Bernie's Birdship

Saturday, May 07, 2005


Yesterday was some excellent birding- and the best part is, I didn’t even think I’d be birding much, let alone getting a perfect look at my first, and probably last for a really long time, WHIP-POOR-WILL.

It started out like this: I was at work, minding my own business and reading my IBET (Illinois bird message board) while alternately drinking a delicious ice cold Diet Mountain Dew and a luke warm mug of green tea, a combination I find particularly invigorating, when I noticed a post about a WHIP-POOR-WILL in someone’s backyard located just a few blocks from where I work. The post was an invitation to view and listed a phone number. Knowing how rare these birds are, and figuring that I’ll probably never just randomly see one, I called the number. I felt pretty nirdy shouting into my cell phone in the open-cubes environment of my work, “Is the bird still there? Excellent.”

I arranged to be at this dude’s house at around 5:15, and proceeded to get really excited. I looked up a photo of a WHIP-POOR-WILL on the web and got my co-worker C to come over and look at it. “I just made an appointment to see one of these after work,” I told her. “You live a completely whacky life that none of us know about, don’t you,” she said, examining the cryptic bird on my computer screen. I don’t agree with that assessment, I just dig birds, OK?

Anyway, after work, I practically sprinted to the designated location on my bike, cruising through Evanston’s lame excuse for rush hour traffic- kids form Northwestern strolling about, all well-dressed and intellectual. Spring leaves giving off spring smells, mini-mansions with their owners tending the immaculate flower gardens in front.

I arrived at a white house with red shutters, slightly run down in comparison to the surrounding homes. Feeling a bit queer-balls, I ring the doorbell, and out comes this kid that appears to be a teenager, which is pretty rare in the birding community. Obviously trying to be cool, the kid lets me into his house and nervously explains about the bird, which he flushed from some hedges that morning and followed it as it flew to a pine tree at the back of his yard, where it’d been all day. On the way through the house, he grabs his scope and I follow him out the kitchen sliding glass doors to the yard. He set up the scope, peers through it and makes some adjustments and stepped aside. “Good, he’s still here,” he says.

I look through the scope, and there’s the bird- a good bird for Halloween, perched sleeping on a pine bough, giant eyelids squeezed closed, tiny bill tip sticking out past a fluff of feathers, which may or may not serve as sonic receivers, according to what I’ve been reading. He’s beautiful -a camouflage-covered, frog-mouthed, goat-sucking nightjar.

Later I discover the kid is a recent college grad (environmental sciences) and that he’s traveled all over the world birding and is looking for a job. How cool is that? He knows all the main birding dudes in Chicago, and has apparently been birding since he was a kid- but his parents aren't really into it. He got into it all by himself, and is now a super-nird. That's pretty good. I ask him about birding in Evanston, and he describes a few parks I should check out. I decide to check Gillson Park on my way home, since its on my bike route home along the north channel.

Gillson doesn’t disappoint, in addition to about 12 DOWNIES and HAIRIES and a RED BREASTED WOODPECKER, I have my first EASTERN KINGBIRD since last August, sitting there in an open vignette surrounded by tiny spring leaves. One of my favorites, and easy to identify from the white tail tip.

When I get home, I decide to keep it up, and hit my trail. There, I watch a BLUE GREY GNAT CATCHER flit around for about 20 minutes. At one point, he zips out, hovers right in front of me, and give off his little tweet. It was touching. Further down I get some nice NASHVILLE WARBERS, and on my way back, a KINGFISHER lands strangely close to me on an open branch. I notice he has a perfect, kingfisher-sized minnow in his bill. As I watch, he gives the still-wriggling minnow a few sharp bashes against the branch before swallowing it whole.


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