WESTBROOK — Actor Ian Carlsen starts his work week at 7 a.m. at a coffee shop on Portland’s Munjoy Hill, the neighborhood where he lives. Two weeks ago, with a hot coffee and scone to go, the 33-year-old then drove to a wild, wooded enclave outside Portland for a few hours of his favorite outdoor fix.

Carlsen, who acts in television commercials and for two Portland theater companies, is not here to hike, trail run, or mountain bike, activities often associated with millennials. He comes to bird.

A birder of six years, Carlsen is a volunteer for the state’s year-old bird atlas project, which is documenting, for the first time, the bird species that breed across the state. Birding, he realized in his 20s, is his calling, if not his profession.

Carlsen is part of the growing number of millennials across the country interested in spotting and identifying birds. Outside the state, conservation agencies are reporting more millennials – now ages 23 through 38 – who bird. Maine does not break down birder statistics by age, but longtime birders say they’ve noticed the trend here, at least in a small way.

Since National Audubon began tracking its demographics more closely, it has seen an uptick in the number of members in their 20s and 30s, from 9 percent of their 1 million members in 2017 to 12 percent of the organization’s 1.4 million membership this year, said Chandler Lennon, media relations manager for National Audubon.

Carlsen tries to spot a bird near the brook while recording observations at Mill Brook Preserve for the Maine Breeding Bird Atlas. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

That’s not entirely by accident. The national birding organization started a campus campaign in the fall of 2018 to create birding clubs at colleges. The organization is now on track to have 50 chapters across the country by this fall, Audubon President David Yarnold announced, and he expects three times that number in 2020.

Closer to home, Mass Audubon reported that though just 1 percent of its 125,000 members are in their 20s and 30s – a third of the 30,000 who joined the organization in the past three years are in that age group, said Leti Taft-Pearman, the group’s vice president of communication and marketing.

Maine Audubon does not track these demographics. But staff naturalist Doug Hitchcox, 30, said it’s not unusual to go on a guided bird walk these days and see millennial birders – a stark change from a decade ago when he started birding. Hitchcox recalled a day in 2007 when he was at Scarborough Marsh – he was 18 at the time – and looked up to see an uncommon sight: Another young man holding a pair of binoculars. It was Nick Lund of Falmouth, who now works for Maine Audubon, too. At the time, Lund, then 24, was attending law school in Portland.

In Maine, the sight was more surprising than seeing a rare vagrant bird.

“I thought, ‘There’s a young person out birding. I’ve got to go talk to that dude,’ ” Hitchcox recalled.  (You can hear them speak together about birding at Maine Voices Live in Portland in June.)

Other Maine birders have noticed not just millennials, but more children birding today, too. They think growth in both age groups will continue.

“I do think I’m seeing more millennial mothers with children coming on free bird walks. I had several of them on a walk Saturday,” said Bob Duchesne, a Maine birder since 1986, and the author and founder of the Maine Birding Trail.

Maine millennials give a variety of reasons they like to bird, chief among them a desire for a deeper connection to nature.

At age 18, Hitchcox got a camera, discovered he liked to photograph birds, and wanted to be able to identify them. He went on bird walks to learn more. What really hooked him on the activity was Maine’s birding community. In the many welcoming, helpful birders he met – most of them retirees – he found kindred spirits.

Marion Sprague, 39, started birding four years ago when she and her boyfriend bought their home in Westbrook. She loved looking out the windows at

Carlsen scoots onto a log to cross to a sandbar for a better view of a Louisiana waterthrush. It’s the first time he’s seen one. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

all the bird life. The birds were neighbors she wanted to know.

“There were so many species,” Sprague said. “I started paying attention to them and wanted to know who they were, and what they ate. Once I got to know all these birds, I wanted to know more.”

Her experience mirrored Hitchcox’s: She started going on birding walks, where most of the people she met were retirees, with just the occasional millennial birder. Birding, Sprague found, filled her with gratitude. Last year, she became one of two volunteer coordinators of the Young Maine Birders Club. This year, she will volunteer with the Maine Breeding Bird Atlas.

“I tell the youth birders (I guide) I’m really impressed with how much the birds give us: the joy of seeing them,” Sprague said. “The Atlas is something we can give them. The atlas will help determine bird nesting areas and that can help direct conservation.”

Carlsen uses a birding app on his smartphone while recording observations for the Maine Bird Atlas. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Carlsen, 33, wishes he had been drawn to birding earlier. He grew up in Waterboro listening to his uncle – a birder – talk about his hobby, but Carlsen didn’t take it up himself until he was 26. His interest, like Hitchcox’s, stemmed from an interest in photographing birds. Now he and his wife bird on their vacations. They’ve been to Mexico, to France and most recently to Guadeloupe.

He said volunteering 10 hours a week for the Maine Breeding Bird Atlas has greatly expanded his knowledge of Maine’s 292 native bird species. It’s satisfying and gratifying work.

“With the Atlas I get to contribute to science,” Carlsen said. “Every piece of data gathered is important, it all matters.”

In the Mill Brook Preserve in Westbrook two weeks ago, Carlsen listened carefully under a dense fir-and-pine canopy where birds were hard to see. In two hours, he identified 20 species, and recorded them on his cell phone in the Maine Bird Atlas app. Though he came here to work for the Atlas, he had a few of his own goals, too. Carlsen hoped to find the Louisiana waterthrush, a species he had never seen that is known to nest in Greater Portland.

Waterthrush nest under overhanging brush along rivers – so Carlsen paid special attention to this habitat in the Mill Brook Preserve. Halfway through his walk, he thought he heard the sound of the bird. He played a bird-song app, turned the volume down on his cell phone, and listened intently.

A half-hour later as he was leaving, he heard the sound again. He stopped, reversed course and slowly walked 200 yards back along a path that runs parallel to the brook. As if on cue, a waterthrush flew swiftly down along the stream, weaving and turning rapidly.

Carlsen broke into a grin as it flew past.

“You always want your first time seeing a species to last, but sometimes that’s not what happens,” Carlsen said. “So many things in my life are available on demand and ready to satisfy at the click of a button, but not that waterthrush. It’s a good reminder that all the best stuff in life requires a little more effort.”


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