For my birthday, a Bell's Vireo would be nice
(posted 7-31-07)

I'd decided about a week in advance that if the weather was nice, and if conditions were right at work, I'd take my birthday off. It would be a Friday, so all the better.

Yes, I was pretty sure that July 20 would be a day of hooky. But how would I spend it? It was fun thinking about the possibilities. More precisely, would it be birding or baseball? I would choose just one, since I wanted to spend at least part of the day with our six-year-old son Jay. (Rachel, age 11, was away at camp in Wisconsin.)

On five occasions during my 48 years I have attended a Major League Baseball game on my birthday. It's something I like to do, and having a July birthday and being near a large city with two big-league teams presents at least one possibility annually. Although my attendance has fallen off in recent years I'm still a big fan of the game—especially when the Cleveland Indians are playing.

I like the Cubs, too, and they had an afternoon date with the Diamondbacks on July 20. Wrigley Field would be sold out, but finding a single seat—maybe even a really good seat—would not be a problem.

Well, this blog isn’t called Words on Baseball, so you know the choice I made. The clincher? I had a good chance of seeing a new bird.

Lately I've been working a little harder to find some of the birds that have always eluded me. I'm talking about species that can be found in the Chicago region at certain times of the year if you have good information and also good luck. My efforts since last fall have added Snow Bunting, Harlequin Duck and Acadian Flycatcher to my life list.

Until this summer, I’d never single-mindedly pursued a Bell’s Vireo. It wasn't until June that I finally got serious about finding one. That month, despite excellent scouting reports from fellow birders, I struck out in three attempts at Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Woodridge. It was time to try a new venue.

In DuPage County, one of the most reliable places for Bell's Vireo has always been Fermilab in Batavia, where a few pairs nest each year. Just a week before my birthday, a Bell's was located by group of birders that included noted author and naturalist Scott Weidensaul. They found it along the so-called sparrow hedge, the usual spot at Fermi.

I haven't done a lot of birding at Fermi, and one reason, especially in recent years, is access. Security was tightened up considerably after the Sept. 11 tragedy. Birders are still welcome on the grounds, at least on most days, but it’s frustrating not being able to enter before 8:00 a.m. That's sleeping in for most of us birders.

I thought about stopping at another birding hotspot before Fermi, just to kill time, but then reconsidered. Better to be well fortified for my primary mission, so I headed for the IHOP in Wheaton instead. Going out to breakfast and reading the newspaper (especially during baseball season) is a rare but satisfying indulgence. My birthday was starting off in fine fashion.

I arrived at Fermi’s east entrance gate around 7:35, hoping the guard might let me slip in early. Nope, sorry sir, you'll have to wait. So I pulled over into the small parking lot and watched a steady stream of cars pass through the checkpoint. Fermi has more employees than I ever knew, and apparently most of them begin their shifts at 8:00.

When it was finally time to begin mine, I drove in and parked at the red barn. The sparrow hedge is less than a mile from this point, and on my way down the trail I encountered many catbirds and goldfinches. Not knowing this part of Fermi very well, I was just sort of feeling my way along. I knew I was heading in the right direction, but the "hedge" is not a clearly defined feature. Like the famed Magic Hedge at Montrose Beach in Chicago, it's not really a hedge at all. But whatever it is, the birds certainly like it.

The strategy for Bell’s, as with many other secretive species, is to locate the bird by listening, then hope for a quick glimpse. This species prefers scrubby underbrush and is far more often heard than seen.

I’d been listening to a Bell's Vireo for the previous month via the Bird Guide section of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, It’s a great resource, especially when I need to hear a species that's not included on my Peterson Birding by Ear CDs.

The Bell’s song is raspy and scolding. It seems to me that a bird with such a musical name should have a more pleasing voice. But alas, Bell’s Vireo is named for a person, not something found in a church. John Graham Bell was a taxidermist who accompanied John James Audubon on a Missouri River trip in 1843.

In my first half hour at Fermi, the most interesting sighting was an ovenbird—quite an unexpected species since I wasn't in a forest. A Baltimore oriole and several blue-gray gnatcatchers were flitting about, too. Nice birds, but I was getting a little anxious. When and where would I hear the Bell’s? Was I again destined to miss this bird?

No, I was not. Setting down a new path, still along the sparrow hedge, I heard the noise I’d been training for—distinctive, unmistakable. As I walked it became louder. The Bell's was close, and for a few seconds it even popped into view. It was a drab little bird, but seeing it was important to me. It was a “lifer” after all. And besides, when searching for a bird like Bell’s Vireo that's notoriously difficult to observe, doesn’t the observer become a little more determined? I felt fortunate to get several short looks in good light, with the sun at my back.

Walking back to my car, I remember thinking what a good choice I’d made—to go birding, alone, instead of to a baseball game with 42,000 others. It was not even 10 o’clock and already I’d had a great day. Any birder would understand.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.