American White Pelican by Dick Yamasaki
In the car, at the ballpark, always birding
(published 7-13-11)

Birdwatching and birding are the same thing. I believe that. But there is a sense within the hobby that “birding” is a little more serious. So a few years ago the DuPage Birding Club asked its members to contribute ideas about what makes a birder. Their responses, published in the club newsletter, revealed a level of obsession that nonbirders would find amusing if not call-the-cops alarming.

One of the tamer entries came from my friend Jerry Z. He said you know you’re a birder when “you’re the one looking at the sky while everyone else is fixed on the national monument you’ve all traveled to see.”

I thought of that last month when attending a baseball game with my son at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Cardinals were playing the Blue Jays, so the evening had an avian quality to it from the start.

Before and during the game I was pleasantly distracted by cliff swallows. The sky over the emerald field and bright red seats was full of them. Every now and then I’d spot a barn swallow, too. Was anybody else seeing this?

Baseball can be a slow game, and that’s not a complaint. I like the pace. There is plenty of time between pitches to look around and notice things, like birds. Jay and I each observed a robin grazing in left field during the game, and I kept an eye on those swallows until nightfall settled in and the aerial feeding frenzy ended.

Busch was the first stop on our six-day baseball road trip through Missouri and Iowa. My binoculars were in the trunk just in case but I didn’t intend to use them. This trip was not for the birds. It was about father-son bonding, baseball, hot dogs, silly jokes and hotel pools.

But of course every day contains birding opportunities. There is always something to see.

Naturally I began a mental “trip list” as soon as we left the driveway in Glen Ellyn. Watching for birds while driving may at first seem unsafe but I think it keeps me more alert. The key is staying focused on what’s ahead, not to the sides. No rubbernecking! By the time we reached Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield I’d already spotted 15 species, including a flyover green heron.

Car birding can really test of your identification skills. You often only have a second or two to assimilate clues such as size, body shape, flight pattern and color. Habitat is one of the best clues of all. Red-winged blackbirds, for example, America’s most abundant species, show a strong preference for roadside ditches and fences. Turkey vultures soar above, looking for roadkill. Bridges attract swallows and pigeons.

The list grew quickly as the miles went by. I saw a kestrel hovering, getting set to drop down on unsuspecting prey. Also in the air, easy to see and ID: great blue herons, cormorants and an egret. Starlings, grackles, robins and mourning doves were abundant. Baltimore orioles zipped over the highway like orange and black comets.

At Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, as at Busch, cliff swallows were part of the entertainment. We sat high in the upper deck so most of the bird action was at eye level. Down on the field, the Royals defeated the Cubs.

Throughout our time in western Missouri I was hoping to spot a scissor-tailed flycatcher. We were at the northern edge of the usual range for this species, the state bird of Oklahoma. And because it likes to perch on wires, viewing one at 65 mph seemed possible. Well, no such luck, but we did see a few roadside mockingbirds.

On our second-to-last day we stopped in tiny Van Meter, Iowa, to visit the Bob Feller Museum. An osprey was circling a small reservoir as we exited I-70, just west of Des Moines—a nice addition to the trip list! As we left the museum I heard the loud trill of a chipping sparrow. I’m not always “tuned in” like some birders but that one was easy.

The last game on our road trip was in Davenport, home to the Quad Cities River Bandits. Their little ballpark is a gem, hard along the Mississippi River with a view of Centennial Bridge. It’s a minor league version of PNC Park in Pittsburgh, but without the large buildings. In the Steel City, however, you’d never enjoy close views of American white pelicans flying by as we did at Modern Woodmen Park. What an unexpected treat it was to see these huge, magnificent birds.

After the game, in the parking lot, I picked up the buzzy call of a common nighthawk. Jay and I looked skyward, scanning to find the source of this classic sound of summer. Some onlookers probably wondered what we were doing. Maybe a few thought we were a little batty.

No matter. As I said myself in that DuPage Birding Club survey: “You know you’re a birder when you no longer care what the neighbors think.”

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.