Skip Horner was 10 years old when he discovered he was a birder.
Of course, back then birding wasn’t really a thing. No one was packing around bird books and binoculars. And not many were actually keeping a list of the birds they had identified over their lifetime.
None of that mattered for Horner. He was just interested in avian life in general.
“I’ve always been looking at birds,” Horner said. “Ever since I was a young kid growing up in upstate New York. I would walk through the fields, forest and marshes and look at the all the different birds out of curiosity.”
It was his mother who first broke the news to him that he was a birder at heart.
“I was about 10 years old when I said to my mom that I needed a hobby,” he said. “She told me that I have one. I look at birds.”
The curiosity never left him. And now, at 71, he’s still watching birds.
The Victor man has traveled the world as a travel-adventure guide, including dozens of trips to East Africa to take people up Mount Kilimanjaro and then serve as their guide on safaris through the wildlife-rich continent.
“I didn’t go there for birding, but I was bird watching,” Horner said. “The people I’m there with want to see the zebras, elephants and lions, but I often find myself looking at the birds.”
At 7 p.m., Monday, Feb. 18, Horner will share his experiences in a Bitterroot Audubon-sponsored “Photographic Romp through the Bush with Skip” at the North Valley Library in Stevensville. The talk is free and open to the public.
“East Africa is the best place in the world to see the most and loveliest bird species the quickest and easiest,” Horner said. “You never realize that the rainbow holds so many color variations until you glance at an East African bird guide. It is home to over 1,300 species of birds, with some of the most rare birds anywhere, some still unidentified.”
“From the rollicking flocks of millions of red-billed queleas, to the rare glimpse of a shoebill, a giant stork-like bird, wading through swamps at the headwaters of the Nile, birds are everywhere,” he said. “Its wide-open plains, mixed acacia forests, enormous lake sides, montane woodlands, and approachable rain forests make this a birder’s dream, the place to go to ramp up a life-lists or just to experience the sheer glory of multifarious birdlife in unaltered bioscapes.”
This isn’t the first time that Horner has been a speaker at the annual winter Bitterroot Audubon speaker series, but his talks in the past have often featured his mountaineering adventures.
Kay Fulton, the organization’s past president and current program chairperson, thinks it should provide a “very unique opportunity” for those who attend to learn about birdlife in an exotic location.
“African birds are so amazing and so special,” Fulton said. “I haven’t been there, but I’m anxious to live vicariously through Skip’s extensive knowledge of the area. As a guide, he knows the ins and outs of where he goes.”
“We have some great birds around here, but those birds of the tropics are something totally different,” Fulton said.
The Bitterroot Audubon organization hosts a free program on the third Monday of the month from September to May. The programs are held at different locations in Stevensville and Hamilton.
“We’ve been having really good turnouts at our programs this year,” she said. “People seem to be really interested in the topics that we’ve had recently. Last month, we had a presentation on peregrine falcons in the Bitterroot that had a great crowd.”
Horner hopes that his talk will encourage people to pack their bags and get the traveling bug.
“I’m really excited about doing this,” he said. “Most people in the audience will not have been to East Africa. It will be fun to tell them about my experiences and the weird and funny stuff that goes on when you travel to different places.
“I always think that people should travel more,” Horner said. “It opens up your eyes to new people and new cultures when you have a chance to see a whole new piece of the world. The culture in East Africa is fascinating, its lands are beautiful and the wildlife is, of course, is a huge draw.
“I have given talks almost every year to Audubon, but they’ve always been about my latest adventure in the world,” he said. “For me to talk about bird watching in East Africa is a real departure. It will be an opportunity to show a different part of me — the quiet, contemplative bird watcher.”