Huntington youngster develops early affinity for feathered friends

Hunter Saunders (right) gets a little help from his grandfather, Rick Saunders, as they fill the bird feeders in the back yard of Rick’s residence in rural Andrews. Hunter is credited with being able to identify nearly 80 birds.
Hunter Saunders (right) gets a little help from his grandfather, Rick Saunders, as they fill the bird feeders in the back yard of Rick’s residence in rural Andrews. Hunter is credited with being able to identify nearly 80 birds. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published Jan. 18, 2016.

At the tender age of 4, Hunter Saunders can point out a cardinal, a blue jay, a sparrow, a cedar waxwing … and that’s just a start.

He knows by sight all kinds of ducks — from wood ducks to golden eyes and mergansers.

He can identify nearly 80 species of winged creatures, by his father’s guess. And Hunter hasn’t yet begun an official “life list” of birds he’s sighted so far.

“I started writing them down, and I got to about 35 or so,” says Hunter’s dad, Justin Saunders, of Huntington.

The young birder’s passion began when he started walking, says his grandfather, Rick Saunders, after they spotted wood ducks at his rural Andrews pond. The two have been avid birdwatchers together ever since.

“We really didn’t get into birding until he came along,” Rick says. “In the springtime, he was probably just a little over a year old, we’d take him out around the pond and the wood ducks were nesting at that time. We got a baby wood duck out of the box and he was looking at it, and I think that kind of really sparked his interest in birds from then on.”

Ducks are his favorite — Hunter’s mom, Tracie Saunders, says “duck” was one of the first words he said.

Hunter’s keen eye — aided by a sight scope and binoculars — has spotted most of the birds right in his grandpa’s back yard, which is situated close to the Wabash River.

There is also a deer blind back in the woods on the property, which helps them view birds up-close.

But he also loves going to the Salamonie Interpretive Center at Salamonie Reservoir. He spends much of his time in the raptor bird center. His favorites?

“The great-horned owl,” Hunter says, “and a red-tailed hawk, barred owl and a turkey vulture and a screech owl.”

He also enjoys some of the other animals at the center, including the bluegill, turtles and a crawdad.

“It has big pinchers. He has really big pinchers,” Hunter adds.

Rick says Hunter is a well-known “regular” at the interpretive center.

“A lot of times when we go over there they’ll let him feed some of the turtles,” he says.

Lynnanne Fager, an interpretive naturalist for the Upper Wabash Interpretive Services, describes Hunter’s expertise as “quite impressive.”

Fager recalls the time Hunter came to a program about birds that was held at the center and captured everyone’s attention.

“We had the owls out from the raptor center, and we had a room full of people — mainly adults,” she remembers. “I asked a question to the participants, and nobody raised their hand except Hunter — I think he might have been 2 at the time, pushing 3. This little pipsqueak raises his hand, and gets the answer right. It was fun.”

He hit the nail on the head, accurately naming all the birds in the center’s new waterfowl exhibit as well, Fager says, adding that Hunter also likes spending time with the frogs and the other animals living there.

“It is thrilling to have such a young person so interested in nature and the outdoors,” she says. “It’s refreshing … It’s fun to watch him. I’m thrilled that he’s so young and so into it.”

Hunter also enjoys more things that lots of little boys his age like — fishing, catching turtles and snakes; bowling, playing basketball at the Y and golfing. He loves playing with his Transformers and watching “Paw Patrol” on TV. But birding tops the list.

During outings with Rick, the two often see bald eagles along the river, as well as woodpeckers and several species of ducks, Hunter’s favorite. Once they made a rare sighting at the pond of a double-crested cormorant, perched on top of their canoe. They’ve also watched brown pelicans playing along the beach at Gulf Shores, AL.

“Sometimes we go to the zoo and see peacocks,” Hunter says.

His accuracy in identifying different species is amazing, often coming up with the correct name after just a glance, whether the bird is in a picture book or live in the field.
“I’m looking through the book, trying to figure out what it is,” recalls his grandmother, Tiffany Saunders, “and he’ll say, ‘Mammaw, it’s a —-’ whatever it is. And I’m like, omigosh!”

“And he’ll correct me if I’m going through the book and if I purposely misidentify one he’ll go, ‘Grandpa, that’s —-’ and he’ll tell me what it is … It’s not just that he’s memorized it, he really does know,” Rick adds. “And he can identify a lot of them by sound. We can play bird sounds and he’ll tell you what they are.”

Hunter attends preschool, and is just beginning to learn to read. When he grows up, he says he simply wants to be a “big boy” and work with his grandfather, a tool and die maker.

His grandparents say Hunter really wants to be like local birding enthusiast Neil Case.

But Hunter adds that he wouldn’t mind at all becoming a park ranger or naturalist someday.