A 15-year-old Durango High School student will lead his first ever bird-watching tour as part of this year’s Ute Mountain-Mesa Verde Birding Festival in the hopes of engaging a whole new generation of bird-watchers.
“A big reason why I’m doing this is for the love of birds and the fun experience,” said Martin Cuntz. “But I also want to see who else in my age group is interested in birding. In ways, it’s hard to find kids my age interested in it. But I love meeting new people who are on that side of bird-watching.”
Cuntz, a freshman at DHS and the son of Jen and Dave Cuntz of Durango, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and moved to Durango with his family when he was 3 years old. But it wasn’t until he watched the 2011 movie “The Big Year,” a comedy starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson that revolves around bird-watching, that his love for the activity was cultivated.
“Before the movie, I always loved animals and everything in nature,” Cuntz said. “But when I watched it, I just had a connection with the way birding was shown in that movie, and I just wanted to give it a shot.”
Cuntz, about 9 or 10 years old at the time, took his first bird-watching tour around the pond at Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s fish hatchery near the Animas River, and was immediately inspired.
From then on, his penchant for bird-watching continued to grow.
Since, Cuntz has joined the Durango Bird Club, participating in the club’s annual spring and winter bird counts. He is also the club’s youth birding ambassador, which educates students in grades K-12.
For the past four years, he has volunteered in the bird-banding project at Oxbow Preserve, which seeks to help understand populations and habitats of birds using the nature preserve.
And in 2015, Cuntz received a Weminuche Audubon Society scholarship to attend Camp Colorado, an American Birding Association youth camp in Estes Park.
But at 6:45 a.m. Sunday, May 14, Cuntz will embark on his next big birding feat: leading a tour at Summit Reservoir State Wildlife Area between Mancos and Dolores that specifically seeks to engage kids aged 12 to 17.
“We tried to find the best and coolest places,” he said. “I’m just going to make it as friendly as I can. It’s going to be a fantastic time.”
Pat Richmond, an organizer of the Ute Mountain-Mesa Verde Birding Festival, said the event, in its 13th year, has never had a tour directly catered to appeal to teens until this year when Cuntz approached event organizers.
“You have a teen who has actually proposed it and who is leading it, as opposed to adults saying this is what you should do,” Richmond said. “I think that makes it a special event.”
Richmond said it’s important for a younger generation to appreciate, and to be knowledgeable, about bird populations and habitats.
“Birds are so essential to our environment and habitat,” she said. “We can judge the health of our environment by what species are present and by what numbers. And the more we learn, and the more we can pass on.”
And Richmond said with rising global temperatures, the effects of climate change on birds can be seen in real time.
She said some bird species are moving into areas they don’t typically live, and bird-watchers are spotting other species farther north than they’re usually found.
“And this year, many species are coming back earlier than they have in the past,” she said. “For the next generation (of bird watchers), as they become interested in this, they too pick up on the importance of avian species for our own well-being.”
As for Cuntz, he’s doing his part to get kids excited.
“I’m trying my best to get the word around,” he said. “If we can keep kids bird-watching, then generations of bird-watchers will just keep growing and going on for ever, which would be amazing.”