Interview for Indiana Young Birder’s Club
Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig in Queensland, Australia
Photograph taken by and copyright Helena Craig
At the end of last year I gave an interview to Indiana Young Birders’ Club for their magazine, The Warbler which was published in their Fall Edition, http://bit.ly/23kiPBa
It was really interesting talking to young birder, Mathias Benko and hearing about the birding he gets up to. The young birder scene is so much bigger and more developed in the USA, we have a lot we can learn over here where things are only just taking off. I suppose the USA is so much bigger, it’s understandable. Looking at the state of Indiana, it is exactly the same size as the whole of the UK, including all four countries.
Maybe, so that our young birders have similar opportunities, we should start looking at young birders groups within Europe rather than just here in the UK.
So, Mya-Rose, where are you from and how old are you?
My name is Mya-Rose Craig (a.k.a. Birdgirl), and I’m 13 years old. I live in the countryside near Bath and Bristol, Somerset in the South West of the UK.
How did you first become interested in birds?
My Mom and Dad were birders as well as my big sis Ayesha. They carried on birding after I was born, just taking me with them everywhere they went. So, birding was something that I grew up with. When I was four, it was time for me to decide for myself. At that stage, my sister was a really cool sixteen-year-old, and I wanted to do everything she wanted to do. That was when I decided that nature and birds were what I cared about and what I wanted to do. I became obsessed pretty quickly after that.
I was four when I went on my first world birding trip, which was to South Africa for four weeks. That was an awesome trip. As well as seeing birds like African Penguin and Ostrich, I was stalked by a lioness and her cubs in Kruger National Park, charged by a hippo when we got between it and water in Ndumo National Park, and almost fell into the high Sani Pass when we skidded towards a precipice on the way to Lesotho.
Do you have a favorite bird? Or birds? Why?
My favourite bird in the world is Southern Cassowary, which we saw in Queensland, Australia. They are blue and red on the head, can get to 6 feet tall, and are closely related to dinosaurs. They have a sharp hook on each foot that with one kick could kill you. We saw five in all, including 2 young birds being looked after by their dad.
What do your friends and family think about your love of birds and birding?
My immediate family shares my passion for birds, so we can do everything together. We go away for the summer trying to see as many of the birds in that country as possible. It is really hard work, as we often bird 6 AM to 6 PM and also sometimes go night birding in the evening, but I love it.
My wider family tries to be a bit supportive especially since I’ve been writings blogs, though not many of them read what I write. In the end though, they don’t like it if we prioritise birding above seeing them.
My close friends have been at school with me since I was four years old. I was in a 2010 BBC documentary called Twitchers: A Very British Obsession, which my teacher showed everyone at school. My close friends watched that, so they know I’m a birder, but they don’t show any interest in what I get up to. A couple of months ago, I was interviewed on BBC Springwatch, but even though I told them, none of them watched it. When another friend was on Junior Bake Off, everyone watched it and made a fuss of her. It might just be that because I’ve been on TV and Radio a few times already, so it’s nothing special any more.
I don’t really talk about birding to other people at school or my after school clubs like dance and scouts as they would think it’s nerdy. As I appear in the local papers, some people still know I’m into birds. So, sometimes, if I’m being teased, I’ll say “Well, I’ve earnt £250 for writing an article that only took half a day to write. What have you earnt?” That shuts them up!
I have heard that your life list is quite impressive. Exactly how many species of birds have you seen?
Some people think that if you keep a bird list, you somehow don’t care about the birds or conservation. I think that when you tell someone your list, what you are really doing is encapsulating in a number how many years of birding you have done and how hard you have birded.
So, on that basis, my British List is 450. 400 used to be the number people tried to get to but now it’s 500. I reached 400 when I was 9 years old, beating my sister’s record of 12 years old. I saw my 450th bird recently when I was 13 years old, which was a Black Stork.
I got to 3000 when I was 11 years old in Queensland, Australia with Regent Bowerbird a beautiful black and yellow bird. Bowerbirds make bowers or displays to attract the female and are often plain looking. This is one of the exceptions as it is really beautiful and builds a wooden structure out of sticks. The photograph of me feeding Crimson Rosella was taken straight afterwards.
Then, I saw my 4000th bird this summer in East Africa. We visited Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. My 4,000th bird was Red-throated Tit, which I saw on my first morning of birding in Kenya. I think I’m the youngest person to see 4,000 birds but if it’s you, let me know.
I’d like to see 5,400 birds before I’m 18 years old, just because it would be amazing to see half the birds of the world by then.
I also fell in love with hummingbirds on my first trip to South America when we went to Ecuador in 2010. I saw a Sword-billed Hummingbird on my second day there, and I was like “OMG, that is cool, I want to see all of them!” I have now seen exactly half of all the hummingbirds of the world, 170 out of 340. Some are very rare and endangered, so seeing them all will take a lot of dedication and focus and is still likely to be impossible.
What is the coolest bird you’ve ever seen?
That is so hard! Probably Sword-billed Hummingbird. Its bill is longer than its body, and when it’s hovering and feeding on nectar, it looks impossible. I have made some hand printed Birdgirl T-shirts that have a Sword-billed Hummingbird on the front. So, it is the bird that represents me.
Who is someone in the birding or environmental world you would consider to be your mentor?
Unfortunately, I don’t have anyone who is a mentor to me, apart from my parents and sister who are very supportive and also care a lot about the world. We talk a lot about birds, animals, conservation, environmental issues, and human rights (which are often linked to environmental issues. For example, the rights of indigenous people.) Birding around the world, I have witnessed environmental disasters as well as successful conservation projects. Seeing this kind of thing first-hand has made me want to do and say what I can, and I strive to be a real activist.
In terms of being inspired, there are quite a few people who have inspired me: Sir Peter Scott (who set up WWT and WWF and son of the Antarctic explorer Captain Scott), Sir David Attenborough (for bringing wildlife and conservation to the masses), Bill Oddie (a 1970’s comedian and birder who brought birding and live nature programmes to our screens), and Steve Backshall (presenter of CBBC’s Deadly 60, which introduced my generation to special animals). He has also been on expeditions to remote places, looking for new species.
I’m lucky because the BBC Natural History Unit, which makes all of these programmes, is based in Bristol where I live. A lot of people who work there live in my area, the Chew Valley.
Where is your favorite place to bird?
I actually love birding at my local patch, Chew Valley Lake, where I also go bird banding at a banding station. I like seeing the changes over the year and the excitement of scarce birds, including American shorebirds like Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Long-billed Dowitcher.
I write a monthly column for my local paper, The Chew Valley Gazette, where I suggest birds for people to look out for at the lake that month. Lots of people at the BBC read my column, which is amazing.
The favourite place I’ve birded is Bolivia. The altiplano is on a huge scale, the habitats are varied, the area has been not been as affected by habitat destruction, and the people are genuine and welcoming. Our guide, Sandro, was from an indigenous tribe deep in the Amazon, and only ten years ago used to be a hunter wearing a loincloth.
The birds were also brilliant and beautiful, although purely on bird numbers, you can see more in neighbouring Peru.
Do you have a bird you would like to see as soon as possible?
The bird I would like to see most in the world is a Harpy Eagle. It’s one of the biggest eagles in the world and lives in South America. I think we’d have to make a special trip in the spring to Venezuela or Brazil whilst a chick is still on the nest to see one, though.
What is your favourite field guide?
The best field guide for Britain is the Collins Guide. It’s actually a fantastic field guide with amazing illustrations by Lars Johnson.
I also use the Sibley North America field guide, which is useful for the regular North American rarities that we get in the UK.
Do you like to take pictures or draw sketches of the birds you see?
I try and take photographs of birds I see. I either use a bridge camera or digiscope using my iPhone. I’d like a better camera to use when I’m world birding, but anything decent is too heavy for me to carry all day everyday. Also, when we are birding abroad, we are usually on a tight schedule, so there isn’t time to spend ages getting good shots.
I would like to draw birds better and went to a sketching workshop at Camp Avalon, a young birders’ camp that I arranged in June. Hopefully, this has improved my technique.
How many continents and countries have you been to?
I have been to six continents but will be going to Antarctica, my seventh continent, at Christmas.
I have been to 29 countries, but I will have been to 33 by the end of the year.
I would really like to do more birding in North America as I have only spent a day there.
Tell us about what you have done to promote conservation efforts.
Talking about conservation projects is really important to me. I try and highlight these projects through my blog, giving talks, and publicising them in the media.
One of these projects is protecting shorebirds (especially the Spoon-billed Sandpiper), particularly in Bangladesh where my Mom’s family is from. I travelled there earlier this year to survey them, give a talk, and do interviews on TV, Radio and national papers.
I have also promoted shorebird conservation through Wader Quest, and by being Ambassador of the Global Conservation Initiative, World Shorebirds Day.
Last year, following an oil spill in the Sundarbans in Bangladesh (the world’s largest mangrove and home of the rare Masked Finfoot and Bengal Tiger), I worked hard to promote the disaster, writing about it in the ABA Blog, and raising approximately $30,000.
I write regular blog posts about conservation issues on subjects like palm oil, GMOs, the decline of bees, and fox hunting. I am also addressing a climate change rally on 29th November 2015, which is one of many rallies around the world in the lead up to the UN Climate Change talks in Paris. It would be great if as many people as possible attended a rally.
What do you think is the most important thing we can do to protect the environment?
There are so many issues going on in the world, but if I had to choose one to stop completely, it would be habitat destruction on land and sea. I have seen the impact of logging, cattle farming, palm oil, and fishing globally.
However, in Europe, lots of terrible things are happening that will remove the protection of habitat in place now. Bigger than that is the proposed TTIP trade agreement being negotiated between the European Union and the United States of America. This will allow American companies to sue our governments directly if, for example, they don’t like an environmental law put in place that reduces their profits. This is what companies can do in America already, and the same tactics have been used by chemical companies to stop the States from bringing in legislation for GMO labelling of food.
Do you want to make conservation your life?
I would like to carry on birding but as well as that, yes, I would like to concentrate on conservation. At the moment, I hope to study Zoology at University and then go on expeditions to remote countries, looking for rare species and how they are doing, and then working out what conservation plan is needed to save them and how that can be implemented. If this is filmed along the way to raise awareness, that would be great.
Is there a certain environmentalist that you look up to?
I think that U.S. Actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Mark Ruffallo are really important for publicising environmental issues. The recent Vivienne Westwood project by actors to save the Arctic was inspiring.
In the UK, I respect Tony Juniper (former Executive Director of Friends of the Earth UK) and George Monbiot (a writer and columnist for leftwing Guardian Newspaper).
Do you have any advice for the young birders reading this?
I would just say follow your passion. Nothing in birding or conservation is fair, and people will tell you along the way what you should or shouldn’t do. Hear what they say, but do what you want. Being a young birder is the time to enjoy yourself. It’s not a competition; it is meant to be fun.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
Just thanks for asking to interview me, and I hope to make it over to your conference next year.