What’s my birding style? What’s my favorite way to enjoy birds? These are questions we might ask ourselves as our engagement with the hobby grows.
|Ross's Gull by Matt Zuro
Soon about 100 birders were on the scene, trying for a glimpse. Many more were on the way, mapping out directions and wondering where to park. Word travels fast when Elvis is on the lakefront.
Hours before the discovery, no local birder expected to be
life listing a Ross’s gull. A Ross’s goose perhaps, but not a gull. This was insane.
Rare bird chasers were licking their chops.
Time was short, the pressure intense. Surely this bird was a
“one-day wonder.” Nobody saw it the next day, or the next.
But three days after the initial sighting the gull returned,
appearing off and on for another 48 hours. It believed in second chances. More thrill
seekers dropped everything and hit the road. A few arrived from other states,
with success far from guaranteed.
Birders reported the gull’s whereabouts constantly via the
GroupMe app, helping others find the target. Most (but not all) searchers went home
It may surprise you that I did not pursue the Ross’s gull, already
a lock for the area’s Bird of the Year. Timing is everything, right? When the news
broke, I was leading a bird walk at Cantigny Park; when the bird came back, I
was too busy at work to skip out.
Once more, I had to experience an amazing bird vicariously. It
was still amazing, just to know such a rarity was only 40 miles from my desk.
|Townsend's Warbler by Jerry Ting
It took me years to locate some birds that my friends seem
to find routinely—least bittern, worm-eating warbler, Kentucky warbler, and
vesper sparrow, to name a few. Those same friends enabled some of my most
coveted sightings. The birding community is incredibly supportive.
We do remember the misses, though. In 2015, I went all the
way to Quincy, Illinois, to bag an ivory gull—another rare white wonder from
the far north, and the first in Illinois since 1992. Too late, the bird was
This is a hobby, not life or death, and there are always birds
to see. In Quincy, I recall watching eagles soar against a pure blue sky and a
pileated woodpecker pounding away on a snag. A tufted titmouse called. Nature awards
some fine consolation prizes if we are open to receiving them.
Fast forward to 2020, when dozens of birders scurried to Deer
Grove Forest Preserve in Palatine for a Townsend’s warbler, a rare visitor to
the Midwest. Once again, I couldn’t get away. Oh well, I thought, I’ll see that
bird someday—maybe out west where it belongs.
Sure enough, in January, my wish came true. I was birding at
Madera Canyon in the Tucson area with my friend Chuck, a Chicago retiree on an extended
winter getaway. Walking down a snow-dusted trail, we encountered a striking
Townsend’s warbler, a most welcome surprise.
|Chuck Berman (left) and Jeff Reiter
So, I’m back to my initial question about birding style. My experience
in Arizona was just about perfect—easy pace, no pressure, let’s just see what
we see. The only thing we chased was a good time.
In her new book, “Slow Birding,” Joan Strassmann urges us to
relax and pay more attention to the birds all around us. That’s good advice that
we probably don’t hear enough. Patience and careful observation go a long way.
How we bird is a personal choice. You can watch birds from
your kitchen window, a park bench, or a wheelchair. You might travel the world to
see exotic birds or track down rare birds all over Chicagoland and the Midwest.
With so many options, the hobby is accessible for everyone.
Keep a list, keep 10 lists, or forego listing altogether.
Fire up eBird, Merlin and GroupMe, or head into the field unplugged, with just a
raggedy old Peterson guide. Bird alone or with others. Hang a feeder or not.
My own approach to the hobby is mixed. I love watching my
yard, slow birding in familiar or new places, and writing about what I see.
Experiencing new birds and growing my life list is fun for me, but I’ve morphed
into a reluctant chaser. I’ll drive to see a rare bird only if it fits my
schedule, isn’t too far, and the odds of success are high.
Know your style and wear it proudly. There’s no crying in
baseball, and no shame in birding. Do what feels right and gives you joy.
Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.