Saturday, April 16, 2011

Utah Birder Profile: Kiirsi Hellewell

Kiirsi Hellewell
West Valley City, Utah

How did you get into birding? Did you or do you have a birding mentor and can you tell us about that person? Did you have a “spark bird”?

I’ve never personally known anyone who was a birder. For about the last 3 years, I’ve felt more and more of a desire to learn about birds, and finally started into it seriously last year.

I grew up in northern Wisconsin and have always loved birds. The Wisconsin state bird is the American Robin and I can’t remember how young I was when I learned to recognize them but I’ve long loved them as an early favorite. I don’t think there was any one bird that started it off for me but I grew up in and around forests. The constant bird songs and calls that were a part of the background in my childhood were always something that intrigued me. In those days, the internet was not around for my family, and my local library was very small. It didn’t occur to me that I could find out which birds made the noises I’d always heard.

It’s been a thrill this past year to discover identities to a lot of the bird sounds I’d heard all my life.

How often do you go birding? And where do you regularly go birding?

I go whenever I can, but sometimes it’s only once or twice a month (besides neighborhood walks). I stay pretty close to home most of the time because of the rising cost of gas. I like the canal behind my house, Decker Lake, Miller Bird Refuge, Memory Grove, Mehraban Wetlands, the International Center.

Where is your favorite place to bird in your Utah? In the U.S.?

Any place that has birds is great, and bonus points if it’s also beautiful. I really miss the Wisconsin forests. I enjoy Miller Bird Refuge in Salt Lake…cool, shadowy trails by the creek. Decker Lake is fun for all the waterfowl.

Do you have any local birding hotspots that may be yet unknown to other birders that you would be willing to share with us?

I don’t have any “unknown” places, but I’ve been to the Mehraban Wetlands in Draper, Utah several times and it’s a great little place to find a good variety of birds.

How would you describe yourself as a birder? A “watcher”, a “lister”, a “chaser”, “ticker”, “twitcher” all of the above, or something else?

I think I’m mostly a watcher. I love to watch the birds and be out in nature. I do also enjoy adding to my life list, though, and keeping track on eBird. Writing down locations where I first saw birds really helps me remember the day and the experience.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I’ve used cheap no-name binoculars for the past year, but on the advice of another birder, after saving a long time, just this week I bought Nikon Monarch 8x42 binoculars. They are absolutely amazing.

How do you keep track of your bird observations?

Since I use birding not only for my own enjoyment but as part of my children’s schooling, I initially made some “Life Lists” in different formats for myself and my kids on the computer. Some were text only and others let the kids draw pictures of the birds, as well as add details in writing. Then I discovered eBird and I’ve also been using that this year. It’s great to have the technology at hand to use online maps, see other birders’ local observations, and more. I like keeping track of when and where we first saw birds because it helps us remember clear details about the day and experience.

What is your favorite bird sighting and what is the story behind it?

Every new sighting is pretty exciting to me, especially if I either recognize the bird immediately or am able to find out what it is later on, by going home and looking it up. One time when I was at Cooper Park looking for Burrowing Owls (with no luck) I saw a Western Meadowlark. I had never seen or heard one before and was captivated by the beautiful song and colors.

What is your favorite backyard bird? Any good backyard birding stories or amazing backyard bird sightings you can share?

My kids and I love Chickadees. We could watch them for hours at our feeders and in the trees in our yard…we love their crazy acrobatics, their songs and calls, the way they eat sunflower seeds, and their curious, friendly nature. One day that we’ll remember forever, they took seeds from our hands. Later that same day I was re-filling the peanut butter on a hanging pinecone and a Mountain Chickadee came and started pecking it off while I was still putting it on.

I also loved the day we saw a Spotted Towhee in the back yard. That was a first, and so was the Northern Flicker that showed up a week later. Watching the California Quail run around with their heads bobbing is endlessly entertaining.

I love watching the Robins, too. One day the kids and I were fascinated to watch a tug-of-war going on between a Robin and a worm embedded deep in the ground. The bird pulled as hard as he could, the worm didn’t come out. He rested, then picked it up and pulled again. Rested, pulled again. The worm slid out little by little but I think it was nearly 5 minutes before he got his prize. We cheered, but felt a bit sorry for the worm. :)

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

I spend most of my birding time online at,, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site. My kids and I also love the “Nifty Fifty” state bird guides. The Utah Birders blog is a new favorite, as well. I love for a lot of reasons but I’ve especially used the terrific “Places to Bird” lists on the left frame. It’s helped me so much in figuring out where I can go to see birds, especially close by.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

I really like the Sibley Field Guides, but I’ve enjoyed all of the field guides at the local library. The Sibley guide just “clicks” with me for some reason. I like the way it’s laid out. I also like guides that use photographs instead of or in addition to art, and I’m really looking forward to the western version of the new Crossley ID Guide. It looks amazing.

What future birding plans do you have?

I’d really like to explore lots of local spots in Utah. I haven’t had the means or time to get to very many. I hope to visit Antelope Island soon, and get up in the mountains more. I also would love to re-visit northern Wisconsin and go birding there.

Anything about your family you’d like to share with us?

I homeschool my three children and I love to incorporate birding into their schooling. It’s a great opportunity to teach them about science, nature, and love for their fellow creatures.

Outside of birding, what are your other interests or hobbies?

I love to read…children’s and teen novels pretty much exclusively. I like writing, and would like to write children’s books someday. I enjoy being with my family, learning about anything and everything, music, gardening, and knitting/crocheting.

If you were a bird, which species would you be and why?

I’m not sure which species, but it would have to be something with a beautiful song and voice. I love singing and music. Western Meadowlark, House Finch, Hermit Thrush are possibilities.

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?

We’re birders. Doesn’t that make us extra-cool automatically? :)

Total life list?

37, I think.

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

The west desert in Utah. I wasn’t there for birding…I was there for a missing-person’s search…but while waiting for the rest of the group, I saw a Western Kingbird and some House Finches.

Your mission in life as birder?

I’d like to become familiar with many more birds and enjoy lots of great birding experiences in nature.

Birder Profile is a regular blog segment at "Birding is Fun!" spotlighting a fellow birder.  If you are interested in sharing a little about yourself and your birding experiences, please send me an email.  Is there a birder you'd like to see featured?  Please nominate that person by sending me an e-mail too.  Enthusiasm for birding is the only prerequisite!

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