While many teenagers have resorted to playing video games during the pandemic, Kodiak High School senior Keith Bruce found a different hobby to fill his time — birdwatching.
“It is one of those really convenient sports for COVID,” Bruce said. “You don’t necessarily need to be around a lot of people. You can go out alone, and you are outdoors. It works out.”
Bruce has always been a birder. He inherited the knack for spotting species from his dad, Ian, who is also a birder. In 2018, Bruce was hand-delivered a certificate by then-Gov. Bill Walker for recording more than 275 different bird species in Alaska as part of the Wings Over Alaska program.
With COVID-19 wreaking havoc with school and sports, Bruce’s bird-sighting expeditions have ramped up in 2020. Just this year, he has documented 165 different bird species in Kodiak, which, with a month left, has him in the lead in the Kodiak Audubon Society’s Big Year Bird Challenge.
Bruce describes himself as a competitive guy and treats birding just like he would any other sport — he has dabbled in cross country, track and field, wrestling, baseball, soccer and diving at KHS. He looks for birds three to four times a week, spending upwards of three hours walking and squinting through binoculars. He targets a specific bird each time, sometimes striking out; other times knocking it out of the park. The key is being patient and relying on sight and sound.
“I’ve never hit a home run when I played baseball, but I bet you it is the same feeling,” he said. “It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it is the result of a lot of practice and a lot of training — you know you are on top of your game when it happens.”
Birding has taken Bruce all over the state — trips to the Interior, Southeast, Nome, St. Lawrence Island and St. Paul Island. He doesn’t keep a life list of birds, but he does keep a list of birds he has spotted in Alaska and Kodiak. He is at 287 birds in Alaska and 172 in Kodiak. The rarest bird he has spotted was the marsh sandpiper swimming in a lagoon while camping on St. Paul Island. It was the seventh time the marsh sandpiper had been recorded in North America.
He is also proud of the Laysan albatross he spotted earlier this year during a chartered floatplane trip 100-miles off Kodiak’s coast.
“That was honestly a really scary trip,” Bruce said. “We were going to follow around these trawlers. I had never been out to see. We landed on the ocean out there because we got lucky with the weather.”
Bruce’s ultimate birdwatching destination would be to Attu in the Aleutian Islands chain. The hard-to-get-to-island draws birders from all over the world because of stray Asian vagrants that populate the land. Attu was included in the 2011 bird watching movie “The Big Year” that featured Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin.
Bruce even dreamed up the plan to hitch a ride on a commercial fishing vessel, get dropped off on Attu, and get picked back up in a week by the same boat. He never went through with the plan.
“What if a storm prevents them from getting back or they forget about me,” Bruce said. “Robinson Crusoe on Attu.”
Bruce would like to popularize the sport of bird watching and would like to see a younger crowd join the birding scene in Kodiak. He says birding can be extreme and is more than just looking at birds through a house window.
“Birds are just fundamentally interesting. You can count them really easily. There is a lot of different variety. They are pretty and they fly,” he said. “They are a really convenient animal to observe and learn about.”
Bruce is more than just a birder. He is a semifinalist for a National Merit Scholarship — he scored 1520 on the SAT — and is a state qualifier diver. As a junior, he finished 11th at the state championship meet in his first season as a diver. He hoped to better that spot this season but did not get the chance as COVID wiped out the season.
“It was an unlikely pairing, me and diving,” Bruce said. “I was really starting to warm up to it. I was actually becoming competitive in diving. It does disappoint me.”
Injury-prone as a runner, he only dipped into the water when his cross country coaches wanted him to cross-train. On his first day at swim practice, dive coach Dave Horne persisted that Bruce should try launching off the board. After learning that there were only 10 divers in the state, he figured it would be a shoe in to qualify for state. He later learned there were a lot more than 10 divers in the state.
Diving became the most mental sport that Bruce has been a part of.
“You could probably pull off some high-level dives without any training if you know how to move your muscles and you are focused on what you are doing,” he said. “Getting over the fear of the board — that is rough.”
On the horizon for Bruce is college. He has submitted applications to 10 universities. Nabbing a career that involves working with birds is on the table, but he admits there is more to life than birding. Just not at the moment, though. He has a challenge to win.
“The woman who is behind me is totally capable of (winning),” Bruce said. “I’m not letting my guard down one bit.”