Anyone who’s ever watched Noah Kuck in the field will attest to his uncanny ability to hear and identify birds.
To call birdwatching a passion for the Fargo teenager would be an understatement.
“He’s like a bird whisperer,” said Kathy Barker of Grand Forks, N.D., who has a cabin on Pine Lake in Minnesota’s Clearwater County next to Kuck’s grandparents, Rita Kuck and Duane Schwan of West Fargo, N.D. “He is amazing. He can sit on the front steps of the cabin and tell you there’s an owl in the woods and tell you exactly what kind it is. He’s just incredible. He even had me feeding hummingbirds out of my hand (last summer).”
A student at Sheyenne High School in West Fargo, Kuck, 15, recently received the 2015 Young Birder Award from the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. Carrol Henderson, nongame wildlife program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in St. Paul, nominated Kuck and presented him with the award Dec. 5 at the organization’s annual meeting in the Twin Cities.
In written comments about the award, Henderson said he met Kuck in 2014 while participating in a field trip to Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge as part of the annual Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds. The annual event includes birding excursions to destinations across northwest Minnesota, and Kuck has volunteered and led bird walks at the refuge.
“It did not take long to realize I was in the presence of a youthful birding all-star,” Henderson wrote in his comments posted on the MOU’s website. “His ability to spot birds and identify them by their songs was uncanny, and I was envious of his incredible hearing.”
Kuck’s passion for watching and photographing birds puts the future of watchable wildlife in good hands, Henderson said, and meeting the young birder was more exciting and gratifying than sighting a “life list” bird species.
“The world of birding must include more than the accumulation of life lists,” Henderson wrote. “It needs to include a commitment to recruiting the next generation of citizens who care about our state’s wildlife.”
Cub Scout project
A quiet teen who’s reluctant to talk about his birding accomplishments, Kuck said his interest in birdwatching started as a 9-year-old when he read about a bird-feeder project in the Cub Scout handbook.
Before long, feeding and watching birds grew into far more than a way to earn a merit badge.
“I bought a feeder and noticed that the birds were different from each other and there was a wide variety coming to the feeder,” Kuck said in an email. “I wanted to learn more, so I started to buy books and study.”
Kuck and his parents, Shawn and Sarah, were living in St. Cloud, Minn., at the time. Shawn said the owners of Wild About Birds in Waite Park, Minn., and the owner of the Wild Bird Center in St. Cloud were helpful in answering his son’s numerous questions about birds and helping him match the right feeder and food with the birds he wanted to attract.
“It started with one bird feeder and grew from there,” Shawn Kuck, said. “The more we put out, the more birds that came. Pretty soon, we were going to birding festivals. It started with just a feeder and a couple of books, but it’s kind of become a family outing experience.”
The young birder’s interest in birds has taken him to such destinations as Hawk Ridge in Duluth; Split Rock, Gooseberry Falls and Tettegouche state parks on Minnesota’s North Shore; Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge and the North and South Units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota; and Clearwater County, Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge and Buffalo River State Park in northwest Minnesota.
He says the Medora, Ashley and Forbes areas in North Dakota and “anywhere in Minnesota” are among his favorite birding destinations. Last spring on his 15th birthday, Kuck joined birding guide and nature photographer Erik Bruhnke on a 12-hour birding marathon at the Sax-Zim Bog in northeast Minnesota.
He also has met Sandy Komito, the renowned birder whose record-setting quest inspired the 2011 movie “The Big Year”; birding author and photographer Stan Tekiela; and wildlife photographer Melissa Groo, who lives in upstate New York.
Keith Corliss, a veteran Fargo birdwatcher, says he’s known Kuck for a couple of years and is impressed with the young birder’s skills. Corliss says the teen’s humility and willingness to listen also have helped foster his knowledge of the natural world.
“I have been doing this hobby for almost 40 years and have run across someone of Noah’s age, passionate enthusiasm, and insatiable hunger to know more perhaps five times,” Corliss said. “He is way ahead of me at that age as I didn’t pick this up until about age 18.”
Corliss said Kuck’s parents also deserve credit for nurturing those skills.
“They are not standing in the way of his passion, they are actually fostering it,” Corliss said. “Since Noah is too young to drive, his dad or mom can be seen dropping him off at places or taking him to various birding festivals in the area.”
Those festivals occasionally take the family beyond the area, as well. Later this month, the family is attending the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Florida.
While there, Kuck says he hopes to add to his life list of nearly 220 bird species. The painted bunting, great black-backed gull, Florida scrub jay and red cockaded woodpecker are among the birds he hopes to see in Florida.
Shawn Kuck said his son’s nomination for the Young Birder Award resulted from his work at the Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds and contacts within the birding community.
“There’s not a whole lot of enthusiastic 15-year-old (birders) out there, so when one excels, I assume you stand out,” the elder Kuck said. “We got a call out of the blue, and they just said, ‘hey, could you come down?’ “
Noah knew nothing about the award when the family traveled to the Twin Cities in early December for the MOU event.
Winning the award was a big surprise, the teen admits.
“I didn’t even know there was such an award,” he said.
His passion for birding isn’t about awards or recognition, though.
It’s about being there, he says, “just seeing and hearing these amazing birds God made and getting outside.”