Birders' Passion Soars
The Bay Area Birding Club of Green Bay, WI
“Birds delight us with their colors, enchant us with their songs . . . there are few creatures on earth that we humans must look up to . . . forcing us to see them with eyes raised as they exercise their enviable powers of flight.” — Pete Dunne
By Jason Laurenzano | September 15, 2021
A Profile in Passion about Birders?
I last wrote about the Passion for honeybees and beekeeping as experienced and described by “Sung Lee the Bee Charmer.” This time it’s the Passion for birding that has captured my imagination, thanks to members of the Bay Area Bird Club of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
City born and raised, I didn’t spend much time among trees or near meadows or marshes. There is a nearby park with some lovely trees but to me that park meant sports fields, tetherball poles, basketball hoops and hang-out spots. My knowledge of birds was very limited during my youth. Major League Baseball logos informed me that there might be Orioles in Baltimore, Blue Jays in Toronto and Cardinals in St. Louis. Aside from the feral pigeons in the city and the gulls at the Jersey Shore (and a friend’s pet Budgie) I hadn’t noticed much else.
Morning birdsong had always been pleasant to hear but it was the Leonard J. Waxdeck Bird Calling Contest that raised my awareness of bird calls. Commencing in 1963, high school student bird callers from Piedmont (CA) High School appeared annually on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (and later on David Letterman’s show), entertaining television and studio audiences with accurate and funny bird calls. Check them out on YouTube.
One chilly morning while driving near a field I saw a group of people huddled around spotting scopes, their fingers wrapped around coffee cups. I parked and approached. We had a friendly chat and I was given my first exposure to birding. I couldn’t fathom getting out of my warm bed at dawn to stare at a bird for a brief moment before it flew away, but the group’s enthusiasm was intriguing.
Years later I saw a group of birders on the veranda of a restaurant (at a reasonable hour). I introduced myself. Once again I was doused with birding passion. I knew then that I would explore this further someday, in some way.
Many years passed. Now is the time, this is the way.
"There are two kinds of birdwatchers; those who know that they are and those who haven’t realized it yet." — The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature, Jonathan Rosen
Discovering the Bay Area Bird Club
Going into this Profile in Passion project my intention was to get a feel for the passion for birds and birding and to discover how (or even if) it affects a serious birder’s outlook on life. I was more interested in the birders than I was in the birds. I believe I succeeded to some degree but it is the wonderful unintended consequence that will remain well after I publish this piece. I have become enamored by birds and I feel the strong pull towards birding. Here is how this journey began.
I located the Bay Area Bird Club through an online search. Let me rephrase that, because I didn’t accurately locate it. I’ll explain. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Discovering a local birding club would be convenient. I emailed Nancy Nabak (the club’s president) to describe my project. Ms. Nabak promptly responded and enthusiastically expressed interest.
During an ensuing telephone chat she described her passion for birds as being not only immensely enjoyable and gratifying but also spiritual “beyond words”. Right then I felt I was on to something. I told her that I was interested in understand the feelings and sensations beyond the words. Nancy invited me to go birding with her or with other members of the club.
Great! I’m like “all in”! When can we start? Well, NOT SO FAST! The “Bay Area” that she lives in is not the San Francisco Bay Area but Wisconsin’s Green Bay Area. We were amused by the misunderstanding but not disappointed. As luck would have it, I would soon be in the Chicago area, a reasonable 200 mile drive to Green Bay.
During the weeks leading up to that visit I dipped my toe into birding. I got a birding field guide and read Kingbird Highway, by Kenn Kaufman. I practiced spotting birds through binoculars (not as easy as I had anticipated). I paid attention to birdsongs and calls. I placed several types of bird feeders in my yard and watched them “like a hawk”.
Soon numerous species came to feed. So long as the neighborhood cat wasn’t present I identified Pine Siskins, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Black Phoebes, Bewick’s Wrens, California Towhees, American Goldfinches, California Scrub Jays, House Finches, Oak Titmice and others. I’ve even become tolerant of American Crows now that I know how intelligent they are. I’ve become less tolerant of squirrels. Those of you who have bird feeders know what that battle of wits is like.
I was now ready for my Wisconsin experience.
1. Gardening; 2. Birding
Polling suggests that in North America birdwatching is the second most popular outdoor activity after gardening. The migration away from industrial cities and to the suburbs and more open space is one reason. Birding is inexpensive and can be done nearly anywhere, including by looking through the window of one’s home.
July 10, 2021
Birding with Bob Mead
Mud Lake Wildlife Area, Door County, WI
Nancy put me in touch with Bob Mead, a member of the Bay Area Bird Club who she knew would be fun to bird with. Bob enjoys introducing the novice and the curious to the world of birds.
At the pre-arranged time of 6 AM Bob pulls up to the log cabin that my wife and I were staying in. He drives us to our first location. It is light early at that latitude in mid-July, making it easier to be up and out. The conditions become perfect; sunny, low humidity and a light breeze. Even though the spring migration of the many species of colorful Warblers and other songbirds had passed, there are many species to hear and spot.
Bob is warm and personable, fitting for his career as a family physician. For my Profile in Passion project my focus is on him and how he experiences his passion. All birders look intently through binoculars and scopes but, as I was to observe over the next few days, there are observable differences, more in manner than in technique. In Bob I sense a smoothness, a form of grace and gentleness. He exudes a calmness and quiet, as if he is blending into the habitat.
We stopped at a wooded roadside and walked a trail. While peering through his binoculars he quietly says to us “See if you can spot that Cedar Waxwing on that small branch.” I see it and feel a rush of excitement because the Cedar Waxwing had become a personal favorite that I first spotted eating red elderberries off of my neighbor’s tree.
Susan and I particularly liked spotting a lovely Indigo Bunting perched atop a high tree branch, its body set against the azure morning sky.
Bob is highly skilled at identifying birds by their songs, calls or other vocalizations. His ears and eyes seem to effortlessly detect the presence of a bird even in the full foliage of the summer trees. He explains that birders will use words that approximate the call of a bird. He tells us “For that Indigo Bunting, listen for its call ‘here here, there there, fire fire.’ If you hear ‘witch-it-y, witch-it-y' that’s the Common Yellowthroat.”
“I’m hearing an Ovenbird over there”, he says. Well, I’m thinking "20 pound Butterball Turkey". He’s thinking 6 inch tan bird with a white belly, black markings and white eye rings. “Teacher, teacher, teacher.” We don’t hear that, but we take his word for it!
We continue on to the Mud Lake Wildlife Area, 1450 acres of wetland and over 200 acres of wooded habitat. We see many marsh and shore bird species but what I most recall is that before stepping onto the lake view walkway Bob hands us a wire brush to scrape seeds from the soles of our shoes. I never would have thought to do that, but it makes sense to protect the environment from contamination by non-native, invasive plants. As we brushed, Bob said “protecting birds and the environment is extremely important to me”.
While driving between locations I ask him if he has feeders on his property. Duh! He and his wife Carol converted their acreage into a native prairie that attracts migrating birds and pollinating honeybees, carpenter bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. And, yes, he has several designs of feeders stocked with various types of bird food. As if that isn’t enough to attract birds, there is a birdbath (always with fresh water and heated in winter). The birds enjoy their spa, no reservations required!
A “spark bird” is the term sometimes used to refer to the bird that first captures one’s imagination and sparks one to begin birding. Bob was “sparked” at the age of 10. Vacationing on Sanibel Island, Florida he and his dad set out before dawn. They spotted a very odd looking and bizarrely behaving bird, the Reddish Egret.
“I remember watching it frantically spreading its wings, jumping and lurching, stomping and splashing the water to reveal its next meal.” He didn’t know it at the time, but that outing opened the door to a lifetime of birding. “After that experience, and probably because my dad saw my reactions, he took me on birding trips into many different habitats. I’ve been a birder ever since.”
I ask him if, as a boy, there were other species that especially intrigued him. “Again, with my dad. At dawn on a cold day we saw male Prairie Chickens. They came out into the open, these plump birds, blowing out their bright golden colored cheeks to attract females. It was very weird, funny and interesting. I fell asleep in the car during the long drive home.”
I ask him to share a birding story. “It was the Christmas Day Bird Count in the Florida Everglades. We got out of our canoe and pulled onto the shore of an isolated island. We hiked and birded but didn’t account for the time and the tide. The canoe floated away. My dad stripped down to his boxer shorts and waded out into the bay but he couldn’t reach it. He looked so silly. The guys in a passing boat were amused as they helped us out.”
In college Bob studied zoology and ornithology. He joined the local Audubon Society. Birding along the rugged Oregon coast, he made a regional bird list of 268 species.
For 33 straight years he has done the Christmas Bird Count. That count involves identifying all the birds seen within 24 hours and reporting his findings to the Cornell Ornithology Center. That’s just a sampling of his devotion to birding and bird and habitat conservation.
Bob’s trained ear and knowledge of bird calls is very useful in forested areas and among deciduous trees during the summer months. It adds a great dimension to birding. I ask if that keeps him always on alert for birds. Is he always birding? “Yes and no. I usually tune out birds that are common but when I hear an uncommon one, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, it registers. One day I’m shaving. I hear a Connecticut Warbler, not a common bird in our region. I made note of it and quickly uploaded it into the eBird database. I’m always at least passively birding, I suppose you could say.”
Two days later I would learn from another member of the Bay Area Bird Club that it is very common for a birder’s spouse to have no interest in birding. Bob is grateful that his wife Carol is not one of those spouses.
“We’ve gone birding in Ireland. We enjoy birding in South Florida and the Midwest. After Carol and I were fully Covid-19 vaccinated we went up to Sax-Zim Bog near Duluth, Minnesota hoping to spot a Great Gray Owl. It is the largest owl in North America and we had never seen one. It is crepuscular – most active during dawn and dusk so we had a short window to see it. Fortunately we did, as daybreak brightened. We were awed by its beauty and mysterious majesty. We high fived and later celebrated at lunch with a most satisfying “lifer” piece of pie.”
Thanks to Bob’s skill, my Life List of 42 species grows to 76 that morning. After our enlightening outing we join Bob, Carol, Bob’s dad Chuck and Chuck’s friend Joan, and Joan’s sister Barbara for a delicious home-cooked breakfast. We enjoy their company immensely as we chat and make new friends.
Bob is an avid Green Bay Packers fan. I tell him that until this visit to Wisconsin, to me Green Bay had always meant the Green Bay Packers football club. I mention that as a young boy I watched and rooted for Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi’s Packers. To my great joy he invites us to a Packers game this November. I might finally get to experience the (not yet) “Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field”.
What a great day we had. I was so pleased that Susan was with us so she could get an up-close view of passionate birding and better understand why I am intent on writing about it.
Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau was an avid birdwatcher and recorder of observations, using a navigational spyglass.
“I once had a sparrow alight on my shoulder for a moment while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.”
July 11, 2021
Birding with Nancy Nabak
The Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve
In addition to being president of the Bay Area Bird Club Nancy is the Communication and Development Coordinator for Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.
Our first stop is the Nature Center where I purchase some swag from the gift shop (shirt, cap) and admire Nancy’s nature photography that adorn the walls. Then we hit the trails. It is another lovely day, 75 degrees, low humidity. Perfect conditions for walking through the forests, wetlands, swales and prairie.
Nancy tries her best to lock me onto the bird calls and sightings. To some extent she succeeds, however my objective (as it was the day before with Bob) is to bird the birder. When she solo birds, which she often does, Nancy is serene (at least outwardly) and laser focused. She almost always has her camera and is intent on capturing bird essence. But with me, and with others the next day, she is animated, excited and downright giddy. Wonderfully so!
Nancy can recognize many species by their vocalizations. Perhaps she is not as skilled as Bob Mead, but still very adept at locating and identifying unseen birds by their calls and songs. Out in the marsh, among the cattail reeds, she hears something and turns to me with a lit-up face. “Hear that? That grunting and a “kid-icking” sound that gets softer and softer? That’s the Virginia Rail! They are so hard to see out here because they hide in the reeds, but let’s try!” Well, I look and look but it’s only her zest that I see.
She has a “sharp eye” for spotting birds. It’s not simply good vision. She understands the habitats. She knows which species occupy each forest, swale and marsh at different times of year. She knows the many reasons why they gravitate to those environments, be it for food, mating, security, migration, nesting or roosting. She is aware of and sensitive to the surrounding environmental conditions at any given time (temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, current weather conditions, lighting, etc.). Thanks to her I see (or so she tells me) 21 species and I supposedly hear another 4 or 5. I take her word for it, and it gets written down.
As I walk I take in the overall beauty of the place, a macro view. Nancy is as much micro as she is macro. She walks ahead. I see her fixating on something. Somewhere up there, in the tree canopy. I see a tree and leaves. She sees more. She has her camera focused on a small American Redstart Warbler, a very small species. Once again, I don’t see it but, okay. I do see her passion.
I watch her taking a photo. “I almost always have my camera with me when I bird,” she says. I’m not surprised. It seems to me that she uses that long lens not to bring the bird closer to her but as a means to transport herself to the bird on its perch. The camera and the photographs are tools of intimacy and respect.
I’ll remember some of the birding moments with Nancy, like the Eastern Kingbird that was sitting atop its nest. Yet for the second straight day my “take away” is my impression and observation of a birder in the “bird zone”. Their birding personalities seem different but what Bob and Nancy share is a heart and spirit. At some point on both of the birding outings I imagine them figuratively flying. I feel very happy for them.
Woodland Dunes is a precious gift to the public. Check out my description of this magnificent place, see some of Nancy’s photography and read some more of my impressions. Look for it under The Blog menu on this website.
Hatching a Passion
I ask Nancy how she became so passionate about birds and birding. “I grew up in a small farm community where everyone knew everyone else. Nature was all around. As a child I loved to hunt for morels, pick blackberries, and listen to the amazing night sounds while trying to fall asleep. As an adult I became involved in a project to restore plants native to the Green Bay Area. Along the way I met birders, went birding, and I sort of took flight.”
Nature photography was a natural extension. “When I started birding, I had no camera experience so I took a couple of classes and then self-taught and eventually developed the skills to photograph birds in their natural habitat. Very hard to do because of the birds’ continual movement and light changes. I’m still learning.”
Over time Nancy’s passion for birds and birding deepened into a new environmental activism.
She is the historian for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. She is also Green Bay’s representative in Bird City Wisconsin. She participates in “citizen science” [AKA “community science”] activities including the Christmas Bird Count, the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II and The Big Bay Bird-athon (which she co-founded). This background only partly explains why she is the ideal person to be president of the Bay Area Bird Club AND the Communication and Development Coordinator for Woodland Dunes.
Then, there is the Chimney Swift, what Ms. Nabak refers to as her “passion bird.” I had no idea what a Chimney Swift was. I had never even heard the term. Chimney Sweep, yes, a la Dick Van Dyke, “Chim chiminey, chim chiminey, chim chim cheree.”
A very interesting species of primarily black-feathered avian – with its cigar-shaped body and long tapered wings. They cannot perch on tree branches or wires and cannot walk and hop on the ground like most other birds. The anatomy of their feet does not permit it. Thus, they are constantly in flight during daylight.
They fly in a way that appears to be erratic, not in a straight path, constantly changing direction. The fact is that their flight reflects that they are insectivores that forage “on the wing”, feeding on flying insects. They also drink and sleep on the wing. They are only still while roosting overnight (and that’s a most interesting part).
During the spring and summer season in much of the North America they build small nests on the roughly-textured inside walls of uncapped chimneys. They’ve adapted to urban life due to the decline of old growth forests and the hollowed tree trunks that they prefer.
What’s particularly fascinating is how the Chimney Swift goes about roosting for the night. At dusk many, even hundreds, will congregate near the host chimney before flying or dropping into the chimney as if being sucked down a drain.
It is not uncommon for large groups of people to congregate to see it.
They construct their nests using saliva as mortar to bind the nesting materials.
Those unusual feet allow for support on the vertical surfaces of the chimney’s inner walls.
Check out some videos on your preferred video platform (“Chimney Swifts Going into Chimney”). Very cool spectacle.
While inside her Woodland Dunes Nature Center office Nancy points to a decorated pan on a wall. It covers an entrance into the building’s restored chimney. I listen intently and can faintly hear baby Chimney Swifts “kid-icking” (sounds directed at the mother who has returned to the nest with food).
To her immense credit, Nancy is a participant in a statewide Wisconsin Chimney Swift Working Group that monitors many dozens of chimneys in her region to observe migration patterns and document the approximate numbers of birds from year to year.
Is the Chimney Swift Nancy’s favorite bird? After all, there are so many fascinating and beautiful species to choose from.
Eastern Towhee, perhaps Nancy's very favorite.
Birds as Early Warning Signs
Birds are indicators of impending storms. In 2014 migrating golden winged warblers were seen leaving their breeding zone in advance of an oncoming tornado that was still many miles away. Storms emit low frequency sounds and create changes in atmospheric pressure that birds detect and respond to. And, of course, there is that “canary in the coal mine”
July 12, 2021
Birding with Jack Swelstad, Adam Sinkula, Jim Johnson,
Mike Gottfredsen and Nancy Nabak
[Bay Area Birding Club Members]
Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin
The prior two days of birding has been a great primer for today’s ultimate birding experience arranged by Nancy. If birding was an Olympic sport this 5 person team would medal.
(Note: For a look into what power birding looks, again I mention “Kingbird Highway” by renowned birder, Kenn Kaufman. At the age of 16 in the 1970s Mr. Kaufman hitchhiked all over the continent to set the “Big Year” record. His Kaufman Field Guide series is among the best ever written.)
Jack, Adam, Jim, Mike, Nancy and I congregate outside Nancy’s home at four o’clock in the morning. It was dark and a bit chilly as I shake hands with the group, unable to see their faces. I stand silently, coffee cup in hand, listening as they create a birding plan. Already they are speaking in what seems like another language.
We head to the expansive Horicon Marsh, a glacial lake that is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the USA. Jack drives his vehicle with Adam riding “shotgun”. I’m sitting in back. Nancy drives Jim and Mike. It remains dark during most of the drive. I take the opportunity to ask questions and gain some insight into the lives of two serious birders.
These two guys relish being bird nerds. Adam tells me with a laugh: “Yup, we’re bird nerds! I can geek out for hours talking about birds and not think it was a bad conversation!” Jack chuckles and nods in recognition and adds that non-birders think that birders are weird at worst, strange at best. He then says: “Yesterday while visiting friends my wife tells them that I was getting up before dawn to drive a long way just to look at birds. They all think I’m nuts. Maybe I am, but I don’t care. I know that they’re missing out. They don’t get it!” Adam agrees, “It’s the people who don’t know much about birds who are really missing out.” “I’m one of them,” I think to myself.
I ask for elaboration. What is it that we don’t get? What are they missing out on? Jack, a retired vascular and general surgeon, answers: “If they were to go out birding with people like us, particularly during migration, they’d be fascinated by what goes on in the sky and trees.” Having studied various environmental sciences, Adam speaks of the interconnectivity of ecosystems and all its living entities: “What is this plant, and why does it grow here? How does it fit in? Different bird species, like most organisms, prefer one habitat over another for feeding, breeding, hatching and rearing. But, why? I’m fascinated by these questions and the by symbiosis within nature. Birding is my gateway.”
So, how has their passion affected them? Adam responds: “Birding and being immersed in nature counterbalances the hectic parts of everyday life, like work. It simplifies things, I mean birds have a simple agenda. Live, eat, breed and that’s basically it. Birding takes me away from much of humanity, it makes me realize how so much of the complications in life really aren’t important.”
Once the sun is up the backstory drive chatter stops. It's "go time". Jack and Adam scan through the windows of the moving car. They are already locked in at 45 miles per hour. Jack spots a bird in flight and calls out the species as if that bird were sitting still on his dashboard posing for inspection. All I see is a bird, flying in the distance. Adam enters the findings in the eBird app.
We pull up to our first of several stopping points in and around the Horicon Marsh. Jack answers without a question pending. By now they both have a sense of what I’m after. “It’s very satisfying to find something that’s rare and have the ability to identify it. And to be able to document it with a photograph that you’ve taken, is very satisfying. It’s a rush.”
A Fancy for Pigeons
Frank Zappa, Walt Disney, Mike Tyson, Yul Brenner and Nikola Tesla (among others) have/had a passion for breeding pigeons. Keeping and training pigeons dates back thousands of years in the Middle East and Asia where the quest for self-improvement and the raising of pigeons are interconnected.
Pigeons can fly for many hours at a time at heights that make them invisible to the naked eye from ground level. They have a well-honed sense of direction, thus their ancient use as message couriers (carrier pigeons).
Charles Darwin, who was once “not a fan” of pigeons, eventually joined pigeon societies and began breeding pigeon species which helped inform and refine his Theory of Evolution. He grew to consider pigeons to be “the greatest treat . . . which can be offered to a human being”.
Within the boundaries of the Haricon Marsh we walk service roads and trails that penetrate the wooded habitats. All heads tilted upward.
As I look at the above photograph an interesting juxtaposition occurs to me that hadn’t occurred to me at the time. It is common to see them physically standing still, patiently surveying the habitat. Their bodies are still but their eyes, ears and brains are in high gear as they spot and identify birds that are present for mere seconds (or less).
“I hear an Eastern Wood-Pewee” Adam calls. Nancy responds. I see the direction where she has her binoculars pointed. “Yup, about 20 yards out and two thirds up the canopy”. They prefer to get confirmation before making an eBird data entry (the general consensus being that Jack’s spotting needs no confirmation).
I’m taken by the intensity of their focus and how they are each living in the moment, both as individual birders and as a team. I spot only those birds that stay still for a spell. More importantly what I can and do see is this group’s kindred spirit and joy. They feed off of one another’s energy and excitement as they see or hear, and then call out, the species.
That’s me, second from the right, wondering what the heck I’m supposed to be looking at.
Eventually we reach the edge of the cattail marsh that extends as far as the eye can see. Scopes and binoculars are pointed towards far distances where all sorts of water fowl do whatever it is that water fowl do. I was fascinated by the group of a couple of dozen American White Pelicans. They were swimming in close formation. In what looked like an organized, choreographed manner, they were slashing and splashing the water to uncover edible fish.
Oh, in the marsh habitat I finally did see a Virginia Rail. Nancy beams a huge grin. I also see multiple species of Sandpipers, Ducks, Herons, Bitterns, Cranes and Terns. And miles of cattails swaying in the breeze.
As we talk and walk from vista point to vista point it’s clear that “my birders” have a good sense of what I’m after. They think aloud about the physical, intellectual, emotional and even spiritual aspects of birding. The thought occurs to me that some (or all) of them might not have put these thoughts and feelings into words before. Jim Johnson, like Adam earlier in the darkened car, tells me that birding (including the planning, documentation, and debriefing) absorbs him. He is simultaneously stimulated and relaxed. The outside civilization fades away. Every day stress and problems are out of mind. It is pure joy to watch beautiful and/or interesting birds in wonderful habitats in North America and abroad. The wonder never gets old.
Jim, like Jack Swelstad, has done a considerable amount of international birding. “It’s a great way to get exposed to the culture of the country, their people and customs, their food and the natural environment.” He continues: “When we bird in places like Africa, we birders not only see the ‘big game’ that safari tourists look for, but we also see small game and birds. We create not only bird list but all mammal lists”.
Oh, yeah. Lists. Life lists, county lists, region lists, state lists, country lists, backyard lists, bird-athon lists, “Christmas Bird Count” lists, annual lists, bird “family” lists and more. Adam tells me that when the calendar rolls into a new year there is a “reset” that triggers a renewed quest to find species in that calendar year.
Me? I’m challenged enough by shopping and “to do” lists.
Life Lists and the Lifer
Until recently I had no idea what a Life List was. Bucket list, yes, but not a Life List. It makes sense.
There are somewhat casual Life Lists, and then there are rather Extreme Life Lists. From the book “Birdmania: A Remarkable Passion for Birds” (Brunner) I learned that Ms. Phoebe Snetsinger, an American, documented having seen 8,674 birds. That amounts to approximately 85% of all known bird species, a world record at the time of her death in 1999. She traveled the world continually at the expense of spending time with her family. A biography about Ms. Snetsinger was written by Olivia Gentile entitled “Life List” [Bloomsbury] in which she wonders “whether there is a line between dedication and obsession”.
The “eBird” app associated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology periodically issues rare bird alerts which sometimes results in a rush of birders to the identified location, a phenomenon referred to as “twitching”.
The Hollywood film, The Big Year (starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson) is a comedy that dramatizes this sort of rabid competition.
Then there is the term “Lifer” which means the spotting of a particular species for the very first time.
There are times when nothing noteworthy happens. I liked Jim’s sort of existential take on that, “If I see nothing I’m still happy because even if I didn’t see what I might have come for, I learned something! I learned that there is nothing there!” he says as he raises his eyebrows.
Many birders are senior citizens, often retired. They value both the physical and mental exercise involved. Jack’s wife is grateful that birding gets him to walk four miles daily (and out of her hair? I don’t know). Jim used to choose a park with trails and walk them until every one of them was traveled. Now in his mid-seventies he walks less but still far more than most people his age or younger.
Is birding more of a solitary activity or a social one (I ask, knowing that it can be both)? Adam Sinkula tells me that he and many other BABC members enjoy the communal nature and fellowship. “We don’t care about one another’s backgrounds, etc. We have a shared bond, commonality, sense of community. It is a wonderful thing that drowns out the excess noise that would otherwise differentiate people.” Jim Johnson enjoys writing articles for the Club’s newsletter, the Chickadee. It’s his way of sharing his experiences while birding and contributing to the community of birders.
I asked Jim to say more about his writing. He tells me that lately he has enjoyed learning and writing about “local, local” birding spots. “I want to know where birders go that is not often thought of as a rich birding habitat, and what they see. It could be where trash dumpsters are, or some other small area that no one thinks to go to for birds. But there are birds there too!”
Adam and Mike were quick to set up spotting scopes.
I ask Jack and Adam about the eBird app that I see them using on their phones. I already know that it is a central database of acute interest to ornithologists and conservationists. Jack tells me,
“eBird just passed 1 billion birds entered. Before that technology, scientists had far less good data from which to extrapolate and analyze the impact of climate change and other environmental factors on bird populations and migration patterns. For example, it was discovered that the Indigo Bunting follows the Mississippi River and that was not clearly known before. Knowing that helps environmentalists facilitate their migration through that area. Data accumulated today will be important in coming decades. By having citizen birders it is free.”
Mike Gottfredsen, a retired schoolteacher, seems to be the more reserved of the group, that is, until I get to ride back to town with him. I ask how he first became interested in birds. He tells me that it all started when he was a boy, and his neighbor’s mulberry tree. “I was watching these birds, I now know that they were American Robins. They were foraging on the ground eating mulberries. They were stumbling and wobbling. You see, mulberries will ferment because of their high water content and thin skins.”
That must have been a sight, I say. “Yeah, it was amusing back then but now I know that the birds can overindulge and die from it.” “Oh.” I say.
Earlier, while walking back to the vehicles Mike tells me that he had been a “falconer” and a member of the Wisconsin Falconer’s Association. He and his falcon would hunt for rabbit that he would later eat. Sometimes he used hunting dogs to flush out the game and his falcon would then swoop down for the kill. Mike then goes to the spot and tempts the falcon away from the kill, “trading off” more desirable food in exchange for the rabbit.
“Birding makes my daily walks more purposeful. I’m always birding to one degree or another. It keep my mind sharp because no matter how much I know about birds and habitats there is always more I can learn. It excites me. It motivates me.”
Bird Man of Alcatraz
Robert Stroud was convicted of murder and served decades in various penitentiaries in the United States. While incarcerated at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas Mr. Stroud nursed to health three injured sparrows that he found in a nest in the prison courtyard. Thus a Passion for birds was born.
He began breeding canaries and was allowed to do so by the warden who was trying to establish the penitentiary as a progressive rehabilitation facility. Using equipment provided by the prison, Mr. Stroud raised over 300 canaries, selling many to raise money to help support his mother.
He not only raised them but closely studied them, eventually writing credible books including Diseases of Canaries, which was smuggled out of Leavenworth and published in 1933.
Because of the hygiene issues that it caused, the prison authorities terminated his activity. An acquaintance campaigned on his behalf and presented a petition with 50,000 signatures. This effort and the resulting publicity lead to Mr. Stroud being able to resume his hobby but it was eventually discontinued when it was discovered that he was also using the equipment to brew alcohol. He was transferred to Alcatraz and remained imprisoned for the rest of his life but without birds.
The Zen of Birding
I’m careful to not interfere with the team as they birded. They are being most gracious and patient as they point out birds to me, showing me where to look and what to listen for. I enjoy that immensely and, I’m like: Am I a birder now? A: Yes. But, again, that’s not my focus. They are.
I occasionally peel away to reflect as I watch the birders in their full flight. I wonder if it is spiritual for any of them. I mean, apart from the pleasure of being in nature, enjoying the beauty of birds and alleviating stress. Apart from the satisfaction of helping conserve birds and habitat. Apart from the enjoyment of the company of other birders.
Two days prior Bob Mead answered that by describing how birding molded him, shaped him into the man he is. “It’s thrilling and exciting for me. When I see or hear a new bird my heart literally beats faster, and I love to tell others what I’ve experienced. Birding has given me a special sort of meaning and purpose. It gives me joy and has definitely made me a more rounded person. It centers me, grounds me. I appreciate and notice the simple things. I’m a better listener, maybe because of my ability to identify species by their songs and calls.”
What else can you say about that Bob? How does birding spill over into the other aspects of your life? “Birding does positively affect other parts of my life. I enjoy and love my family and friends more presently, if you know what I mean. And, I think it makes me a better physician in how I connect with my patients of different ages. And, there are similarities. Birding and medical practice require an accumulation of information that needs to be put together to reach a conclusion . . . about a medical diagnosis or the identification of a rare bird.”
Nancy, the day before, spoke in somatic terms. “It moves me on the deepest of emotional and physical levels. I feel it not only in my mind but in my body. It’s a physical sensation, a natural buzz.” She described “being the bird”. “I feel like I’m a guest inside of Mother Nature’s ‘church of the bird’ and I feel honored to be there. Birds are a divine gift. They are fragile yet hearty. They are personally healing for my spirit.”
Nancy is “on a roll” so I ask her to drill that down a bit more. “Oh boy...excitement and a heightened sense of feeling love for life and gratitude for being alive. This may sound strange, but every part of me is alive and I feel most connected to nature. Everything is heightened, my senses are fully engaged. I experience it physiologically. Endorphins flow.”
One study suggests that if a young child can identify any species of bird he or she is more likely to feel connected to nature which, Nancy Nabak says, is “something that we need now more than ever.” She tells me of a study conducted to reveal the level of children’s awareness of species in their immediate environment. “It’s not encouraging. Children tend to be more familiar with African mammals than they are with the many bird species in their neighborhood.” Yet she is optimistic because of the interest of children during the guided nature walks she does at Woodland Dunes.
Also, the alarm bells of climate change have awakened waves of young adult activism in environmental politics and policy, and in conservation activity.
Bob Mead “pays it forward.” “I love leading bird walks during spring migration and I’ve done it 15 years running. That’s how I met Nancy. She was a novice at the time. She became energized and has become what she is now - a real gift to nature. That she has done that is extremely satisfying to me.”
“I love introducing novices to birding. I get a kick out of seeing and hearing the reactions when they look through my spotting scope at a magnificent bird. The ‘ooos’ and ‘aahs’ are wonderful to hear and it is very satisfying to bring them small moments of joy”.
The Corona Virus pandemic has drawn many to birding and bird appreciation for the first time. The need for social distancing caused many to shy away from assemblies of people and into the wider outdoors, and an interest in birds motivates people to explore different environments.
There are many nature centers and preserves around the nation and the world. They offer many opportunities to learn about birds and birding and flora and fauna in general. For example, the interns and volunteers at the Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve organize nature walks, birding outings, and social events centered on “nature appreciation” and ecosystem conservation. And lots and lots of interesting birds.
I’m a Birder Now (kind of)
I’m a birder now, perhaps not a “bird nerd” but a birder nonetheless. Even before getting to Wisconsin I began my research, the most important element of which was simply paying attention to birds that I saw or heard. I try to observe the physical features; the coloring and pattern of the feathers, the size and contours of the body, head, length and shape of the bill, the tail feathers, the flight patterns. On occasion I consult field guides to solve the puzzle of identifying a species. Good “brain food”.
Walking nature trails and city streets, either alone or with other birders, I’ve spotted a Red-shouldered Hawk preening atop a tall dead tree, a Peregrine Falcon resting on the top ledge of a tall building, a Black-crowned Heron eating discarded pizza crust while perched on a bus stop bench, a Great Horned Owl sitting on a nest oblivious to a very strong wind, and a shift change between two hawks atop their nest. I’m less oblivious now.
One day it was revealed what being “bitten by the bird” has done to me. I was chatting with a friend in the yard of my home. I was fully focused on our conversation until I heard a songbird in a tree. My attention was reflexively directed towards the sound. THAT was a new experience.
My Wisconsin friends Nancy, Bob, Jack, Jim, Adam and Mike have taught me so much. Surely, about birds and birding but mostly about the incredible impact that the passion for birding can have on one’s emotional, physical and spiritual life. Through their experienced eyes and ears I was transported to a deeper level of appreciation of the natural world. The birds I saw were strikingly beautiful, the breadth of their species nearly unfathomable and their behaviors entertaining and even funny (you simply “gotta” see an American Woodcock bopping along as it walks). Thanks, you guys! I am immensely grateful for your having shared your passion and for infusing me with a good dose of it.
For you, my dear friends, and for the many thousands of enthusiastic birders of all ages worldwide, birding has meant the difference between merely living and being truly alive.
Pardon me for this indulgence, but I can’t help but add some information about some of the species that I find most fascinating. Except where otherwise indicated the information is composited from general internet sources.
Whooping Cranes – Mating Dancers
Named for its whooping sound, the Whooping Crane is the tallest North American bird. It is an endangered crane species. Along with the Sandhill Crane, it is one of only two crane species native to North America. The Whooping Crane's lifespan is estimated to be 22 to 24 years in the wild. After being pushed to the brink of extinction by unregulated hunting and loss of habitat to just 21 wild and two captive Whooping Cranes by 1941, conservation efforts have led to a limited recovery. The total number of cranes in the surviving migratory population, plus three reintroduced flocks and in captivity, now exceeds 800 birds. [Wikipedia]
Penguins – Gotta Love ‘em
“Penguins are appealing on so many levels: they do not look like a typical bird, their upright waddle positively invites us to imbue them with human characteristics, and, last but not least, they make us smile.” [Bernd Brunner]
Peregrine Falcon – Hunter Extraordinaire
Perhaps the fastest creature on Earth, the Peregrine can dive towards its prey at up to 200 MPH. It can capture its flying prey from either above or below.
The laid egg of the Peregrine is among the most beautiful in terms of color and complexity.
The practice of Falconry, the hunting partnership between man and falcon, dates back thousands of years and is perhaps the most intimate and developed of human/avian relationships particularly among the nobility.
Superb Lyrebird – Talented Mimics
A large songbird that is native to Australia, the superb lyrebird is renowned for two incredible characteristics: the ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds from their environment and the striking beauty of the male bird's huge tail when it is fanned out in courtship display.
This pheasant-sized bird can accurately mimic the sounds of many other species of bird. There have also been reports of one lyrebird learning to mimic the sound of the flute being played by the human with whom it lived, and then in the wild the sound was replicated among other neighboring Lyrebirds.
The Hummingbird – Hovering Beauties
Aptly described as “an extraordinary wonder and a masterpiece of minuteness” by Jean de Lery in 1557, the hummingbird delights particularly non-birders perhaps as much as any bird.
They are the smallest of birds, most species measuring 7.5–13 cm (3–5 in) in length. There are well over 300 species in the hummingbird family.
It is the sound of their beating wings that give this group species its generic name. They hover in mid-air at rapid wing-flapping rates, which vary from around 12 beats per second in the largest species, to in excess of 80 in some of the smallest. To hover while feeding they rotate their wings and can fly backwards by displacing air.
Hummingbirds feed on nectar from flowers and in so doing they help pollinate the flowers that promote flower reproductive health. Their symbiotic relationship with various flowers is a credit to nature. They also eat insects as a source of proteins.