Like many 13-year-olds, Adam Dhalla enjoys seek-and-collect challenges. But instead of fantastical animé characters with saucer black eyes, his quarry is birds.
The Coquitlam teen, who’s in Grade 8 at Kwayhquitlum middle school in Port Coquitlam, is the American Birding Association’s 2018 young birder of the year.
The honour gives Dhalla a bit of celebrity status in birding circles, but, more importantly, he said, it adds some weight behind his efforts to grow awareness about birds and conservation of their habitats.
Dhalla’s first birding excursion was a family outing to Boundary Bay five years ago to check out the annual arrival of Snowy Owls that alight at the marsh looking for more bountiful food.
The experience made an impression.
“It hits you that they come from so far away,” Dhalla said. “The world is such a small place to them. They’re like adventurers.”
Dhalla started keeping his eyes and ears peeled for birds in his Westwood Plateau neighbourhood, then tried to photograph them with a simple point-and-shoot camera.
“You wanted to find more and more,” Dhalla said. “It was like Pokémon.”
Dhalla started logging his finds on eBird, an online citizen science program that tracks sightings to create maps of bird populations that scientists and conservationists can use to identify species that might be stressed or are thriving. Christmases and birthdays became an opportunity to improve his camera gear so he could take better, less intrusive photos.
Dhalla said he was captivated whenever he looked through his lens.
“We can’t tell what they’re thinking, what is happening in their brains, but you can relate to them yourself.”
As Dhalla’s photos improved, he started sharing them on social media like Instagram, where they might catch the attention of his peer group.
“It’s a great platform to connect the public to these birds,” Dhalla said. “As a young person, I think I can inspire other young people to get involved with conservation.”
Dhalla’s passion for birds led to spotting excursions during family vacations in Australia, Japan and Costa Rica, where he visited a shade-grown coffee plantation to learn how alternating coffee trees with native rainforest species can protect the area’s biodiversity and provide an ongoing home to birds.
It was that subject Dhalla spoke about when he was invited to be the youngest presenter at the International Ornithological Congress that was held in Vancouver last August.
“It’s like Comic-Con for birds,” Dhalla said of the annual gathering of avian researchers and conservationists.
To earn the title of the year’s top young birder, Dhalla submitted a portfolio of his photos and digital drawings of birds, as well a letter he wrote to the British Columbia government expressing his concerns for bird habitat in the vicinity of the controversial Site C dam near Fort St. John.
Dhalla’s win came with an expensive pair of Leica binoculars that will allow him to up his spotting game yet again and add to the approximately 800 species he’s already accumulated on his “life list.”
And while he may not catch them all, he can sure try.
• To see Dhalla’s bird photography, go to his website www.adamdhalla.com