Matthew Gilbert’s mom drove him all across the state to spot 298 (!) species last year.
Seventeen-year-old birding whiz Matthew Gilbert sees what he can see in the wetlands surrounding Freeport’s Florida Lake.
By Elizabeth Peavey Photographed by Tristan Spinski
Last year, Lisa Gilbert found herself in hot pursuit of an American three-toed woodpecker on the Golden Road, a red-billed tropicbird 20 miles off the coast of Stonington, a chuck-will’s-widow down a dirt road in Orland, a Bicknell’s thrush on Saddleback Mountain, and a mute swan in Kittery. Lisa Gilbert, however, is not a birder. Her son is.
And 17-year-old Matthew Gilbert isn’t just any birder. The Cumberland teenager ended 2020 with a Big Year count of 298 species, edging out 70-year-old Marian Zimmerman’s 297 and making him the year’s top birder in Maine. Undertaking a Big Year — an informal challenge in which birders identify as many species as possible in a certain geographic area within a calendar year — isn’t for casual backyard birdwatchers. It requires not only keen eyes and ears but also a commitment to chasing rarities. And chasing rarities requires wheels — an obstacle if you don’t have your driver’s license, as Gilbert did not until this spring.
That’s where Lisa comes in. The self-designated MOB (mother of a birder) spent the year joyfully squiring Matthew around the state on his birding quests, very often at the drop of a new post on eBird, the online database of bird sightings. It’s not like she has nothing else to do. At home are three more Gilbert boys, ages 10, 14, and 19, each with their individual passions. (Matthew’s brother Christopher, for example, wrote and published a book, Quantum Mechanics for Kids, when he was 12.) But Lisa thought nothing of loading up the family’s trusty minivan with a kayak, a bike, and a couple of boys and taking off for parts unknown. (Health issues kept her husband, Paul, from joining these outings.) Nor did she mind waiting in the car while Matthew pursued his prizes. Finding herself on the side of the road with other MOBs and SOBs (spouses of birders) was part of the fun.
For his part, Matthew doesn’t sit idle waiting for birding alerts. A junior on the honor roll at Greely High School, he’s also a brass player and pianist, a tenor in some half-dozen choruses, an academic mentor to middle schoolers, and one rank away from becoming an Eagle Scout. He earned his “birding hours” last year — and his rides — doing chores and housework. And though he says he’s largely self-taught, he’s been honing his skills since he was small at nature camps, raptor watches, and bird walks organized by Maine Audubon and Freeport’s Wild Bird Supply. Until last summer, he was only chasing birds close to home, with no plans to pursue a Big Year.
“But when I came upon six dovekies and a thick-billed murre in Cape Elizabeth last June,” Gilbert says, “I started to think I had a chance.”
Maine has a history of producing some great young birders, says Maine Audubon outreach manager Nick Lund, who’s gone birding alongside Matthew. The teen has the skills to become one of the best in Maine, Lund adds, but more importantly, “he has the excitement.”
“Birding isn’t an overly glamorous hobby for a teenager,” says Marion Sprague, a coordinator of the Maine Young Birders Club, which counts some 20 members, ages 11 through 18, and leads guided trips throughout the year, mostly across southern Maine. Of late, Sprague’s noted an uptick in youth attendance at adult programs and excursions she attends. The interest, she says, “is definitely there.”
Standing in their driveway one afternoon this spring, Matthew and Lisa leaned against the Subaru Forester the Gilberts’ two driving-age sons now share. (The vanity plate reads “Alcidae” — as in the seabird family that puffins and auks belong to.) Despite his newfound mobility, Matthew isn’t pursuing another Big Year.
“I enjoyed it a lot, but I don’t think I’ll ever do it again,” he said. “It’s not the purest form of birding.” His summer plans do include a trip to a remote section of the north woods to seek out rarities — with a buddy. Just as Lisa started to say how much she’ll miss the adventures, 10-year-old David scooted across the driveway and tossed his golf clubs in the minivan.
“Mom,” he yelled, “we gotta go!” The MOG just smiled.
Three Tips for Newbie Birders
From the state’s top avian observer, Matthew Gilbert.
1.Know Before You Go It’s much easier to identify and enjoy birds if you’ve studied them before heading out, Gilbert says. Field guides, eBird.org, and the Maine Birds Facebook group are helpful learning tools.
2.Flock Together Birders love to share knowledge. Join a group, attend a workshop, seek out a guide, or grab a knowledgeable friend to show you the ropes.
3.Hit the Hotspots Places where certain birds are likely to hang out are known to birders as “hotspots.” To learn them, Matthew Gilbert recommends eBird email alerts and Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide, edited by Derek Lovitch, co-owner of Freeport Wild Bird Supply.