BERNARDSVILLE, NJ – Somerset County naturalist Ben Barkley believes that the World Series of Birding is the ideal event to hook kids on birding and introduce them to a lifelong passion for conservation.
He should know; it happened to him. His experience with the annual event as a teen helped him discover his path to a career in conservation, and he’s working to do the same for the next generation.
Barkley grew up in Basking Ridge, taking birding trips with his dad. He saw birding as simply a family hobby until he spent the summer of 2009 as a camp counselor at New Jersey Audubon’s Scherman-Hoffman Nature Center when he was 16.
At the time he was introduced to Mike Anderson, director of the sanctuary, and got the chance to participate in the event that he is convinced changed his life.
“My first World Series of Birding was the best thing I’d ever been part of,” Barkley said. “I got home exhausted, it was the longest day, and I knew I wanted to do that again and again.”
Barkley hadn’t met a lot of serious birders before that day; his participation opened his eyes to a love of birding. After participating again during his junior year of high school, it led to his application to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for college.
At Cornell, his previous WSB experience was of critical importance.
“The World Series of Birding is the highlight of the year for the RedHeads (the Cornell birding team),” he said. “We started planning in November, researching routes and scouting locations. It was competitive to get onto the team, and the experience was a real rush.
“It’s intoxicating to compete at the college level,” Barkley added. “I made my best friends in the RedHeads. You bond with people when you spend that much time with them, doing something you all love.”
After winning several WSB trophies at Cornell, he became the captain of the team – a source of tremendous pride. Barkley then worked to broaden the RedHeads to get even those who weren’t part of the ornithology lab involved. He expanded from one highly competitive team, to four teams, who participate in different categories, including the Big Sit (spotting birds in one location) and the carbon-free category, where team members get around by walking or biking.
The WSB has become an ingrained part of Cornell culture.
After his graduation in 2015, Barkley followed his dream into the conservation world, spending three months in Israel counting raptors, and had the chance to participate on the New Jersey Audubon team that competed in Israel’s Big Day.
But New Jersey was the place he wanted to be. Now 25, and living again in Basking Ridge, Barkley believes his position as a naturalist at Lord Stirling Park, part of the Somerset County park system, is a dream come true. Not only does he get to share his love of nature with adults and children, he gets to work near some of the same people who helped nurture his passion for birding.
“Every day I get to work with kids and show them how amazing birds can be,” Barkley said. “Here’s the best part: I am now mentoring a youth team getting ready for the 2018 World Series on May 12. Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious; they can’t wait to go and be a part of the action.
“It is strange to no longer be actively competing, but I like to think that in seven or eight years, these kids will be encouraging the next generation, not only to compete in the World Series of Birding, but to understand and protect the natural world.”
Learn more at worldseriesofbirding.org. Learn more about New Jersey Audubon at njaudubon.org.