when I was 6, when my family lived in Connecticut, just outside Hartford. Then we moved to Phoenix for two years, and after that to Maine in 2003. We moved the summer before I entered sixth grade. Once I graduated high school, I was off to South America, and that’s when my guiding started. I was getting a little restless. I really wanted to experience new things on my own. And South America is just amazing.
Was your interest in birding unique among your peers?
Definitely it was a little strange when I was in middle school. I was trying to keep it quiet. It seemed a little weird and middle-school kids aren’t the most accepting. But by the time I got to high school and definitely now in college, it’s become this thing people know me for. It would be surprising for people in high school when I’d say, ‘Yeah, I don’t sleep in on the weekends, I get up at 5 to look for birds.’ Some would say, ‘That’s really interesting,’ and others would look a little skeptical. But a lot were interested in it.
What was it like, growing up birding in Maine?
Maine is just fantastic. It’s a wonderful mix of habitat and a wonderful mix of birds, especially along the coast. And it’s also a nice low-key place to live. The people here made it easy to get involved in birding and to feel comfortable. I guess the birding community has been really nice to me.
You graduated from Falmouth early and spent most of two years in South America. Talk about that time.
I graduated when I was 16. Then I basically spent two years on and off in South America, working a little here and there. I spent a lot of time in Ecuador and Peru. I guided a few tours. I spent a month in Texas guiding. I guided at one of the lodges in Ecuador. I did almost exclusively bird-related stuff.
The one thing that was tough, the guidance counselors (at Falmouth High) didn’t understand my not going to college and going to gallivant around South America. My counselors found that a little tough to accept, especially in Falmouth where everyone was expected to go straight to college. I didn’t even apply straight away. It took me two years to apply. And I just told my teachers and guidance counselors, ‘I’m going off to do my own thing.’ That was the toughest part, quite honestly. The students by then thought it was cool.
Your team at Cornell was the first college team to win the World Series of Birding. How was that experience?
This was my first time with this team of undergraduates from Cornell, which was a blast. They were incredible people who are super skilled at birding and really an absolute pleasure to hang out with for 24 hours cramped in a car. The competition is just a 24-hour bird race around the state of New Jersey trying to see and hear as many birds as possible. And it’s a fundraiser, so we raised $50,000 for undergraduate bird research at Cornell. We spent a whole week before down in New Jersey scouting.
But while you scouted, you also had no guarantee if you’d see the birds you had seen scouting, right?
One of the things you try to do when you’re scouting is find what birds are pretty consistent and try to piece together the trail with those birds. We had a team of six that was split into three sections, two of us in the northern part of the state, two in the central and two in the far south. We all tried to piece together routes based on what birds were sure bets. But we all missed the hairy woodpecker because we were all moving so fast.
The way this event works, it’s based on the honor system. You couldn’t report it if you didn’t see or hear it, right?
That’s right. We saw one every single day the week before. But we were going so fast when we were competing we just didn’t see one. So we didn’t report it.
You have other passions that evolved out of your passion for birding. Talk about those.
Birding is a major part of my life, especially my bird illustrations. I’ve been developing a portfolio of illustrated birds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, as part of different studies. Hopefully there will be some future work with those, maybe in field guides. Currently it’s mostly small projects I’ve been doing and little commissioned pieces.
How much guiding have you done in Maine?
Not very much. I helped out with a couple of tours on Monhegan Island.
Do you feel you’ve established yourself as an international birding guide?
I feel I need to do a bit more to become established. But it was great, at least for practice, those few years. I really loved it. One of the best things about birding is you start to know things really well, and the ability to share that with others and bring a group into a rain forest in Ecuador and see incredible birds and scenery. It’s a lot of fun. I hope that comes as part of a future career.