Scrolling down the illustrated checklist of the Hamilton County Ornithological Society website, it’s not hard to spot Luke Thompson’s '24 name beside photos and graphs of his recorded bird sightings. At 16 years old, the Signal Mountain resident is an accomplished birder who spends his afternoons and weekends scanning the Tennessee River, marshes, mudflats, and fields with his binoculars and recording sightings on his iPhone’s Ebird app.
Thompson said he first became interested in birding when he was six years old, drawing bird pictures and watching feeders. At age nine, he went on his first Tennessee Ornithological Society field trip led by the Tennessee Aquarium’s Kevin Calhoon and local passionate birder Dan Jacobson. Rather than shrugging off his youthful curiosity, they were kind and encouraging. “Dan shared his binoculars with me,” recalls Thompson, adding that he has since become friends with local biologists Lizzie and John Diener. “I met them because of banding. They do field tech bird research work all over and have taken me to Arizona and California.”
To date, Thompson has logged more than 500 species in 17 states and three countries. In the fall of 2019, he recorded the second-ever cinnamon teal, a species of duck, in Hamilton County history.
In addition to sightings, Thompson studies bird calls and has memorized the short, high-pitched night flight calls that species make during migration. “Everyone can get it pretty close, but you have to be able to hear tone and pitch well,” he explains. “If you go outdoors on a good night and listen, you will hear them calling overhead, and it’s a different call than what they do in the day. The other night I heard a solitary sandpiper and a bunch of warblers and thrushes.”
There is always more to learn. I mean, there are 10,000 bird species in the world. The possibility of what you can do is never ending.
Scanning a mudflat from the footbridge between the Field House and tennis courts on a crisp spring day, Thompson shares what he is seeing through his binoculars. “Semipalmated plover, killdeer, a blue-winged teal, a solitary sandpiper – probably the most common migratory shorebirds that we have – I got at least 18 at least yesterday.” The call of a Northern water thrush draws Thompson to the opposite side to get a different angle. “There’s another semipalmated plover out there, too.”
Thompson passes the tennis courts and the Parry Center and heads toward the backwaters of Baylor’s wetlands where beavers have been busy damming up the water, and turtles are sunning on a fallen log. He says his favorite spot depends on seasons and the levels of water and mud. On a good day during fall or spring migrations, he says he can catalog at least 100 species. “I’ve heard multiple people say it is the best place in the county just because there is a variety of habitats, and the river affects the migrants passing through so there are just more birds. When the water gets low enough (in Baylor Lake), it’s a mud flat, which gives us shorebird habitat, and a higher concentration of them will drop in.”
Although he is spotting hundreds of birds on campus, there are some species that emerge as favorites. “All of the warblers stand out. I’ve heard a couple of palms (semipalmated plover) today, but I’m used to them, but if I heard a cerulean warbler, which is an uncommon one, I would have tried to see it. I saw an albatross, but it’s hard for that not to stand out. I got a really good look at a sedron here, even though for a normal person, it’s a boring brown bird.”
Setting his sights beyond Baylor, Thompson says he is interested in pursuing some type of conservation work, specifically in South America. “There is a huge amount of species there and not a lot of information on them, so I am interested in researching them, and I’m interested in conservation too,” he said.
In the meantime, he will diligently continue cataloging, watching, and studying – especially if it’s a species he finds particularly interesting. “There is always more to learn. I mean, there are 10,000 bird species in the world. The possibility of what you can do is never ending.”