Geoffrey Newell was just seven years old when he first fledged his interested in birds. It was the movie Winged Migration and his father’s own biology background that sparked what would become a life-long passion.
For those who have attended Geoffrey’s frequent birding tours with the Friends of Uplands Park and now the Capital Regional District, it’s no surprise the avian expert has been doing this most of his life. Those who haven’t seen the Oak Bay resident in action, however, might be surprised to know Geoffrey is only 17.
“I would say my favourite bird is the Pileated Woodpecker,” he says. “You find them in mature forests, they are about as big as a crow and have a red crest, and just their size for a woodpecker is pretty spectacular.”
It’s also one of the first birds Geoffrey began drawing from memory as a young boy – a talent he developed so far that he was noticed – and became friends with – renowned Canadian wildlife artist Fenwick Lansdowne. Lansdowne, who also lived in Oak Bay, died in 2008 but told Geoffrey he reminded him of himself as a young artist. It was a defining moment for the young man, who keeps his sketchbook fresh with intricate colour drawings.
“Probably two of the best places you can go to see some incredible birds are Martindale Flats and Island View Beach,” says Geoffrey. “If you are looking for specific birds, like owls, any thick forested area, like Francis/King Park, will offer great viewing.”
Geoffrey has now found 280 species of birds in Victoria – a number that officially separates him from fellow birders who take the activity more casually, although his younger brother Jean, 15, is only 10 finds away from catching up to his brother.
“These boys really don’t do any recreational activity just for fun,” says their mother Brigitte Newell. “I see that they are both perfectionists, and competitive and want to be the best at everything. … My trick for finding ways to support them both is that they do the same things, together.”
Despite their competitive nature, both boys also excel at karate, their father David Newell a biology teacher at Mount Douglas Secondary school, specifies the activities don’t negate each other – and act as bonding experiences.
“When we travel for karate, we are also travelling to see the birds, so it’s wonderful,” says David. “Geoffrey and I are really looking forward to seeing the different species in Columbia.”
Finding some of those species was a little easier before the Geoffrey’s voice changed. He was able to imitate whistles and calls, from his favourite woodpeckers to ravens and oyster catchers. Though he grew out of that talent, the home-schooled Geoffrey hopes to continue his karate career into his mid-20s, and intends to take biology in university. Meanwhile, he’ll be leading his birding tours a few times throughout the summer between championship karate competitions.
“In order to do what you are passionate about, you really need the support of your parents, and I’ve been extremely lucky in that way,” says Geoffrey. “To go birding, you do need some equipment: binoculars, I use 10x50s, a telescope for ocean birds, a field guide and a camera – because you never know when a rare bird might appear.”
Go on your own birding trip with Geoffrey and the Friends of Uplands Park Sunday, July 28, 8 a.m. or and Sunday, Aug. 11, 8 a.m. at the end of Cattle Point in the large parking lot. Geoffrey will also give a birding lesson for the Capital Regional District on Sunday, Aug. 18, 9 a.m. at Witty’s Lagoon in Metchosin.
Did you know?
Perhaps better known around the region for being the older of two karate superstar brothers, Geoffrey Newell has quickly put the Island on the map with his athletic skills. Both he and brother Jean will compete for Team Canada at the Pan-American Karate Championships in Columbia this August. That is only the icing on a seven-year award-winning career that has seen Geoffrey listed as a “rising star” in the international karate scene, an Olympic hopeful and the teacher of dozens of youth who hope to turn out just like him.