On most days, 16-year-old Davey Walters can tell you exactly how many bird species he’s seen in his backyard.
He’ll probably also tell you that it doesn’t measure up to the number he tallied on his recent “big day” of birding. That involved a concerted effort with a good friend who drove two hours to join Davey for the event. Together they identified 105 different species.
Not that Davey necessarily keeps these figures in his head. Thanks to the internet, it’s now a lot easier for birders to record their findings and connect with others who share the same passion.
Davey, however, enjoys an additional advantage as he strives to transform his love of spotting birds and making beautiful photographs of them into something more than just a hobby: he is homeschooled.
COMING HOME TO GO OUTSIDE
Davey’s foray into birding coincided with his parents’ decision to take him out of public school and teach him at home.
As his mother Nina Walters explained, her experience tutoring homeschooled kids while she was in college made her excited about the prospect of launching right into home education with Davey, their oldest. However, her husband Meirwyn suggested they stick with the same school system he was educated in, just north of Boston.
This plan lasted three years.
First, Nina said, Davey got bored sitting in a classroom. “He’s an outdoor kid,” she said. “Every so often he would say, ‘Can I go home?’”
Davey’s dissatisfaction grew when he saw the things his homeschooled cousins got to do. “They would go to NASA space camp or backpack through Italy,” Nina recounted. And Davey would say to her, “Why can’t I do this?”
He got his wish in the 3rd grade. To his delight, he soon found that homeschooling afforded him more time to head outside and explore.
After experimenting with his mother’s point-and-shoot camera, Davey won a prize in the local library’s student photo contest. This led him to invest in better cameras and lenses, and he picked up several more awards while competing in various recent Massachusetts Audubon photo contests.
Davey now operates his own website, where he sells copies of his photos, notecards, and calendars. He hopes all this will blossom into a career.
“I’d love to be a National Geographic photographer,” Davey said. His dream is to document rare species in a remote area.
Davey is no stranger to the birds that live in and pass through his home territory. He insists that his county, and the nearby Massachusetts shore, are some of the best areas for spotting a wide variety of birds.
So far he’s documented more than 300 species. Some of his favorites include snow geese and sandhill cranes. “In my own yard, I had a white-faced ibis, which is really rare,” Davey said. He also recorded the only sighting of a western kingbird in Massachusetts in the last two years.
As for photographing what he finds, Davey’s preference is to scout around and enjoy the opportunities that present themselves. “A lot of wildlife photographers go out to a blind and sit all day and look for one bird sitting on a branch,” he said. “That’s not how I do it.”
Occasionally he’ll get an idea for a specific photo of a specific bird. For example, a few weeks ago he and a friend went to the beach in hopes of photographing a snowy owl just after sunrise.
“It was pitch black and about 12 degrees outside,” Davey recalled. “We had to walk about a mile along the beach.” Then they spent another 45 minutes trying to get close to the bird.
“If there hadn’t been an owl there, I would have just wanted to die,” he said. With the wind and chill, “it was awful.”
His efforts paid off, though, when he snapped a photo of the owl greeting the day with an avian yawn.
“You get a rush,” Davey said of adventures such as this one. “It’s very hard and often you miss, and I get really mad at myself. But overall it’s really fun.”
FRIENDS OF A FEATHER
A few years ago Davey started a birding club after connecting with another homeschooled student online. Sharing his adventures with like-minded peers has only added to the fun.
“We realized we had too much in common,” said Davey. He and his friends gradually reached out to others via the photo-sharing online portal Flickr. His friend built a club website, and through it they planned trips to the Massachusetts shore. At its peak, the club included nearly 50 members.
“Meeting up with other birders and continuing those friendships online is really a big thing for me,” said Davey.
Similarly gratifying to Davey’s mom has been seeing him—and his sisters—empowered to pursue these special interests and relationships because of the flexibility of homeschooling.
“We had this great kid and we wanted to feed him intellectually,” explained Nina. “He became such a great self-taught kid. He’s curious about everything. I can’t count the amount of hours he spent watching videos on photography.”
Nina added that she sees the same intensity in her daughters as they do things they enjoy. Eleven-year-old Mari loves to sing, play the ukulele, and to read “all printed matter near her.” Ten-year-old Carys loves physical activities such as climbing, gymnastics, and skiing.
Nina advises parents not to be afraid to provide their children a little leisure—even to the point of telling you they’re bored. All they need is time to figure out what interests them. Then give them a nudge, and they’ll do the rest.