I’m pleased to present this interview with Mya-Rose Craig, a young British birder. I emailed May-Rose my questions, and she graciously sent her replies, which I hope you enjoy reading.
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Prairie Birder: Tell me a little bit about yourself, please.
Mya-Rose: My name is Mya-Rose Craig, I am 13 years old and live in Somerset, UK. I love birding and banding and feel strongly about conservation and environmental issues. I go birding locally around my local patch, Chew Valley Lake, where I also go banding. I have been banding for 4 years. I also love world birding and love getting to know the birds in a new country. I write a blog called birdgirl, write articles (I have a column in my local paper), give talks about my birding and conservation, and most of all want to be an activist.
PB: How and when did you first become interested in birding?
Mya-Rose: I have been birding all my life. My parents are birders and by the time I was born, my older sister Ayesha was 12 years old and was a birder too. I just got taken along everywhere they went and as I got a bit older, I loved doing everything that my cool teenage sister liked. Then when I was old enough to decide for myself, at about four or five years old, I decided that nature and birding were what I wanted to do too.
PB: You often go twitching with your family. What is twitching for anyone not familiar with it? And what was your first twitch?
Mya-Rose: I think people sometimes make the difference between twitching and birding into a really big one. At times, one merges into another. Birding is when you go out a place just to see what you see there, which might include knowing that it is good for a certain type of bird at that time of year, which you might see.
Twitching is when you travel (sometimes a very long way) to see a specific bird that is lost and out of its range. So for example, in the UK that might be a bird from America or from Russia. Three American birds that I have seen this spring, that were new on my British list, were Great Blue Heron, Hudsonian Godwit, and Hudsonian Whimbrel. Twitching is very exciting as you do not know if the bird will still be there when you got there. I am very lucky because my parents will take me to see a bird that is new for me even if they have already seen one in Britain. My British list is now 499! Because of the size of my British list, we only go twitching about once a month.
My first twitch was to the Isles of Scilly (islands off the southwest tip of England) for a Lesser Kestrel when I was only nine days old. That was when I was introduced to all of Britain’s top twitchers, as they like to remind me whenever they see me. Obviously, I can’t count that. Mum had a Caesarean and had only been out of hospital three days when we did the trip. She couldn’t even walk and had to get a cab to the bird.
Then when I was just over one [year old], we went to see a Black Lark in North Wales. It was the first time one had been seen in the UK but when we got there the bird was quite tame. This is usually because the bird is from somewhere so remote it doesn’t know to be scared of humans. As the bird came close to my pram, I pointed at it and shouted, a little bit too loudly, “Birdie!” That was my fourth ever word.
PB: What have some of your birding highlights been?
Mya-Rose: In 2009, when I was only six years old, I decided to join my mum and dad in doing a Big Year in the UK. I had a brilliant year, seeing 324 bird species and most of all, my birding skills really improved just from being out in the field every weekend.
The most amazing birding event of that year and probably of my life was when in the summer we decided to go to a coastal headland to look for seabirds flying past. We were hoping for a Cory’s Shearwater (which I still need). It was pouring with rain and was a miserable morning. Then suddenly, someone called “Albatross”. He said it so calmly, he could have been calling “gull”. I don’t know about in Canada and North America, but here Albatrosses are incredibly rare and seeing one fly past is a one in a million event. After a few seconds, we realised that it wasn’t a joke and we all tried to find the bird. Luckily, it did a circle giving me great views through my telescope. There were only 14 of us who saw the bird then and it is a day I will never forget, even though I was only seven years old.
I had my year list on a website called Surfbirds but someone had it taken down as they didn’t believe that a seven-year-old could have seen an albatross. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you are a young birder in Britain.
Then the BBC wanted to include me in a programme, so they followed us about for 10 days and made Twitchers: A Very British Obsession. I really enjoyed being filmed for the programme but was a little silly sometimes, as you can’t be good all the time when you are seven years old.
PB: Have you found some advantages and disadvantages to being a young birder?
Mya-Rose: The downside first, I have been subject to cyberbullying from British birders (adults and people in their late teens/early twenties). This is really upsetting and has had an impact on me.
After I was in the 2010 BBC documentary, a large number of birders made judgments about me based on adult behaviour rather than that of a seven-year-old child. There were lots of comments posted on a website called “Birdforum”. People think it’s ok to be mean about you on the internet and don’t see you as a real person.
One big female Norfolk UK blogger thought it was ok for her to be mean and take the p*** out of a seven-year-old which had nothing to do with Norfolk birding. I found the comments last year, but when Mum told her how upset I was, and asked her to post that she was wrong about me not being interested in birds (because I was still birding five years later), she refused.
The advantages of being a young birder is that you have time to do lots of birding and get lots of experience before other people have even started. Also, your eyesight and hearing are much better than an adult’s. I pick birds up really quickly. I think that as you get older, you have more and more facts jammed into your head. Without that, there is lots of space for birding information. There are always some birders who are interested in you and want a chat.
PB: Out of all the species on your very impressive Life List, do you have a favourite?
Mya-Rose: My favourite bird in the world is the Southern Cassowary, which you get in Queensland, Australia and which I saw in 2013. It grows to about six feet tall and is closely related to a dinosaur. The male looks after the chicks. One kick from one and you are dead.
PB: You’ve traveled to many different countries for birding; where is one place you’d like to visit that you haven’t been to already? And to where would you like to return to spend more time?
Mya-Rose: I would really like to go birding in Brazil, where I haven’t been at all. We were meant to be going next summer but with the Olympics, we might have to wait a year or two. I’d love to go to the Pantanal and see Jaguar, go to the Amazon from Manaus and bird in the Atlantic rainforest.
I would really like to go back to Australia. We spent a summer camper-vanning around Queensland but I would like to go back and go to Top End (Darwin) and the rest of Australia, but I think it would take ages. It would be amazing to drive inland too. I have lots of species still to see in Australia.
PB: Do you have a “nemesis bird” that you are hoping to see this year?
Mya-Rose: Here, that’s called a bogey bird. My most common British bird that I still haven’t seen is Little Auk, which is a sea bird. The problem is that you can only see them in certain wind conditions during November on the east coast of Britain and I live on the west side of the country. I really hope to pin one down this autumn.
PB: Do you have any ideas for getting other young birders and naturalists interested in birding and nature conservation programs?
Mya-Rose: Yes, this is actually something that I have been working really hard on. I have written articles on tips for getting children into nature and birds, including this one.
I think that it is important for children to be taught about nature and conservation in school in Science and Geography lessons and in practical sessions outside school at Guides and Scouts.
I have done workshops in Scouts and Guides and taken Scouts out birding to see Nightjar. Young people have been really engaged in these sessions.
I think it is essential that young people learn about these issues and so I have contacted teaching unions, to see if I can speak at their Annual Conferences as well at the Annual Conferences for the main [political] parties.
In June I also organised a camp for young birders and tried to get non-birding ethnic minority teenagers to attend as well. This went really well, with six out of 14 teenagers being from an ethnic minority. I am also carrying out research into diversity in nature.
PB: Who are some of the people you look up to in the birding community?
Mya-Rose: The top birder I look up to is Phoebe Snetsinger. She raised the bar in world birding and also kept really amazing records.
Other people who inspire me are Sir Peter Scott, and David Attenborough and Steve Backshall, who both appear on nature television.
PB: Are you looking to building a career around birds in your future?
Mya-Rose: I would like to be a wildlife TV presenter. I plan to get a degree in Zoology, then go on expeditions to remote places, trying to find new species or find out more about rare species and be filmed along the way.