For many, it can take years to find life's calling. Courtenay Ray, 17, is hurtling toward hers with the speed and focus of a diving peregrine falcon, and the passion of a playful lovebird. Birding has become as central to the Everett High School senior's day as eating.
Now, she is getting ready to take part in a three-month field study of bird habitats in San Diego through Dartmouth College. She's the youngest intern in the program's 10-year history.
"It's just a beginning," Ray said of the field study. "This is what I want to do all my life."
All this comes less than a year after Ray was first introduced to the world of birding.
As she wrote late last year in an application letter: "In reflection of this past summer, I realize that the most amazing parts were spent covered in bird poop."
Field study internships usually are reserved for graduate students or undergraduate students in their final year of study. Ray was exceptional, said Eric Walters, the principal researcher for the field study.
"We are very impressed with her knowledge, background and general attitude toward science," he said.
Ray will miss her high school commencement for the study, which starts next month, though she finished her graduation requirements already through a pre-college program.
Before the summer is out she also will have earned her associate's degree thanks to the Ocean Research College Academy, offered through Everett Community College.
Ray will attend the University of Washington next fall as a junior and plans to continue on to graduate school to become an ornithologist.
It was a former ORCA instructor who connected her to her future passion.
Biology teacher Jennie Hoffman introduced Ray to Dan Froehlich. He is Hofffman's husband, a birder and graduate student at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.
He taught Ray the basics of birding and how to band birds for research.
"I've shown a lot of people over the years what banding is all about, trained a lot of people. I don't expect people to go and take it on as their life mission or even something they want to keep getting up to do at 5 a.m.," Froehlich said. "But Courtenay really pursued it intensively. I was impressed by that."
Ray has picked up on subtle differences in feathers that indicate how old a bird is, for example, among other specialized techniques that will prove useful in the field.
She said she also thanks many of the older enthusiasts who surround her on birding outings for the early knowledge.
"People are really willing to - I hate the expression, but - take you under the wing," Ray said.
Ray quickly found herself part of a peculiar subculture.
Her neck has invented new ways to ache, with eyes constantly turned skyward. It isn't unusual to spend as much time parked on the side of the road - straining over the passenger seat, binoculars in hand, viewing a falcon - than actual driving.
"It's pretty insane," Ray said.
The beauty of birds, the allure of catching glimpses of rare breeds and contributing to scientific study keeps the interest fresh.
"I feel like things are OK because there are birds in the world," she said.
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