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'Bird nerd' teaches visitors all about birds

John McCoy
Sara Miller, the resident summer naturalist at Kanawha State Forest, can usually be found in the woods with a pair of binoculars in her hands. The self-described "bird nerd" will be leading bird-watching walks for novices every Saturday at 9 a.m. through Labor Day.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sara Miller calls herself a "bird nerd."Every Saturday morning during the summer months, she leads people through the woods of Kanawha State Forest, teaching them to identify birds by sight and by sound. It's a job she particularly enjoys."I've always been interested in nature, but in the past few years I've taken a special interest in birds," said the 24-year-old Charleston native. "This job allows me to apply that interest and help others develop an appreciation for birds and for nature."Miller, who graduated from West Virginia University in 2010 with a degree in wildlife and fisheries biology, was a nature buff long before she ever left for college."I've lived in the woods almost since I was born," she said. "I could walk out my back door and be in the woods, and I spent as much time there as I could."Some of Miller's first memories are of springtime morel hunts with her father."I was really little and low to the ground," she said, smiling. "I was a good mushroom finder even at that age." Her grandfather fostered her avian fascination."I was 5 or 6 years old when he got me into birds," Miller recalled. "He started me with the cardinal because it was bright red, easy to see, and was the state bird. I've been a birder ever since, but I didn't get really serious about it until the first summer job I had while I was in college."Miller and her coworkers were "nest searchers," tasked with finding birds' nests and monitoring their inhabitants' survival."To learn where the birds nested, we had to learn what habitat they preferred and how they sounded. We used the male birds' calls to get a general location, and then we watched the adults to find the nests themselves," she said.
The skills she picked up during that first summer job have served her well since last summer, when she became Kanawha State Forest's summertime resident naturalist."This forest has a very diverse bird population," she said. "We have everything from warblers and cuckoos to crows and barred owls. One time, sitting just outside the forest's office, I was able to identify the calls of 29 different bird species."Though her naturalist job entails much more than just bird study, Miller has made it a principal focus of her duties. News releases put out by the state Division of Natural Resources promote her weekly birding forays as "nature programs with your local Bird Nerd at Kanawha State Forest."Every Saturday at 9 a.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Miller meets up with would-be nature enthusiasts for a morning's worth of bird watching. Some days she assigns themes to the walks. This Saturday's program, for example, will focus on members of the flycatcher family.
Most people who show up for the hikes are nature novices, and Miller sometimes modifies her chosen program to accommodate her audience's needs."I gauge the crowd first, and if it's beginners, I kind of play things by ear," she said. "The idea is to get people interested in nature. Birding is great for that because birds are everywhere. People who go on bird walks at the forest can find some of those same birds wherever they live."Miller said her Friday activities at the forest aren't nearly as bird-specific."I set up a 'mobile nature center' beside the forest office between noon and 4 p.m.," she said. "I bring an extra table and set it up with lots of different animal artifacts for people to touch and feel. I also bring things for them to read. Eventually we're going to build an 'interpretive corner,' with signs identifying the different trees, a few birds feeders and things like that."Information on Miller's upcoming programs can be obtained by calling the Kanawha State Forest office at 304-558-3500.Reach John McCoy at or 304-348-1231.
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