On a late March morning at the Arb the temperatures hover in the twenties, but Community High senior Sarah Toner doesn’t seem to mind the cold as she sets off along a trail in the Dow Prairie in search of birds. The blue-eyed, pony-tailed eighteen-year-old has covered this route countless times. Her grandfather–an avid birder–started taking her here a decade ago for the Washtenaw Audubon Society’s Thursday morning walks. Since then, Toner says, she’s fallen “head over heels” for birding.
Her fellow birders–most of whom are closer to her grandfather’s age than her own–reciprocate: They call her a “rock star” for her sharp hearing and vision. “Young birders are in high demand,” Toner says, “but clearly, I’ve got an obsession.” She’s co-founder of the Michigan Young Birders Club, has twice won the American Birding Association’s Young Birder of the Year writing division, and travels extensively to see new birds and to volunteer in bird banding and research projects.
Today’s obsession is early spring migrants. As she walks along the river path she stops suddenly. “Ooh!” She points upward. “Wood ducks! Awesome!” In the woods she turns slowly in a circle, using her ears like radar to name birds as she hears them: “Nuthatch! Eastern bluebird! Tufted titmouse! Woodpecker! Ooh! Brown creeper!” She lifts her binoculars to find three creepers scampering up a tree, among the first she’s seen this spring. She’s able to listen to twelve to fifteen bird sounds at once–and says she finds 80 percent of her birds by “ear birding.” Just lots of “ear training,” she says.
“Birders are big about their lists,” Toner says; she has 606 species on her life list, an impressive number considering her age and that virtually all of those sightings were in the United States and Canada. Her list was handwritten when she was younger; now she keeps it in the eBird app on her smartphone. It lets her track uncommon sightings, share them with other birders, and help scientists with research.
Sarah’s parents, Pam and James Toner, met as English teachers at Cranbrook Kingswood High School. She was “a very curious child” who grew up with “a bunch of energy coming from her two older brothers” Michael and Stephen, says Pam, now an English tutor (James is now an attorney). Homeschooled until high school, Sarah “essentially taught herself to read” before kindergarten, her mother says. When she was eight, she asked what species of hawk was eating the ducklings at Thurston Nature Center, which led to a fascination with raptors.
Through the years, Sarah’s parents supported her bird passion by taking family camping trips along Lake Superior’s North Shore, as well as birding vacations to Canada and Costa Rica. She visited Whitefish Point in the U.P. when she was eleven and the stopover for migratory birds became her “favorite place on earth.” When she held owls at the owl-banding station there, she says, “I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
She’s since returned to Whitefish Point many times. She recalls one memorable fall weekend when she persuaded her dad to make the long drive there and persevered through “normal gusts that became sandblasts” to finally see her first lark sparrow foraging in the dunes. She then spied two birders sprinting toward the observation point, and she joined them for a rare sighting of a northern gannet–only the thirteenth seen in the state.
“I find beauty in the uncommon,” explains Toner of her thirst to see rare birds. Among the rarest she’s seen are a plain-capped starthroat at a birding camp in Arizona, and a white wagtail at Pointe Mouillee on Lake Erie. “I literally dropped everything, including an ACT prep class … to drive over to see it.” It was the fifth-ever sighted east of the Mississippi.
Birders usually have “that geek personality,” Toner says, combined with a love for the outdoors. To be a birder, “you have to be a bit of a glutton for punishment,” but she enjoys “tromping through swamps,” backpacking, and hiking. A few years ago she was at a Colorado birder camp at 12,000 feet in the alpine tundra searching for brown-capped rosy-finches. A thunderstorm struck and temperatures dropped to near freezing, with high wind gusts and lightning. Toner started “getting disoriented from hypothermia,” but she and the other campers escaped unharmed; the experience later became a highlight of the trip to “boast about to other birders.”
Toner says that “girls are underrepresented” in birding, and Ellie Shappirio, age eighty-four–one of several Washtenaw Audubon Society members who has mentored Toner through the years–says “it gives me special pleasure” to see a girl advance in the field. Shappirio adds that Toner “is a kind person … She is really skilled, really quick, [but] is always willing to help others who are new to it.” While birding does tend to be a “very popular pursuit when you retire,” Toner says the Washtenaw Audubon Society “has some newbie young couples” as well as a growing number of teen birders.
Toner enjoys many interests–sewing, weaving, tap dance, singing, and sci-fi (she’s a big Dr. Who fan). But birding tops the list. She even dreams of birds, and, in true birder fashion, has logged 157 bird dreams. Once she dreamed she was with fellow birders in the Midwest, and a lesser frigatebird, found in tropical seas, flew overhead, but the birders didn’t have a digital camera to capture the moment–only an old camera without film.
She’ll spend this summer as one of the youngest research interns ever hired at Seney National Wildlife Refuge (near Tahquamenon Falls). Then she’s bound for Cornell University. Her plan is to be a wildlife ecologist and “get the muddy bit over with while I can,” and someday become a professor.
Today’s two-hour Arb trek yields a long list of birds–though none worthy of an eBird alert–and one final nature show. As crows swoop and circle high in a tree, Toner spots an adult red-tailed hawk in the tree’s branch. It puffs its chest and refuses to leave, despite the crows’ best efforts to drive it off. Then Toner gasps and announces, “Ooh! Trumpeter swans in flight!” The flock of elegant birds flies just beyond the tree, a final reward on this cold morning.