Graham and Henrey Deese
A brotherly love of birds

(published 6-7-12)

I’d arranged to interview the Deese brothers at Mallard Lake. It was near their home in Bloomingdale, and the name of the place seemed appropriate given the purpose of our meeting.

But while the mallard is a common species, it is rare indeed to find two teenagers who are nuts about birds and birding. Graham, 17, and Henrey, 14, fit that description. Given the choice of watching warblers or TV, these kids will take the birds every time.

“Nature-deficit disorder” in the Deese household? Not a chance. Their mom, Suzy Deese, home schools Graham and Henrey and a healthy part of their education takes place outdoors. Family vacations generally revolve around nature and birding in particular.

“This is our journey together and it’s been a lot of fun,” said Suzy, who also finds time for a nursing career with Cadence Health Care.

Home schooling definitely creates more opportunities for birding. When I met with the boys they had recently returned from birding in the Texas hill country. For the record, they spotted a black-capped vireo but missed the region’s other specialty, the golden-cheeked warbler. However, thanks to excellent timing, the trip yielded the rarest bird either boy had ever seen, a tropical mockingbird! The mocker, native to southern Mexico, was discovered by other birders before the Deese’s arrival and is potentially the first-ever documented in the United States.

Graham and Henrey are fortunate to have an aunt in Houston. Better yet, a birder aunt. She guided them to the rare mockingbird in April (near High Island) and in 2007 took them to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, home of wintering whooping cranes. In 2010, the family birded the Rio Grande Valley.

I confess that hearing about these Texas adventures made my binocular fingers twitch. I’ve still never birded the Lone Star State, a place considered by many to be the hottest U.S. hot spot of all.

Locally, Graham and Henrey go birding once or twice a week. Favorite places, all part of the DuPage County Forest Preserve system, include Mallard Lake, Elsen’s Hill, Waterfall Glen and McKee Marsh.

The boys also are active with Illinois Young Birders, a club founded in 2010 by the Illinois Ornithology Society. ILYB conducts adult-supervised field trips all around the state, leading the young members to exceptional birding locations. Graham and Henrey agreed their favorite ILYB trip so far was to downstate Prairie Ridge State Natural Area where they observed state-endangered greater prairie chickens on their mating grounds. (For information about ILYB, visit

Additional birding takes place at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, where the boys serve as volunteers. They have a long connection with Willowbrook because of Kevin Luby, a naturalist at the center. Graham says it was nature hike led by Luby at Wayne Grove almost 10 years ago that triggered his interest in birds. The brothers attended monthly walks for the next five years with Luby, who encouraged their newfound passion.

Graham and Henrey began sharing that passion with others in 2009 by leading a family bird walk on International Migratory Bird Day at Willowbrook. They’ve been helping out at the center ever since, first through its Junior Naturalist program and now its Ambassador program. The latter includes volunteer work and more opportunities to learn from resident naturalists like Luby and Ron Skleney.

“Their bird identification skills are top-notch,” Skleney said. “More importantly, they are excellent interpreters and have a knack for sharing their enthusiasm about birds.”

They may be the youngest birding guides in DuPage County but that is definitely not held against them. Just the opposite, according to Skleney.

“I asked Graham and Henrey to help lead a series of spring bird walks this year and from the very first walk the participants loved interacting with them. They were a big hit with the Willowbrook birding regulars.”

At Mallard Lake I learned that the Deese boys are dedicated to more than just birding. They perform in the West Suburban Home School Band and after our meeting rushed off to a rehearsal for their spring concert. Henrey plays the trumpet and Graham the clarinet.

Their other key activity is Chicago Charge, a speech and debate club for Christian homeschoolers. Through the club, both boys are competing this month in a national tournament in Colorado Springs.

Of course, the Colorado trip will involve some birding. Graham, Henrey and Suzy are heading west early to see if they can find a Lewis’s woodpecker, Lucy’s warbler, MacGillivray’s warbler and other goodies.

Dang, there go my twitchy fingers again. I envy these guys! But mainly I just admire them—for their birding skills, of course, and also for their uncommon maturity.

With any luck, you’ll soon meet Graham and Henrey Deese on a local birding trail. They belong to a small but growing fraternity of young birders in the Chicago area who make the hobby even better for all of us.

Copyright 2012 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.