What Makes a Birder? Nicholas Komar Jr.: A Family Tradition

By John Bloomfield

Some travel the world and amass huge life lists. Others travel as far as their backyard and may not list at all. Some bird with expensive optics and big camera lenses. Others use modest bins and maybe a point-and-shoot. Some hike miles in search of a rarity. Some take pleasant walks and just enjoy whatever they see.  Some bird from a wheelchair or walker. Others enjoy birdsong from an open window.

Birders. They come in more flavors than an ice cream store. Yet they share one thing in common: an unabashed love for all things birds.

In this new series we explore the diversity of our local birding community. We wanted to know what ignited their interest and what keeps them going. We call it: “What Makes a Birder?”

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Some people have a spark bird that lit their passion for birding. For Nick Komar Jr., birding itself was the spark. It runs in his family.

“You could say I was born into birding,” says Nick. “My dad turned me on to it as a young kid when he showed me an Evening Grosbeak through a pair of binoculars.” He was spellbound by the colors. Today you can find Nick in the field in and around Travis County before or after work most days, as well as good chunks of the weekend.

Born in Boston in 1993, Nick spent most of his childhood in in Fort Collins, Colorado, where his father, Nicholas Komar, is a biologist specializing in vector-borne diseases for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nick’s father is also founder of Quetzal Tours, has birded on five continents and is co-author of Wild Birding Colorado: The Big Year of 2010.

“Dad’s a compulsive birder,” Nick says. “I think I inherited that from him.”

Catching up with Nick on the trails adjacent to Onion Creek Metropolitan Park, we were hoping to find a Blackpoll Warbler that had been reported there the day before. With quick reflexes and sharp eyes, he followed every movement in the woods. There was no Blackpoll that day, but he was able to get his eyes on a small Empidonax flycatcher, which he identified as a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher from its olive-yellow colors and yellow eye ring. Nick also found a Mourning Warbler foraging down low, Least and Great-crested Flycatchers and Yellow-bellied Cuckoos calling on this cool early evening in mid-May.

Growing up, the Komar family vacations strategically included planned birding stops. “My mom, my sister and I had to choose between waiting in the car or following dad into the woods and join the hobby that we didn’t quite understand. As time went by, I would enjoy helping my dad spot birds in the field and he always complimented me on my natural instincts, which I imagine is why I continued to join him. “

Birding wasn’t always exciting for Nick, however. There was the time when his father had him out in the freezing cold looking for an Arctic Tern in Colorado. Or the time Nick had to wait “forever” in the car while his father went off in search of an owl.

But despite these little traumas, Nick was hooked. He poured all over his father’s field guides, memorizing every detail he could. And he started joining his father on field work trips to Central and South America. By the time he was 12, Nick had traveled to five countries and accumulated a life list of more than 1200 species.

Nick didn’t bird much in his high school and college days, but the birding bug came back after college when he moved to Dallas for work.

“I didn’t know anyone, and birding was this old skill I had and a means to explore the new area around me. I started keeping track of my observations on eBird and joined the competitive side of birding. Setting a goal of seeing the most species in the county during my time in Dallas motivated me to spend all of my free time in the field.”

Nick moved to Austin three years ago, where he just bought a home south of downtown. During his first year here, he developed a friendly rivalry with Jeffrey Jackson, a great young birder in his own right, and that year each saw about 280 birds. He did not say who won.

Nick decries stereotypes in birding. “Although it has a long way to go, birding is becoming more diverse than it used to be, and as the technology keeps evolving, it is attracting more people. One of the best birders in the area is a young teenager,” he says. “He can do circles around any of us.”

Nick offers the following advice for new birders. “Don’t be intimidated,” he says. “You don’t need to be an expert, and if you don’t know what something is, there are plenty of people around to help you figure it out.”

He adds: “Especially, don’t be afraid of misidentifying a bird. We all do it. I once mistook a tree frog for a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl! My father says that to find rare birds you have to have a great imagination, and that was pretty imaginative.”

While Nick has big plans for his birding life in Texas and beyond, his main ambition doesn’t center around his life list or some rare, sought-after bird. “Birding will always be a special bond I have with my dad,” he says, “and my goal is to share it with him for as long as I can.”

They’ll be traveling soon to Alaska, where the family birding tradition will continue.