CAPE NEDDICK — The sun had just come up and was washing over Nubble Lighthouse when Sebastian Benedetto arrived with his mother, Laura.

It was the 12-year-old’s first Christmas bird count. And among a group of a half dozen birders who stood with teeth chattering and hands shaking, Sebastian wore an enormous grin, indicating he was right where he wanted to be.

“My friends are not into birding, and sometimes I don’t know the other birders,” he said. “There definitely are not any youth programs here. But that’s fine with me because my friends on the walks are the older people.”

Young birds of a feather look skyward at Nubble Light. That’s Fyn Kynd, 15, right, of Searsmont; Sebastian Benedetto, 12 center, of York; and Grace Evans, 13, left, of Old Orchard Beach along with Maine Audubon naturalist Doug Hitchcox.

Young birds of a feather look skyward at Nubble Light. That’s Fyn Kynd, 15, right, of Searsmont; Sebastian Benedetto, 12, center, of York; and Grace Evans, 13, left, of Old Orchard Beach; along with Maine Audubon naturalist Doug Hitchcox. Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

 

Birding draws 46 million people nationally, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent survey in 2011, but Maine and many other states lack clubs or programs for young birders.

Maine Audubon offers as many as 70 birding walks annually in southern Maine and beyond. Doug Hitchcox, a naturalist with Maine Audubon, said most of these are attended by seniors and birders who are retired.

“These are heavily weighted with older and retired participants because they have the time to do these. I have noticed more birders under age 35 in the last year or so attending these walks,” Hitchcox said.

“A problem in Maine is how big the state is. We know there are a small group of youth birders out there but the distance between them makes it difficult to establish something like a club that would be reasonably accessible.”

As many as 29 states have small, regional youth birding clubs listed on the eBird.org website. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, the web site encourages states to start youth clubs.

“It’s something that we talk about and aspire to support all the time,” said Eric Topper, Maine Audubon’s education director. “The few kids that do develop into full-fledged birders are interacting and being mentored largely online, I suspect, via eBird. So they likely don’t feel completely isolated.”

It’s been difficult, however, for youth birding groups to gain traction across the country.

In Florida, home of one of the country’s longest birding trails, 3.9 million of the residents are under the age of 18. Yet there is no statewide program for youth birders, said Jacqui Sulek, Audubon Florida’s conservation manager.

“I don’t know of any chapter that has enough young birders to actually sustain a young birders group. Maybe that is something we all need to work on,” Sulek said. “I think it’s small and localized. The kids I know that turn into really good birders, they bird with their parents.”

Ducks were among the species sighted by youngsters during the Christmas Bird Count at Nubble Light this past Monday.

Ducks are among the species sighted by youngsters during the Christmas Bird Count at Nubble Light on Monday.

New Jersey launched its first youth birding program two years ago. Since then it has attracted just 60 kids statewide, said Sam Wilson, the assistant director for the program. Wilson said there was a need to attract and help teenage birders learn field identification.

“In the club we want to help kids become better birders and naturalists and hopefully, in the future, conservationists,” Wilson said. “We have been working with kids for a long time. This concerted effort is for older kids who have a strong interest in birds. A lot of kids come on the trips and say, ‘I had no idea there were other kids my age interested in birds like I am.'”

In Maine, the National Audubon Society owns and operates a youth camp on Hog Island in Bremen. The Coastal Maine Birding Studies for Teens program offers youth aged 14 to 17 an intense, six-day study of birds with some of the nation’s foremost ornithologists. It has limited capacity and costs $1,300.

But the interest is definitely there. Both weeks of the 2016 camp are already sold out.

“It’s been especially gratifying to see how many of the teen campers we’ve been privileged to work with over the years have gone on to blossoming careers in ornithology and science themselves,” said camp director Scott Weidensaul, a nationally recognized researcher and author.

A female long-tailed duck, left, and a male long-tailed duck were among the species sighted Monday' Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

A female long-tailed duck, left, and a male long-tailed duck float on the ocean.

Colorado also offers two birding camps run by the American Birding Association, a national birding advocacy group that sees growth in this area.

“When I took over five years ago there were seven kids in a camp. Now all three camps (with 24 campers) are sold out,” said Bill Stewart said, director of conservation at the American Birding Association.

Maine birder Fyn Kynd, 15, of Searsmont, attended the Hog Island camp and won a scholarship to next year’s Camp Colorado. But he is largely self-taught.

“Maine has a great number of species. I don’t know why there are not more birders here compared to other states,” he said. “I don’t mind that I am one of the few young birders here. It’s what makes me unique.”

Fionnlaugh and Sebastian said in their state rich with wildlife they are both as rare as the Ross’s goose seen in Westbrook last week. But they don’t mind.

“His father and I don’t bird. We stand back and let him go,” said Laura Benedetto, Sebastian’s mother. “He’s still a 12-year-old boy. But he’s very mature. He goes out with York County Audubon on their Wednesday walks, and it’s basically Sebastian and all these surrogate grandparents. He has no concept that he’s not with kids.”