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Birding prodigy heads to state competition

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan John Deitsch, 13, an avid bird watcher has spotted over 220 different types of birds in the past four years. Deitsch who is a member of the Southern Wings Bird Club poses for a portrait at Cardinal Lake in Duluth.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan John Deitsch, 13, an avid bird watcher has spotted over 220 different types of birds in the past four years. Deitsch who is a member of the Southern Wings Bird Club poses for a portrait at Cardinal Lake in Duluth.

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Photo: John Deitsch A photo of a green heron taken by John Deitsch, 13, an avid bird watcher at Cardinal Lake in Duluth.

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Photo: John Deitsch A photo of a brown-headed nuthatch taken by John Deitsch in his Duluth backyard.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan John Deitsch, 13, uses his binoculars to search for birds at Cardinal Lake in Duluth last month.

DULUTH -- Above all else, the eyes and ears of 13-year-old John Deitsch are his best assets.

When he walks through the tall grass, crouches in the meadows, peers through thick telescopic glass, he's listening, watching, waiting.

The youngest member of the local Southern Wings Bird Club by more than four decades, colleagues say he's also the smartest.

The club's two dozen-plus members are cheering him on next week as he embarks on a yearly excursion that pits him against the state's best avian enthusiasts -- the annual Youth Birding Competition sponsored by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Over the past three years, he's twice taken first-place prizes.

In preparation for the trip to Jekyll Island, Deitsch will pack his National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds book, his trusty binoculars and a small, spiral-bound notebook.

On last year's trip, he spotted more than 100 different winged creatures.

"I don't get to go to the coast very much, so going out on the beach and seeing all the different birds once a year is a lot of fun," he said during an uncharacteristically vocal moment. "We usually see lots of gulls, herons and wood storks."

A sentence or two is likely all you'll get out of him. Deitsch is admittedly a shy one, a trait not uncommon with teenage boys. But don't let it fool you. There's a lot going on in that brain.

"He is the most intelligent and knowledgeable person in the whole (birding) club, and he's only 13," said Hank Ohme, a longtime member of the group. "He makes a big impression on you."

Ohme also is program manager for Mill Creek Nature Center in Buford -- an 88-acre wetland owned by the Georgia Wildlife Federation.

Deitsch visits the nature preserve once a week, volunteering as a record-keeper, keeping track of the birds that reside or visit the natural habitat. John knows the birds as much by their plumage and song as he does their personalities: the curious titmouse, the regal kingfisher, the bossy mockingbird.

"He's incredible at identifying the different species, so we know what we have at the nature center," Ohme said. "He's been a big help to us."

Using an online checklist called eBird, the boy keeps a comprehensive record of each species he's spotted since starting his hobby. He's logged 219 different species in Georgia, many of which he's seen in the backyard of his family's residence on -- no kidding -- Cardinal Lake Circle.

Nestled between Meadowlark Drive and Canary Lake Drive, their backyards share a body of water that is host to as many species of avian wonders as Deitsch could ever hope to find.

His mom, Rebecca, said that seeing the variety of wildlife in their backyard is probably what got him interested in the first place.

"He'll go out in the yard and stand in one place and just wait," she said, recalling that about four years ago the boy seemed to take an official interest, asking if he could go to the library to check out books.

"Suddenly, he was teaching all of us everything about the birds and being able to identify them by the call," she said. "We were amazed that he knew all that, and we started realizing he was actually right."

Upon joining the Southern Wings Bird Club, fellow members started noticing the same thing about John.

"We've got a couple people who know birds ... a lot," said member and former president RoseMarie Mason. "But I think John is up there with the very best of them. He's just remarkable. John has respect from the adults."

Club Member Suzy Downing said that during meetings or nature hikes if anybody has a question about a bird, "everybody turns to John."

"We all know a little bit about birds," Downing said. "John is beyond that."

Downing said she hopes that the boy will grow up to be an ornithologist.

Ask John if he knows what he wants to be when he grows up, and he laughs, smiles and responds with a polite: "No."

His mom, who is also his homeschool teacher, thinks the sky is the limit.

As all moms do, she brags on the boy, but not without reason: he's a capable columnist, penning a monthly piece for the neighborhood newsletter; he's an award-winning nature photographer; he's an accomplished piano player; and he's been known to sling a mean fastball.

A pitcher for the Norcross 13U AAAA GGBL Travel Team, the Blue Devils, John will often use breaks throughout the nine innings to chance a look toward the trees or the blue sky.

"He can tell you afterward all the birds that flew over during the game," Rebecca said. "Wherever he goes, he's always noticing birds."

All that practice has served him well, as evidenced by a track record of victory at the annual Youth Birding Competition -- a 24-hour avian-watching marathon during peak spring migration. Teams scatter out across the state, spending the day finding as many species as they can.

Over the past three years, John and partners Alexander Lewis and J.R. Robbins have won first place twice and second place once. Their team name? The EagleManiacs.

Ohme thinks the boy is as ready as ever for the April 13-14 event.

When he hikes with John through the Mill Creek Nature Center, he watches him work. It's not uncommon for John to spot 50 or 60 species in less than two hours: an incredible feat, Ohme said.

"He's got patience, and he's got good eyes, so he can spot movement in the brush," Ohme said. "He also has a terrific knowledge and memory of each species, how they look and how they sound."For John, bird songs are music. The plumage -- speckled, mottled, bright and bold -- is magic.

"You never know what you might see," said John with a smile, eyes moving over the water, the trees and the sky.