Happy As A Lark
March 2022 Issue
By Cynthia Robinson
Photography by Mike Force Photography
Val Burnett can often be found outdoors. Whether riding her bike, hiking or paddling her kayak, she will more than likely be bird watching, too.
“Everything goes hand in hand,” said Val, laughing. “I try to expand my interests, but birding is so integrated in our family. I’ve bought the little ones (her grandchildren) binoculars so they can be a part of it too. We get to see nature at its most beautiful, its most peaceful.”
Val’s journey to becoming an avid birder began with another passionate pastime—photography. “I really started birding about 10 years ago, and it started because I really like to take pictures,” she said, adding that birds were among her favorite photography subjects. “I started using my photos to help identify birds and was hooked.” It also helped that Dan and D.C. Coleman, her brother-in-law and sister-in-law, were longtime, serious birders. “I just followed them around and learned from them,” she said, with a laugh. She also studied birding guides and uses Merlin, an app that helps birders identify birds by sight and sound. “It isn’t always 100 percent accurate, but it’s close. I’m really working on identifying smaller birds,” Val said. She also said those interested in birding should join an Audubon Society chapter and purchase and study birding books, “especially local birding books to learn what birds can be found in your area. Getting a national birding book can be overwhelming and confusing. I like to study local books and birding books from an area I’m planning to take a birding trip. I like to find lists from foreign countries before I go and quiz myself.”
When Val decided to “fly south,” she brought her love of birding with her and quickly became enamored with three coastal Georgia birds. “Roseate spoonbills (an outgoing wading bird with a distinctive beak), the glossy ibis (a water bird with a sickle-shaped beak) and anhingas (warm climate water birds) are my favorites. Photographing them is so relaxing.”
Val said she left her native Ohio after visiting the area and “knowing my soul was here” while visiting her son who was then stationed at Fort Stewart. That was in 2010 and she hasn’t looked back. “I first lived in Jesup (in a rental), but liked it better here (Golden Isles),” Val said. She now lives in “Sterling on the Buffalo River—one of the best spots to see cormorants, egrets and herons. I also put out millet seeds to attract painted buntings, which are so beautiful.”
While Val loves birding in the Golden Isles, she’s also traveled around the world to pursue her passion for spotting and photographing birds from ravens in Washington State to laughing Kookaburras in Australia.
“The last trip we took for birding was Madagascar in 2019. Dan and D.C. said ‘let’s go to Madagascar!’ We saw so many unusual birds. The trip was almost three weeks long, and I was so tired!” Val said, laughing again, but added it was one of her all-time favorite excursions and she would love to go again.
As much as Val’s birding trips have brought her peace and tranquility, she and her companions have had their share of sometimes frightening and, at times, hilarious circumstances. “Once, in Chile, we were traveling with a guide since I don’t speak Spanish. A man on a yellow motorcycle came speeding up and hopped off yelling and waving a machete at us! It was one of the scariest moments I’ve ever had.” The man eventually got on his bike and left, but Val’s group decided not to finish their excursion. “Our guide said the guy was claiming we were on private property, but the guide said we had prior permission to be there. We decided it wasn’t worth it and got back on the bus!”
Another memorable birding outing happened on Merritt Island, off the eastern coast of Florida. “We were told about a good spot to find peregrine falcons, so I go hiking down the beach with my camera and binoculars, only to find a group of nudists! They were looking at me lugging my camera and binoculars like I was some kind of pervert,” Val said, laughing again. “We gave up on finding falcons that day!”
Now, Val is hoping the pandemic has paused enough for her to make a long-awaited trip back to Spain this summer to hike and bird along the 70-mile Camino de Santiago. “I’ll be going with a group with D.C. and about 10 other women. It’s a trip to help find yourself and find peace. I can’t wait to go.”
Family Ties: Wife, Wendy; four grown children from her first marriage, Ryan, Matthew, Kristin and Ethen, as well as an “adopted son,” Stephen; and four grandchildren.
Professional Life: Founding member and partner investor at local office of Keller-Williams Real Estate.
Favorite Local Birding Spots: “I love the Altamaha Wildlife Refuge and Harris Neck, especially in the spring when there is so much energy and noise. We usually take our bikes and lunch. We also love to walk the beaches and just be out in nature.”
Favorite International Birding Spot: Madagascar
Birding Bucket List: Dry Tortugas/Key West and Costa Rica/Ecuador
Through the Lens: A mirrorless Canon EOS R6. “I learned photography by playing with the camera settings, watching YouTube videos and practicing. I also joined the photography guild here, and it’s really helping me learn and share. I recommend the best place to practice photographing birds in your own backyard. Birds are so fast! Don’t look away from the camera, and don’t take your eyes off the bird.”
Other Hobby: She loves to bake, especially Danish pastries and pizza.