Gaelen Schnare keeps his binoculars and camera handy while he’s being interviewed at the Nelson waterfront about his life as a birder.
Even when he’s thoughtfully answering questions, he’s always finely attuned to his surroundings. The 14 year old notices even the most faint or distant bird call.
“I started looking at birds when I was about three or four,” he says before interrupting himself mid-thought to point out a nearby bird. “Hey, there’s a kildeer right there.”
Even though Gaelen has been interested in birds as long as he can remember, he didn’t get it from his parents, who were not birders before he started teaching them. Now his notebooks contain observations of about 700 birds from three countries, and for the third year in a row he is one of the presenters at this year’s Creston Valley Bird Fest on May 7, 8, and 9.
“I got my first camera for Christmas when I was eight. And that’s when I really started doing a lot more birding, like intentionally going out and finding birds. There’s a yellow-rumped warbler right above us here.”
Much of his attention during his school day is taken up with planning for birding or his other passion, fishing.
“That’s what I think about a lot during the week. Where am I going to go this weekend? Or even, where am I going to go after school today? That’s a bufflehead, that one that just flew. I think, maybe I could get out to Taghum or head down to the waterfront.”
He’s the only kid he knows who is interested in birds.
“I’ve never really met another kid who thinks birding is like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool.’ I just kind of wish that there was more younger birders because it’s a great way to spend my free time. There’s an American pipit! Well, not my free time, because this is a little bit more than just a hobby.”
Gaelen documents his birding photos and stories on his website, Kootenaybirdkid.com.
His mother, Deirdre Collier, says she is constantly learning more about birds from her son.
“He’s very patient with me and his dad,” she says.
“It’s a magical journey. It’s a deep blessing. It keeps me on my toes all the time. I’m constantly learning. He’s so connected to his passion.”
Nelson expert birder Paul Prappas has known Gaelen for several years and often goes birding with him.
“He really has the gift for birding,” Prappas says, “but more importantly, has the love for it. I mean, he is completely passionate about it, so entrepreneurial, and so mature. When we talk to him about it, we just talk to him as if he’s another adult.”
Asked about his most memorable birding experience, Gaelan describes a trip to Ecuador and also his sighting of a fieldfare, a bird normally seen in Russia and northern Europe that was reported in the Salmon Arm area over a period of several months, attracting birders from afar, as reported sightings of rare birds often do.
He and his parents drove to Salmon Arm in January to look for the fieldfare.
“It landed right in front of me on a branch and I got a beautiful photo of it,” Gaelen says. “And it’s really exciting because it’s a beautiful bird. It was incredible.”
His favourite bird is the Bohemian waxwing, which he remembers viewing in mountain ash trees in the winter when he was a child.
“They arrive here in large flocks in the winter, up to 2,000 birds, and it’s really a spectacular sight to see them. I also really like warblers and sparrows and gulls. I really like shore birds like killdeers and that kind of thing.”
While Gaelen is hyper-alert to the small details of the habits and songs of birds, he also has a big-picture view of ecosystem health. He has noticed the effects of climate change in just the few years he’s been birding.
“You can see the effects every year, there’s less and less shorebirds,” he says. “I’ve been seeing a lot of places that were once excellent birding go to just being like a mud pit that doesn’t have any birds.”
Gaelen is also passionate about fishing and runs Kootenay Casting, a YouTube channel documenting his fishing trips made throughout the year with his friend Elias Lussier.
The two young men are intensely focused on fishing.
“In the summer we were fishing like crazy, like, six out of seven days a week we were going fishing somewhere,” Gaelen says. “And when we weren’t fishing we were watching fishing videos.”
Gaelen only keeps the fish he intends to eat, and he eats no meat other than the fish he catches. For him, this is an ethical and environmental principle mostly related to climate change.
“There’s a lot of pollution caused by the meat industry,” he says, “and there’s a lot of cruelty to animals, especially in factory farming, so I didn’t want to support that, so I decided I’m just going to eat my own meat that I’ve caught myself.”
His favourite fish is rainbow trout.
“I love rainbow. They’re hard fighters and there’s lots of them around. They taste great and they make a great meal. They come in every size you can imagine, from tiny little two-inch minnows to big 20-pound Gerrards.”
But Gaelen’s most immediate project is the upcoming bird festival, which will take place mostly on Zoom. To see the schedule and purchase tickets, go to https://www.crestonvalleybirds.ca/registration.html.
Festival co-ordinator Ulrike Sliworsky says Gaelen hears and identifies birds quicker than she can, and she’s been birding since the 1980s.
She says he will take festival participant groups on a birding expedition at the Creston Valley Wildlife Centre on Zoom.
“He has a powerpoint presentation with bird sounds, his photos are incredible, and he is very entertaining” she says, adding that Gaelen has often made presentations to school classes as well.
“The students love him. They get excited that he’s someone so young and so knowledgeable.”
Gaelen gave his first presentation to Creston elementary school classes when he was nine, and until the pandemic he had done this a couple of times per year.
“It’s exciting to share my passion with other people my age or maybe even a little bit younger,” he says. “It was incredible how many kids, after watching my presentations, expressed interest in birds and started telling me all their stories about birds in their yard.”
Meanwhile, Gaelen is keeping his binoculars by his side because one of his priorities is to see an American bittern.
“I haven’t seen one in ages, it’s been years,” he says.