Monday, June 15, 2015

Wheaton College Goes Birding

Wheaton College, an institution over 150 years old, experienced a first this May. I had run into a couple students over the past year who had varying degrees of skill levels and interest in birding. This alone was heartening for me because birding, well, hasn't exactly been known for its appeal to the younger demographic. A lifelong birder myself, this phenomenon was lost on me, but it has hit home more over the past few years.

By the midway point of the Fall semester 2014, it seemed we had enough of a contingent to make a legit bird walk happen. Could Wheaton be looking at the potential of a student group devoted to birding? It seemed too good to be true. Then came the news that sealed the deal - Dr. Ryken, the college's President, is a birder too! Surely this would turn out to be good news.

In the ensuing months, whenever I shared with someone around campus that Dr. Ryken was a birder, the typical well-meaning-but-glazed-over look I get when talking about birding quickly shifted to quizzical facial expressions marked by skepticism. "Wait, he's like, actually into it?" they would usually inquire. "Oh yeah. He definitely knows his stuff." I would respond. I was then patient as they took a moment to process the fact that their President was a birder, usually receiving some rich response like "Huh," or "How about that?" Eventually the pieces would fall into place. I mean, the man has a rather robust skill set and no shortage of credentials, of course he knows how to identify birds, too.

Through a couple conversations with Dr. Ryken, we decided a Spring walk was in order for the growing group of Wheaton birders we knew of. Part of the way through April he sent out an email to several of us. Subject line: "Birds." Body of the email: "Any plans?"

That was all the prompting I needed. I started scoping out a couple local spots and, over the course of a few emails, the group decided on going out the morning of Saturday, May 2. The cold front that had been lingering through the end of April was holding back the initial waves of migrants, so it was unclear what all would be around by the time we got out, but we were undoubtedly going to have an enjoyable morning.

Dr. Ryken and I went out early May 1 to get a sense of whether the planned locations would work or not, checking out McKee Marsh, St. James Farm, and Elsen's Hill. The birds were generally active, though the numbers of migrants left a little to be desired. Still, we felt as though we had a solid enough plan for the next day.

And here's the amazing thing. At 5:30 am, on the Saturday before finals week, a group of ten Wheaties gathered in the lobby of Fischer Hall for Wheaton College's first ever birding field trip. We were off before the sun was up and pulling in to the parking lot of our first stop a few minutes later.

Dunkin Donuts.

You see, near the top of the list of traits shared between the typical college lifestyle and the regular habits of a birder, one finds the intake of copious amounts caffeine and/or sugar in order fuel the duties at hand while assuaging the effects of minimal sleep. Hence Dunkin Donuts.

A little after 6 am, the Thunderbirdz were a tad perkier and took to the trail at McKee Marsh. Logan Treat captured the moment as our troop trekked off into the quickly dissipating wisps of fog, glossy sunrise emerging before us. Eyes peeled. Ears primed. Nothing was going to slip past us.

Thunderbirdz
McKee Marsh, DuPage Co, IL
May 2, 2015

The majority of our group is majoring in one of the sciences, so all of our participants came to the field with a finely tuned observation instincts. And at the end of the day, regardless of skill level, birding can be boiled down to this one thing: simply paying attention. Not surprisingly, our group of ten was pointing out movement and songs and calling out species all throughout the field trip.

The previous morning's Brown Thrashers sang away from similar posts and we eventually got a couple decent looks. An Eastern Towhee posed briefly in a nearby tree for us - always a treat to see out in the open. Tree Swallows in their steely blue-green fluttered actively around nest boxes along the trail, and a couple Eastern Phoebes called almost constantly. Waterfowl on the pond included Canada Geese, Mallards, American Coots, a couple Wood Ducks, a single Pied-billed Grebe and a Blue-winged Teal that poked its head out momentarily.

The place wasn't exactly exploding with bird life, but there was enough activity to hold our attention. We had been hoping to get on a few species of warblers, and our first four of the day came here. Yellow-rumped Warblers proved to be one of the more common birds of the day, and we began with a handful here. A Yellow Warbler was pretty vocal near the overlook, and a Common Yellowthroat gave its distinctive "wickity-wickity-wickity" call from the marsh. The highlight here came in the form of a fancy little male Black-throated Green Warbler that I heard on our way back to the car. With some patience and a little pishing, he eventually came down and provided some nice views.

Black-throated Green Warbler
McKee Marsh, DuPage Co, IL
May 2, 2015

Then it was on to St. James Farm Forest Preserve where Dr. Ryken and I had a couple birds the morning before that we figured would be reliable and pretty easy to relocate. The first was a group of Wood Ducks on the little pond, which everyone got to see through the scope. While taking in these beauties, the surrounding trees had some active Blue-gray Gnatcatchers squeaking and buzzing away alongside a couple Ruby-crowned Kinglets. All four of our woodpecker species for the day were here, too: Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Northern Flicker. The nesting Eastern Bluebirds also showed up right on cue and everyone was able to get great scope views of this wonderfully brilliant species. A couple lingering Purple Finches had been a surprise the day before; we still had a lone male hanging around. This was my shot from the previous day.


Purple Finch
St. James Farm Forest Preserve, DuPage Co, IL
May 1, 2015

Then we headed south to Herrick Lake. The Yellow-rumped Warblers were more numerous here and were joined by a couple more Black-throated Greens, a Nashville, and a handful of Palm Warblers, which quickly joined the Yellow-rumps as the most conspicuous warblers of the day. Our first White-breasted Nuthatches called and showed themselves here, too.

We had powered through our first couple locations pretty quickly, so instead of working our way back to campus, the Thunderbirdz decided unanimously to check out a couple more preserves, and off we went to Fullersburg Woods. There were a couple nice additions to our morning's list here, including the 234th bird for my DuPage County life list - Yellow-throated Warbler! True to form, this very vocal male stayed pretty high in the trees, but a handful of us were able to get some decent looks at it.




Yellow-throated Warbler
Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, DuPage Co, IL
May 2, 2015

There were both Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers present here, and this Solitary showed nicely for us:


Solitary Sandpiper
Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, DuPage Co, IL
May 2, 2015

And here was our most abundant migrant from the morning:


Yellow-rumped Warbler
Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, DuPage Co, IL
May 2, 2015

Taking a quick break from identifying the avians around us, we gathered up for a group photo. From left to right, here's the make up of the first ever outing of the Thunderbidz: Alex Ockerse, Logan Treat, Ari Kim, Sean Lyon, Anna Chovanes, Phil Ryken, Mark Hansford, Josh Ryken, Seth Humeniuk, Joshua Little.

Thunderbirdz
Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, DuPage Co, IL
May 2, 2015

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve had more of the same for us, though a sizable snapping turtle was a really nice cap on the outing. By the end, we had tallied 56 species altogether, enjoyed a morning exploring nature, and perhaps most importantly, set the precedent for future bird outings for Wheaton College! I'll be sad not to get to continue to be a part of it from this point forward, but between the students' skill level and Dr. Ryken's commitment to the existence of the group, I'm trusting the Thunderbirdz will be a fixture in the college's community in the years to come.