SIOUX CENTER—It takes a sharp eye and ear to bird watch, but 18-year-old Kendall Van Zanten has what it takes.
The sophomore Dordt University environmental studies major has grown up with a love for the outdoors and for birds.
Since mid-May, he’s been working as a naturalist intern for the Sioux County Conservation Board.
He can’t pinpoint exactly why he took a liking to birds. It’s not something any of his close family had been into when he was growing up. But there was a bird feeder right outside of his family’s house in Mount Vernon, WA.
“At some point, I started taking over filling that,” Van Zanten said. “That turned into taking pictures of them and trying to learn what was coming to the feeder.”
And learn he did. He soon was able to identify those species that’d commonly visit the feeder. Those birds included gold finches, house sparrows, northern flickers and starlings.
“They’re a pest, but they came,” Van Zanten said.
By the time high school came, he started taking up the task of learning the different species of birds and how to identify them. Book ID guides were a handy resource for him when he was getting started, but they can get a bit heavy to carry, even in his camera’s backpack.
When an internet connection is available, allaboutbirds.org lets him look up information on birds such as their appearances, habitat range and its call.
Even apps are stepping up to help identify birds.
“There are some where you can take a photo of the bird, and it will try to give you the best options based on the photo of it,” he said. “There are a lot of resources out there now.”
Photography is still an important part of the bird watching experience to him, and he’s gathered quite a collection of photos through the years.
He’s used a Canon T5 since his freshman year in high school. In that time he estimates he’s taken somewhere between 12,000-15,000 pictures of birds.
“It’s a very cheap one, but it does the job for now,” Van Zanten said.
He has had one family member, a second cousin, take an interest in bird watching with him. If anyone got Van Zanten into bird watching, it was this cousin.
Mount Vernon has a mixture of woods and farms, making for a diverse environment for birds. It’s also about 30 minutes from the ocean and about an hour from the Canadian border. With all of that, it’s a good location for migrating birds and, occasionally, really lost ones.
It’s the lost ones that make for some of the most memorable finds.
Take the swallow-tailed gull he got to see.
“It’s a type of seagull from the Galápagos Islands, and it showed up in Seattle,” Van Zanten said. “It was about 3,000 miles away from where it should be.”
Then there was the lost painted bunting that showed up in a tow 20 minutes away from his own.
“At that time, that one should have been in Central America already, and their range never extends that far north,” Van Zanten said.
It’s these kinds of surprises that makes bird watching a worthwhile experience.
“You never know what you’re going to find,” he said. “You have birds you can expect to find in the area, but there’s never any guarantee that you’re going to find them. And sometimes you do find that random species that’s out of place. So you get these rare birds that pop up. It’s always a thrill to try to find them.”
The reasons birds can get so far off track varies, but storms are a common explanation. Birds hitchhiking on ships is another.
Near his childhood home, on the back of a neighbor’s property was a tree-covered hill that Van Zanten and his second cousin would frequently visit to look for different birds.
When he was able to drive, he and his second cousin took their explorations a bit beyond their backyards and neighborhoods.
His family moved houses six years ago, and in their new neighborhood is a little wildlife area that’s become Van Zanten’s new go-to place.
Bird watching in Sioux Center has exposed him to new species and experiences. Notably, there are much more warblers in this area, and properly identifying the different ones can be tricky.
To add to the challenge of bird identification, there frequently are geographical variations among the same species of birds.
“If you take a song sparrow, back from where I’m from, it’s a very dark brown bird. But out here, the first time I saw it, I didn’t even recognize it because it has a much lighter coloration here,” he said.
Similarly, the same bird can have a slightly different song.
His go-to place in Sioux Center for bird watching has been at the Dordt Prairie, where there a diverse range of birds can be found. He’s working there as one of the curators this summer.
Outside of Sioux Center, Oak Grove has been a good place to go.
Overall, he advised that spring and fall are the best times to start bird watching because that’s when the migrations are happening, leading to a more diverse selection of birds coming through most areas. Otherwise, it comes down to putting yourself in the appropriate habitat for the bird you’re searching for.