With all the digital distractions available at their fingertips, it's all too easy for modern kids to ignore nature in favor of a screen. For local youth, blessed to be surrounded by the diverse ecosystem that is South Jersey, this is a tragic oversight, said Tiffany Kersten, visitor service specialist at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in the Oceanville section of Galloway Township.
On Sunday, Aug. 26, Kersten will lead a beginner's birdwalk through the refuge's trail system as part of the Global Birding Initiative's international Pledge 2 Fledge campaign, the goal of which is to foster interest in the hobby.
Kersten, who has been into birding since before she was a teenager, said she's looking forward to the chance to share it with a new audience.
"I got into birds when I was little, when I was 12, so getting kids particularly into the outdoors has always been a big thing for me," Kersten said. "It's really important, especially with all the technology and computer games and video games and stuff. Kids don't really go outside anymore."
The program will start at the Forsythe Wildlife Refuge Visitor Information Center at 9 a.m. and run for about an hour. No prior registration is necessary, and loaner binoculars will be provided.
Because the refuge is home to an abundance of bird species, many of them elusive, Kersten said, the trails can be intimidating for the uninitiated. To address this, the walk will be geared specifically for first-timers.
"It's just going to be pretty basic; we'll answer all questions," Kersten said. "Sometimes beginners, when they're around really advanced birders, can be really intimidated by all the things there are to learn. (We want visitors) to get past that, and just come. You don't have to know anything about the outdoors."
While the Pledge 2 Fledge walk is just a one-off event, the refuge also offers many attractions to keep birders' attention year-round.
One of the refuge's biggest draws, Kersten said, is its wildlife drive, an eight-mile trip along the coast through the salt marshes. The refuge is open year-round for self-guided tours and also offers guided tours led by visitor services manager Don Freiday each Friday morning, year-round, rain or shine.
Kris Arcuri, a 15-year birder who says she has missed only a couple of the guided tours since they began in January, said that in addition to the friendships she has made with her fellow hobbyists, the promise of new sights keeps her coming back each week.
"It's a special thing that you get if you come every week, you get to see the seasons go by, and I like it that instead of getting blitzed with a million birds all at once, you learn them," said Arcuri, who lives in Absecon. "Every week there will be a new bird coming in and also to see the behavior of the birds through the season."
Freiday said birders can expect to see about 50 different species of birds on a given trip, and he estimates they have seen about 150 to 200 different species among all trips this year. Highlights of Arcuri's year so far, she said, have been a falcon attempting (and failing) to prey on a wily grebe and the migration of a flock of thousands of snow geese.
There are many reasons to give birding a try, including fun, friendship and appreciation for nature, but it's the whole package that makes it a hobby worth exploring, Freiday said.
"Birds are real. They're not pixels, they're not images on your TV. They're beautiful, and they do interesting things," Freiday said. "It's great to be outdoors, a lot of people make a lot of friends by taking up birdwatching. It tends to be a really neat group of people that go out on these, and lasting friendships are often made."
The Forsythe Refuge's guided and self-guided tours are free, but entry is $4 per vehicle. Annual passes to the Forsythe Refuge are available for $12, and annual passes to the National Wildlife Refuge network are $15. The wildlife drive is $8.
Contact Braden Campbell:
If you go
What: Beginner bird walk
When: 9 to 10a.m. Sunday, Aug. 26
Where: Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, 800 Great Creek Road, Oceanville
How much: Free with membership, $4 per vehicle.
More info: Call 609-652-1665.