90th Anniversary Feature
A Brief History of the Columbus Audubon Avid Birders
In 1980, popular annual Columbus Audubon Society trips to Killdeer Plains and the Clear Creek valley were the only organized public outings for local birders who ventured much outside the immediate metropolitan area. In August of 1982, spurred by ambitions shared by Judy Howard and Bruce Peterjohn, a meeting was held at the home of the Society’s then-president Jim Davidson, and it was here the Avid Birders group was founded. Its first announced field trip was to Lorain on November 27, 1982 in search of gulls and waterfowl. Several of that outing’s 11 participants remain active in the Avids to this day.
At first Peterjohn, later to author The Birds of Ohio, led field trips for the Avids, with Howard overseeing the organizational work. In 1983, the group began including weekend-long trips to birding spots outside the state, such as Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain, Cape May and Niagara Falls, and similar expeditions have been undertaken nearly every year since.
Other obligations caused Peterjohn to be less and less involved in leadership of the Avid Birders into the mid-1980s, whereupon Howard, Bob Conlon and Dave Horn began to assume more of the associated duties. Not long thereafter, in January 1988, the first week-long trip of the “Hell’s Birders” went to coastal and south Texas. Over ensuing years, clad in black sweatshirts sporting the strange device of the group, members invaded unsuspecting towns across the country, methodically observing the best of the local birds and vanishing as mysteriously as they’d come. Colorado, southern Arizona and California fell victim to the Hell’s Birders’ depredations during a far-flung series of raids through 1996. The sweatshirts have become collector’s items after the loss of the artwork and the ravages of time.
In 1993, leadership of the Avids passed peacefully from what had come to be lovingly known as the Central Committee, or even the Commissariat, to Pam Raver, Bill Heck and Doreene Linzell. The grueling schedule of ten day-long trips per year was maintained. I came on to help in 1995, and after Raver and Heck retired in 1997, Joe Hammond stepped in and Brad Sparks joined the leaders in 2003. After Joe moved away from the Columbus area, Linzell filled in until Heck retuned to the fold in 2007, bringing the leadership group to its present composition. If we see farther, it is only because we stand on the shoulders of giants, and evermore leaders are required to live up to earlier standards.
Full-scale trips to venues as distant as south Florida, Maine, the Pacific Northwest, and Churchill, Manitoba have taken place in recent years, with shorter trips to Michigan, West Virginia, Ontario, the central Atlantic coast, North Carolina, and shorebird spots in Delaware and Virginia. Foreign Avids’ trips have featured the birds of Israel and Belize. During 1998 members kept track of all species they observed in the US and Canada; this collective “Big Year” totaled 701; they went on to assemble a Collective Life List of all species ever seen by active Avids members in the same area, an impressive 784 as of this writing. These lists, plus trip schedules and archives and other information, are on the Avid Birders pages on this Web site.
The increasing popularity of birding has changed the Avids’ focus in recent years; now less emphasized are the well-known local birding Meccas in favor of other areas where leadership and cooperative efforts can make a greater difference. Smaller groups are more often informally organized. Increasingly, new areas in Ohio are explored for their avian riches. Birders from outside Franklin County are coming along too: Ohio trips over the past year have involved birders from a dozen or more counties around the state — and even from neighboring states.
Still, Avid Birding is not for everyone. Even the local trips leave at 5:30 a.m. and require a day-long commitment to car-pool to locations where long walks in extreme weather — not-so-fondly called “death marches” by some — may be required. Lunch usually consists of whatever you can carry and eat along the way. Some leaders provide an example by snacking continuously. Chances to meet friendly bird-finding enthusiasts abound, however, as do opportunities to learn from leaders (occasionally) and the birds (always). Our feet may get sore and wet, and we may grow intimate with ticks and mosquitoes; cold winds can cause icicles to drip from our noses and frost our lenses, but we’ll cheerfully walk five miles in stifling heat and hailstorms for a good bird, or even the chance of one. Those who share our obsessions are always more than welcome!
Bill Heck acknowledges lots of help from fellow Avids Gina Buckey, Bob Conlon, Gretchen Fluke, Dave Horn, Judy Howard (especially), Doreene Linzell and Pam Raver in piecing together this history.