The Black Forest fire came within a half-mile of 14-year-old Alec Wyatt's house. That didn't bother him much. It was when flames licked the foundations of his feathered friends' houses that he got scared.
"I was worried the smoke and fire would drive the birds away, but they stayed, even though some of their babies got singed. They defended their nests," Alec said. "Birds are so resilient and amazing."
It hardly seemed possible, but Alec's love and respect for birds swelled even more after the fire. Of the 36 birdhouses he adopted, repaired and made inhabitable again along the Black Forest Section 16 recreational trail, only one was destroyed in the fire.
And of the 60 eggs that were in the nesting boxes before the fire started, 47 baby birds of six species were chirping when Alec returned to the area more than two weeks later.
"The fire burned right under the nest boxes," which are about 4 feet off the ground, Alec said.
"They have a strong sense of survival and protection of their nests. They could have gone anywhere - they have wings - but they stayed to keep their eggs warm," he said.
On Saturday, during one of the regularly scheduled bird walks he has been hosting this summer for elementary school students, Alec will share his observations about bird behavior related to the fire to demonstrate how exciting ornithology can be.
"I try to make it as interesting and interactive as possible because I want to show all of the kids the passion I've found," he said. "Especially now, in this age when kids are spending the majority of their lives in front of the computer or on a smartphone, it's important to get them outside."
The incoming freshman at Rampart High School is wise beyond his years, not only in his knowledge of birding but also in his ability to teach others, nurture birds in need, keep meticulous journals and advocate for what some view as an "old person's" activity.
"I've been doing this for 15 years, and I'm so far below Alec's level of expertise it's not funny," said Frank Dodge, owner of the Wild Bird Center of Colorado Springs, a retail store centered around birds. "His listening and spotting skills are like a pro's."
Five years ago, Alec entered fourth grade at School in the Woods as "a wilderness kid" and came out a budding ornithologist. The small Academy District 20 school with an environmental science focus introduced him to the world of birds, and he wanted to continue his education.
"I studied the field guides and took a deep interest when I learned their names," Alec said.
Alec bought his first pair of good binoculars with his own money, which set him back several hundred dollars. Then he started studying the ecosystem around his neighborhood. He has recorded 50 bird species in Black Forest.
"I'm fascinated that every single species is completely different. There's so much diversity in size, shape, color and behavior," Alec said.
Birding also has taught him patience because a good birder does not just look at his subjects but studies their characteristics, observes their foraging habits and documents his findings.
It's where Alec finds his zone.
"I could just look in my field guide, but I want to see how the bird is going about its daily life," he said. "Sometimes it's about seeing as many species as you can; other times it's just about the enjoyment."
Alec has traveled to Arizona and Texas for the sole purpose of birding, and he has 295 species on his observation list. He has worked with School in the Woods students and regularly tends to the bird nest neighborhood along the Black Forest Section 16 trail near his house.
This year, he won second place in the Young Birder of the Year Contest, sponsored by the American Birding Association. Next year, he wants to take first.
He'll spend "countless hours" researching and compiling a detailed notebook for the competition.
Every minute is worth it, he said.
"Even if I don't win, it's so rewarding. I enjoy all of it."
YOUTH-CENTERED BIRD WALKS WITH ALEC BRYANT
Who: Elementary school-age children
When: 8 a.m. Saturday and July 27
Where: Meet at Wild Bird Center, 1722 E. Woodmen Road
Details: Walks are easy and end at 9:30 a.m. An adult accompanies Alec. Notebooks, pencils, snacks and drinks are provided.
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