For some teens, getting a license means offering rides to friends, taking trips to the mall, freedom. For one Evanston, Ill., senior, it was mostly about the birds.
Isoo O'Brien, 17, is expected to break the Cook County, Ill., record for individual bird species spotted in a year, clocking 282 species by the end of October. With a little more than a month left before 2021, O'Brien is still working to check off a few final species in the hopes that his record holds for years to come. Topping the record was a big deal for O'Brien, and for other birders, who banded together to offer tips so O'Brien could drive — or sometimes sprint — to a yet unseen bird.
O'Brien hoped to hit 270, maybe 275 species this year.
"But in the back of my mind all I really wanted to do was to break the record," which was 281, he said. "The record was so high that I just was like, I don't want to set that expectation for myself and be disappointed it doesn't happen. But it ended up happening."
O'Brien got into birding through his grandparents. Swapping stories of birds was a way to stay in touch. Then came field guides, databases, apps and a club for fellow fledgling ornithologists.
In the last year, O'Brien finally had his driver's license. And he had only one year left before college. So he decided to embark on what is known as a "big year" — a challenge for birders that entails finding as many species as possible in a specific geographic area.
"Let's say a rare bird shows up," O'Brien said. "You have to drop everything and get in the car and go get the bird."
Undertaking a big year requires a serious commitment, said Carl Giometti, a board member of the Chicago Ornithological Society.
"The key is just to always be birding," he said.
"Yes, it's one person's achievement, but it's really only achievable, especially in a place like Cook County, if everyone chips in and reports rare birds quickly and gives good locations and helps out," Giometti said.
When Giometti saw a prairie warbler one day in Grant Park, he was happy to pass along the tip. "I texted him right away, like, 'Hey, Isoo, we've got a prairie warbler right here.' "
The key to breaking the record was putting in the work for rare birds, O'Brien said. There's a limit on the birds likely to fly by, and O'Brien expected to hit the majority of the species he might see in the first half of the year. By the end of May, O'Brien had counted just over 250 species. There's a gradual slowdown after June and it's tougher to make substantial progress.
While balancing Zoom classes, family time and a social life during the pandemic, O'Brien also contended with Chicago's lakefront shutdown.
O'Brien's level of dedication is emblematic of a strong group of young birders coming up, said Matthew Cvetas, former president of Illinois Young Birders.
"Not only are they interested in the hobby, but they're really good at it," he said. "To the point where they're already leaders in their community. You'll find many of them leading volunteer bird walks, or discussions on social media about complex identification issues."
The Cook County record was last broken in 2013, also by a teenage birder. Before that the countywide record had been in place since 1990.
There's no reward for breaking the county record, other than the personal reward of finding the rarities and having an excuse to get out and see as many birds as possible. But, O'Brien said, "birders all get it."