The author's late parents, Rollin and Dori Reiter, pictured in
in 2015 at The Wilderness Center, in Wilmot, Ohio.
Two more reasons I’m a birder

(published 4-29-21)

Birdwatchers often refer to a “spark bird”—a sighting experience that launched them into this wonderfully addictive hobby. I have one myself, a hooded warbler, spotted in 1994. Seeing it, and then figuring out what it was, hooked me for good.

It’s fun to have a spark bird but there is usually more to the story—true in my case, for sure. I was interested in birds as a kid. The hooded warbler ignited something that was already there.

If I’ve become a bird nerd, I blame my parents. In a good way. I’ve been thinking about them a lot since they passed in January, on consecutive days in Florida. Dad was 92, mom 90.

My folks were not devoted birders, but they were bird friendly. They kept a full feeder in our Canton, Ohio, backyard, and a Peterson field guide within reach. In the fall, dad would call attention to V formations of migrating Canada geese, a spectacle worth watching. Geese had a better reputation back then.

Our family of four traveled outside the neighborhood for birds, too. I remember an evening trip to The Wilderness Center in Wilmot, where mom did some volunteering. It was March or April, not warm, and we were woodcock watching. At the time, I didn’t know a woodcock from a woodchuck.

I think we saw American woodcocks performing their aerial courtship display but can’t swear to it. The experience, not the bird, is what I recall. Fifty-plus years later, I’m a dues-paying member of The Wilderness Center and my father-in-law is at rest in Foxfield Preserve, the center’s conservation burial ground.

Another family adventure took us to Hinckley, for Buzzard Sunday, a classic “rite of spring” event. I guess you could say it was my first birding festival. Legend says that the buzzards (turkey vultures) return to Hinckley Ridge every year on March 15. It’s Ohio’s version of the famous swallows of San Juan Capistrano in California, only more reliable.  Hinckley’s been celebrating the homely buzzards every year since 1957. Did we see them? Again, my recall is fuzzy, but the pancakes and hot chocolate were good.

Mom instigated those family outings and encouraged my interest in the natural world. Thanks to her, I became an avid subscriber to Ranger Rick from the National Wildlife Federation and treasured my collection of annual NWF stamps. I became a nature boy, diverging from my more athletic older brother.

Around age 10, before I was old enough to join Boy Scouts and attend Camp Tuscazoar, mom and dad sent me to a one-week “conservation camp” in Kentucky, a place I surely learned about in Ranger Rick. The camp was in the Land Between the Lakes, near Paducah. I was too young to appreciate the natural beauty of the place. What I remember most is a mop-topped boy named Jeremy who was obsessed with birds and could ID anything with wings. We called him Bird Man. I didn’t necessarily want to be like him—perhaps I was beginning to question if birding was cool—but his skills impressed me.

The author and his dad visited this birding
hotspot in 2001, our country's southernmost
national park. For the senior Reiter, a U.S. history 
buff, it was all about the fort.
Flash forward to April 2001, my first of two trips with dad when birding was the main objective. I was deep into the hobby by then, and eager to see new species. Somehow, I talked dad into a three-day Florida Nature Tours excursion to Dry Tortugas National Park, a group of tiny islands 70 miles west of Key West.

Dry Tortugas was a perfect destination. As a history buff, dad was keen on visiting Fort Jefferson, the massive 19th-century garrison that dominates the park. He’d be happy exploring the fort while I explored the birdlife.

My plan worked! Sort of. Accommodations on the tour’s small ship were subpar, and dad took ill on the ride back to Key West. He’d spend the next several weeks recovering from acute diverticulitis.

Dad apparently forgave me because in 2014 he agreed to an all-day field trip with Hendry-Glades Audubon Society, in the Lake Okeechobee region of south-central Florida. We drove up the night before, and this time our beds were fine, at the historic Clewiston Inn. A fading but still beautiful hand-painted mural depicting Florida birds covered the walls in the hotel’s little tavern—a good omen. Better yet, it was fried chicken night in the dining room down the hall, like they knew we were coming.

The next day, his 86th birthday, dad shared my excitement in spotting a crested caracara, my No. 1 target bird for the trip. Later we bagged a scissor-tailed flycatcher. We enjoyed those birds a lot.

Rollin Reiter's hand-carved decoys, like this
wood duck pair, were coveted by family and 
friends. Some of them won awards.

Mom wasn’t on board for these adventures, opting to stay home in Key Largo with the ducks. Decoys, that is, about three dozen of them. Dad began carving and painting decoys in the late 1970s, soon becoming an accomplished amateur artist. His ducks, geese, and shorebirds, plus others purchased from master carvers, were widely admired by friends and family.

The decoys (and duck-inspired art on our walls) were an important aspect of my bird-filled upbringing. I learned about the importance of Ducks Unlimited and the federal duck stamp. Hunting isn’t my thing, but dad taught me to appreciate the conservation role played by waterfowlers. I purchase a duck stamp every year and probably always will. 

My final bird walk with dad, if you can call it that, was a brief stroll down his street last October. He was in a wheelchair, pushed by Linda, a young caregiver. To her, the game of looking for birds and trying to identify them was completely new. She was amazed when a bird landed in plain view and I told her it was Florida’s state bird, a northern mockingbird. Dad knew the species well, his favorite songster, and it momentarily lifted his spirits.

I wanted to thank that neighborhood mocker for its good timing. Today, I’m thanking a higher spirit for the two people who made birds and birding a part of me forever. It’s cool now.

Copyright 2021 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.

Al Stokie recorded his 400th Illinois bird last December in Channahon,
where a Great Kiskadee made a first-time appearance in the state.
He’s shown here at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve in Downers Grove. 
The birding life

Al Stokie, the area’s most prolific birder, writes a daily report that fellow watchers treasure

(published 3-10-21)

We are all creatures of habit. But to describe the daily routine of Al Stokie as habitual would be selling him short. It’s much more: curiosity, discipline and obsession all rolled into one.

The man went birding every single day in 2020, usually leaving his Park Ridge home before sunrise.

When I contacted Al for this column, he was hesitant. “I’m not really a very interesting person,” he said. “I’m just an old retired guy who goes birding a lot.”

Birders in the Chicago region view him differently. To us, Al is a fountain of information. His daily journal entries, composed after his morning adventures, are posted on the birding list-serv known as IBET, short for Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts.

The reports tell us where Al went today, what he saw, what he missed and who he ran into. We learn about places to visit, best times to go and what to expect. And through Al’s words, we experience the ups and downs of the hobby we love.

Each post begins with “Hello Bird People” and ends with his Bird of the Day award. Occasionally, he’ll declare a Fancy Pants Bird of the Day, an honor reserved for a particularly striking bird that catches his eye. Mammal sightings, fast food preferences and unusual license plates may get a mention, too.

A Vietnam vet with a master’s degree in early modern European history from Northwestern, Al spent his entire working career at DoALL Sawing Products in Des Plaines (now Wheeling). His job involved “getting reports out and distributed to the proper people.”

Hearing that made perfect sense. At 75, Al is still reporting.

Al Stokie scans the open water at Hidden Lake, looking 
for something special among the Canada geese and
mallards. "You can't have a kiskadee every day," he said.

The year he retired, 2013, Al purchased a Prius C that now sports 135,000 miles, reflective of his Iron Man birding ethic. Rain and snow may alter his plans, but he still goes birding—some days solo and other days with a friend or two.

“What I like most is searching for whatever birds I may find. Every day is different!”

Ah yes, the search. I can feel birders nodding their heads. Most of us love that aspect of birdwatching, especially when a rare species comes to town.

What sets Al apart, besides dogged persistence, is his humble acceptance of whatever a new day of birding may bring. He’s a master of finding little things to celebrate. Last month, he went out of his way to track down a reported killdeer—a common shorebird that’s quite uncommon in January. He recognized the significance of that bird and had to go see it.

Almost a year ago, in early March, Al challenged himself to see how many kinds of ducks he could find in a single day, touring the Palos area. His best-case scenario, with luck, was 20 species. He found them all, and his post-game report offered a fascinating lesson in bird-finding strategy.

Rarities, of course, get Al excited just like the rest of us. He often plans his birding around sightings gleaned the night before from IBET, eBird or messages from his birding buddies.

“I may want to chase a rarity but if there are none [being reported] then I might try a place I haven’t been in a while or check a place that should be good for a certain species at that time of year.”

American Redstart by Jackie Bowman 
Sometimes his destination is a no-brainer, as it was on December 6, 2020, when Al made a beeline to Channahon for a mega-rare great kiskadee reported the day before. That bird became Al’s 400th species for Illinois, a milestone that only nine other birders have achieved.

Al didn’t begin serious birding until 1985, but he recalls two formative sightings in the late 1970s, both in Des Plaines. The first was a male American redstart, a colorful member of the warbler family. Al was impressed.

The other bird was a tiny owl in a tree. After seeing it, Al spent a half hour walking back to his car and drove home (another half hour) to retrieve his camera. He then returned to the bird, which fortunately hadn’t moved. He took photos and later figured out it was a saw-whet owl.

Saw-whet Owl by Philip Dunn
If anything was a spark bird, that was it," he told me. 

These days, Al has a particular fondness for shorebirds, a category offering significant ID challenges. He’s good at telling them apart but firmly denies being an expert. “They’re big enough to see well and they aren’t as flighty as warblers,” he said, explaining his attraction.

Something else needed explanation: his lack of cellphone. Can a man who seeks rare birds not own such an essential tool?

“I’ve been with birders who get calls and messages every 10 minutes and I’d rather not go through that. I know that I miss some information about sightings but so be it.”

Al isn’t against technology; he just prefers to be off the grid while birding. I find that admirable, but not half as much as his eagerness to share what he sees and learns. Reading his stuff can make you a better birder.

Little wonder that Al is beloved within the birding community. That won’t change, but his daily regimen probably will. He talks about slowing down due to mobility issues. The Prius is fine, his legs are not.

Fortunately, there are many ways to bird—phones are optional, and so are long hikes! Al might finally spend some time watching his yard. I’ll be reading those reports, too.

To join the IBET network, a free service, send an email to ilbirds+subscribe@googlegroups.com.

Copyright 2021 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.