Marquette youth always has an eye on the sky

MARQUETTE – It’s one thing for a young person to have a hobby. It’s another thing for that person to take it to a higher level with a website and research.

To say Alec Olivier, an eighth-grader at Bothwell Middle School, is big into birding is an understatement. At the tender age of 14, his life list – the list of the number of bird species he’s seen in his life – is 264 and counting.

What’s even more impressive is those birds have come solely from Michigan and Wisconsin. (It helps to travel to exotic places to add to a life list.)

Olivier has been birding since age 4, watching feeder birds practically his whole life, but got into it seriously starting in March 11 when he traveled to Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, he said.

“I was interested so much in the owls,” he said. “That’s what got me started.”

The owl-banding lab at the back of the gift shop really sparked his curiosity. There were 27 owls when Olivier was there, one long-eared and 26 saw-whets.

That’s enough raptor life to pique just about anyone’s interest.

“They’re so secretive,” Olivier said, “and not really much is known about them compared to other birds.”

Olivier said he then started to put out feeders at home, eventually attracting a pine siskin. It was about that time he started his life list.

Two of the most unusual birds Olivier has on his life list, he said, are the slaty-backed gull, which was spotted by many birders along the Lake Superior shoreline in Marquette, and the berrylline hummingbird, a species that brought birders from all over to Grand Marais.

For those not familiar with these rare-to-the-area birds, the slaty-backed gull breeds in western Alaska while the berrylline hummer typically is found in Mexico and as far south as Honduras. How that little bird made it all the way to the Upper Peninsula is a mystery.

The possibility of spotting that exotic hummingbird was enough to make Olivier take three trips to Grand Marais, two on school days. The effort was worth it, as he spotted the bird at a residence’s feeder.

It took patience, however.

“It was really cool,” he said. “it was only there for, like, 10 seconds, but then come in every 20 to 30 minutes, and then stay there for 10 seconds to a couple of minutes.”

Olivier said he tries to bird every day, with his typical haunts the Presque Isle Bogwalk and the Lower Harbor breakwall. He also tries to hit the Dead River and Black Rocks.

“It’s really fun when you can get new birds to your list,” Olivier said.

That’s something a non-birder might not be able to understand, but for the avid avian fan, getting a “lifer” is a big thrill.

Fortunately for Olivier, there are plenty of birders in the area to help him, because even the top birders need help with identification every now and then. Skye Haas and Scot Stewart are just a few of the local birders who have guided the young enthusiast.

“He’s incredible,” Stewart said. “I know from personal experience he’s put in a lot of hours learning about identification and bird behavior.”

Olivier also is getting into bird photography, using a 300m lens to get nice close-up shots of his subjects. A sampling of his photos can be viewed on Olivier’s website, 21stcenturybirder.com/.

His website also includes a blog, information on gear and backyard birding, and bird stories.

Olivier, who was the first person to photograph a willow flycatcher at Whitefish Point, even offers advice on his website to people who need help identifying a bird.

His blog is updated frequently and includes his unusual sightings, including two white pelicans in the Lower Harbor; 2,000 birds in one day at Whitefish Point (which included 755 red-necked grebes); and a black-backed woodpecker at the Olivier family camp in Amasa.

One sighting that really got him excited was an Arctic tern in September at Grand Marais, which he noted on his blog is only the 24th record of this species in Michigan.

“It just makes me want to keep studying and birding even more,” Olivier wrote.

Two names on his bird bucket list, he said, are the ivory gull and long-tailed jaeger.

Since Olivier said birding will be a lifelong hobby for him, it’s a fair bet at some point he will add those species to his list.

What really interests Olivier about birds, he said, is there are so different kinds out there and they’re relatively common.

“You can see them pretty much everywhere.”