Fascinating books that celebrate ‘the chase’ (published 4-22-04) How far would you go to see a rare bird? I guess my own limit is about 110 miles. In November 1999 I drove to Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area in Indiana for the chance of seeing a common crane—a vagrant Eurasian species that occurs in the United States only once in a blue moon. According to Internet reports, a single common crane had been spotted among the hundreds of sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski a few days earlier. This was possibly a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I had to go. Fortunately, the effort paid off for me and for the throngs of other birders on the scene. I remember chatting with one guy who had just flown in from Baltimore. Yes, just to see a bird. Telling this story is my way of admitting that I, like many birders, can be a little obsessive. We are not always rational when the chance arises to see something new—especially something rare. Still, I don’t know anybody like the main characters in “The Big Year,” a new book about three men who stop at nothing (and spare no expense) in their quest to set a new U.S. record for most bird species seen in a single calendar year. “The Big Year” reveals a crazy, competitive side of birdwatching that bears little resemblance to the hobby as most of us know it. You might want to pick up a copy just for laughs. But when it comes to books about pursuing birds, I can highly recommend three. These stories, all published in the 1990s, will make you want to pack up the binoculars and field guides and hit the road. “The Feather Quest” by Pete Dunne takes you on a guided tour of the country’s birding hot spots. Whether or not you’ve ever been to places like Southeast Arizona, Everglades National Park or Cape May, N.J., you’ll enjoy Dunne’s entertaining accounts. He has a way with words, to say the least. Near the end there’s a riveting chapter based on a visit with the late Roger Tory Peterson, who wrote the book’s introduction. “Kingbird Highway” by Kenn Kaufman is another entertaining read and rates as my all-time favorite bird book. It’s the story of Kaufman’s remarkable personal mission to see as many birds as possible in a single year. But unlike the “The Big Year” characters, he carried out his plan as a teenager with no money in his pockets, hitchhiking back and forth across the country multiple times. Kaufman, like Dunne, is today about as famous as a birder can be. “Chasing Warblers” by Bob and Vera Thornton is more obscure. It documents the authors’ attempt to find and photograph all 52 species of wood warblers in the United States. Seeing certain birds can be tough enough, but taking high-quality pictures of them is a far greater challenge. The effort behind this book is truly extraordinary. Buy it for the pictures and read it to see how the Thornton’s managed to pull it off. All of these books are interesting and readable, in part because they are not just about birds. They’re also about the people—some birders and some not—encountered out on the open road. Each book will captivate anyone who likes birds and likes to visit new places in search of them. Happy trails. Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com. Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Habitat variety makes Willowbrook a bird magnet (published 4-15-04) If you ever have the chance to go birding in high winds and snow squalls please take my advice: don’t. I encountered both bird-deterring elements during an early March visit to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. My quick loop around the preserve’s nature trail yielded only one notable species, a brown creeper. Trust me, in better weather, Willowbrook is a great place for birdwatching. It’s really a special piece of property. The Center’s short nature trail feature four distinct habitats—wetlands, prairie, savannah and woodland. This attracts a wide variety of birds. Carl Strang, a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, says 146 species have been documented at Willowbrook, not counting injured or sick birds that have been brought in for treatment. (The Center is, after all, the area’s foremost wildlife care facility.) One of Strang’s most memorable sightings was a male Lawrence’s warbler—a bird so rare it took me three field guides before I could even find a picture of it. Other nice finds over the years include sedge wren, prothonotary warbler and Louisiana waterthrush. The latter two species were spotted alongside the little stream for which Willowbrook is named. There’s more. On two different occasions Strang witnessed a flyover osprey, and each bird was carrying a fish! Another time he watched an American bittern lift off from a tiny patch of wild rice and cattails in Willowbrook’s marsh. He likes that story a lot because it shows how even small landscape features can attract new birds. Habitat restoration work now in progress will give the preserve even more natural diversity. The preserve’s centerpiece is a restored four-acre prairie, where eastern bluebirds have nested for the past three years. Look for the bluebird boxes when you walk the trail. Besides the habitat variety, one of the things I like best about Willowbrook is its compactness. The entire property is 50 acres and the nature trail is less than a mile around. So it’s a great birding option if you just have an hour, and a good bird walk for young children with short attention spans. Willowbrook’s live animal exhibits are worth a look, too. A series of outdoor cages contain some impressive raptors, including bald and golden eagles, turkey vultures and four kinds of owls. These are birds that were treated for injuries and are now permanently disabled. Now they play an educational role. A surprisingly wide variety of smaller birds are on display inside the main building. This is your chance for close-up views of a Baltimore oriole, rose-breasted grosbeak and American kestrel, plus hard-to-find species such as black-throated blue warbler, sora, purple martin and eastern screech owl. All the birds were brought to Willowbrook for treatment of injuries or disease. Fully recovered birds are released back into nature. But save the indoor exhibits for a rainy day. With spring migration now in full swing, it’s time to get outside and see some new birds. The friendly and knowledgeable staff at Willowbrook can help you with that. Guided tours of the nature trail will be offered at 9:00 a.m. on April 13 and 18, and May 18 and 22. Also on May 22, a program called “Birding by Ear” will begin at 7:30 a.m. For more information, call (630) 942-6200 or visit www.willowbrookwildlife.org. The Center is located on Park Blvd. in Glen Ellyn, about a mile south of Roosevelt Road. Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com. Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.