Contributed photo by Luke Thompson / Gambel's Quail

In 2019, Luke Thompson was visiting the Canadian Rockies, his heart set on spotting a spruce grouse.

The best way to do so, a local birder had told him, was to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and slowly drive the dusky gravel roads.

"My parents did a little groaning when I asked, but they woke up and took me," Thompson says.

At 15 years old, the Signal Mountain resident is an accomplished birder — and not just for his age. His life list boasts more than 500 species spanning 17 states and three countries. Last fall, he recorded the second-ever cinnamon teal, a species of duck, in Hamilton County history.

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Signal Mountain backyard birding

Thompson's love for birds began at age 6 when he came across a field guide to world birds at the public library. He brought it home and began to draw their images. Soon, he was identifying the ones he saw at his feeder: titmice, chickadees, finches.

At age 9, Thompson remembers, he saw a hooded warbler flitting about his backyard.

"They're really colorful," he says. "They were a bird I remembered seeing in the book but never thought I'd see in real life."

Inspired by the sighting, Thompson began participating in local trips led by the Tennessee Ornithological Society. He learned from locals such as the aquarium's Kevin Calhoon and biologists Lizzie and John Diener. He studied bird calls; but more than just their songs, he memorized their night flight calls, the short, high-pitched vocalizations species make during migration.

In April, the Dieners challenged Thompson to a backyard bird count, a friendly competition to see who could identify more species from home. Thompson began regularly waking at 4 a.m. to sit on his dark porch and record the faint calls of migratory birds passing overhead.

Ultimately, he won the challenge with a total count of 100 species.

"My mom didn't particularly like me waking up that early," Thompson says. "She worried I wasn't getting enough sleep. But [my parents] are supportive."

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Luke Thompson and his father Kevin Thompson pose for a photo while birding together in California. / Photo by John Diener

Their support has afforded Thompson many of his sightings. In 2018, when the Dieners invited Thompson to go birding in Arizona, his mother gave permission and traveled with him. The following year, the Dieners invited him to California, and his father went.

Once, Thompson's parents drove him two hours to see a rare brant goose that had been spotted near Knoxville. Another time, cave swallows, common in Texas and parts of New Mexico, turned up near Memphis. Thompson asked his parents to drive him.

"They said no, but it's a 5-hour trip, so I expected that," he says.

During that family vacation to the Canadian Rockies, his parents took turns waking at 4:30 a.m. to help him scour the roadside for spruce grouse. They never spotted one on those pre-dawn drives, but a week and a half later, Thompson finally saw one, pecking alongside the road in the middle of the day. A few days after that, his family counted 11 more while hiking near an alpine lake.

"Three adult and eight babies. My dad almost stepped on one of the adults because it was just standing still on the trail," says Thompson with a chuckle.