Fillmore Dryden at McKee Marsh
Birding McKee Marsh, again and again and again

(published 1-8-13)

Now and then I’ll write about a great place to go birding. Less often, I’ll focus on a birder. Today I get to do both.

McKee Marsh in Warrenville and Fillmore Dryden are so closely connected that I can’t think of one without the other. McKee is Dryden’s home away from home, and he’s as comfortable there as the mallards and red-winged blackbirds.

Some call it “patch birding,” the practice of birdwatching in the same location on a regular basis. There is perhaps no better way to learn the local birds—those that live here all year and those that just pass through or visit for a few months. You get a feel for the seasonal birdlife and migration patterns that simply can’t be replicated by less disciplined birding styles.

The only patch birding most of us do is in our own backyards, watching our feeders when we can. It’s a rare individual who thrives on the routine of birding the same place day after day, investing four-hour chunks of observation and walking time. Dryden is that person, and McKee Marsh is his adopted patch.

It’s been a rewarding adoption, thanks largely to McKee’s diverse habitat. The property is the section of Blackwell Forest Preserve located north of Mack Road. Like the name suggests, it’s a marsh, and sizeable wetlands are always a magnet for birds. But the preserve also features open grasslands and woodlands that attract birds not closely associated with water.

Dryden leads occasional walks for the DuPage Birding Club and enjoys showing off the preserve’s avian treasures, including a northern shrike that’s hanging around this winter. I attended his walk in November and was not disappointed. The shrike made an appearance, and so did 32 other species, including American black ducks, gadwalls and a belted kingfisher.

McKee is traditionally a waterfowl hotspot, although not in 2012 due to low water levels. The ducks we observed in November were on the west branch of the DuPage River, not in the marsh.

A Naperville resident, Dryden, 57, was a casual birder until he moved here from Baltimore in 2008. He soon joined the DuPage Birding Club and got serious about the hobby. I know him from the monthly Cantigny Park walks, which he attends regularly and helps lead.

Dryden’s “work” at McKee Marsh started in 2010. It began slowly and quickly intensified. By September of that year he was visiting the site almost daily and keeping meticulous records in a small ring-bound notebook. He’s now on notebook No. 15 and counts 180 species on his all-time McKee Marsh list.

Except for the walks he conducts for the club, most of Dryden’s birding is solitary. McKee, despite its reputation, attracts surprisingly few birders. Getting around the 600-acre preserve on foot is time consuming. Doing it justice requires hiking at least three miles.

“I come out here in the winter and may not see a soul for a week,” Dryden says. Well, at least not other birders.

A hardy contingent of dog-walkers, fitness walkers, joggers and cyclists enjoy McKee’s open spaces, too. Dryden considers them friends, and the feeling is mutual.

“It’s a small community,” he says, “and we kind of look out for each other. That’s a bonus I never expected or even thought about when I started coming here.”

To some McKee regulars he’s just “the bird guy,” and occasionally Dryden finds notes on the windshield of his Subaru. On Thanksgiving Day he found a dinner invitation. In December, a copy of this column appeared.

Dryden’s favorite section of the preserve, Sanctuary Pond and the Catbird Trail, is a long way from his standard parking space. Using his trusty Nikon Monarch 10x42s, he spotted his first black-throated blue warbler there in October.

The 15 little notebooks are full of other memorable sightings. Among them: black tern, northern bobwhite, dickcissel, golden eagle, pileated woodpecker and yellow-breasted chat. In late November, Dryden witnessed his first long-eared owl as it was chased by the resident shrike.

Patch birding goes way beyond listkeeping. As a regular observer, Dryden says, you really get to know the birds—their behaviors, tendencies, field marks, songs and call notes, nesting activities, juvenile plumages, feeding habits, arrival and departure times, and so on.

Every hour in the field—Dryden logged 1,150 of them at McKee in 2012—affords a chance to learn something new or solve a little mystery. The local patch never gets old.

“If you work hard and put the hours in you’re always rewarded here. You never know what you’re going to see.”

Copyright 2013 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.