After 200 columns, Words on Birds writer continues to educate and entertain
Last month I presented to the DuPage Birding Club, filling an hour with stories from this column. Amazingly, some audience members stayed awake until the end. As Words on Birds begins its 20th year, here's a light version of my remarks without the 103 PowerPoint slides.
My inaugural column, "Bird-watching is like a box of chocolates," ran in the Glen Ellyn News and other weekly newspapers in the now defunct Liberty Suburban chain. The Daily Herald picked up the column in 2008, and it's been here ever since, running once a month if I'm on my game.
This is my passion project. After more than 200 columns, I still enjoy writing about birds, birding, and birders.
Finding topics isn't hard. I usually have several column-worthy ideas swimming in my head, but many stories are pop-ups -- unplanned columns about unusual or rare bird sightings, by me and by others. "Chasing the big grackle" last February is a good example.
The story of that vagrant great-tailed grackle still makes me smile. Doug Stotz from Chicago's Field Museum discovered the bird hanging out next to I-57 at the Monee exit -- the bird, not Doug. It stayed for weeks, surviving a brutal winter on gas station food scraps.
Stotz, Josh Engel and other true bird experts have provided helpful insights over the years, no doubt saving me from myself. I'm learning all the time, but I'm still a birder, not an ornithologist.
Monee was exciting, but it couldn't top Yorkville. That's where nine black-bellied whistling ducks visited Irene Kaufman's backyard feeders in May 2014. That story had it all -- a rare species for our region that revved up the birding community, a "stakeout" scenario lasting 10 days, and a welcoming homeowner who embraced the excitement in her once peaceful subdivision. More than 200 birders signed a guest book in Irene's driveway.
I write about common birds, too, especially those in our neighborhoods. The column has made me more observant, and I hope it's had the same effect on you. Species that don't visit feeders can be seen in your trees and shrubs, or in the sky, at certain times of year.
The key is being alert and knowing when to look. I've devoted columns to cranes, eagles, nighthawks, hummingbirds, nuthatches, owls, sparrows, tanagers, woodpeckers, wrens and, of course, the dazzling spring warblers.
Going beyond the backyard adds to the fun. As bird-watchers, we enjoy an outstanding network of county forest preserves and other local hot spots, dozens of them mentioned here.
Some venues are worth a bit more driving. We've traveled to Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, Indiana Dunes State Park, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, and the legendary Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota.
You've also endured my rambling bird-filled vacation reports from Florida (lots), South Dakota, Pacific Northwest, England, and Ireland. I'll admit, Words on Birds sometimes reads like a personal diary -- thanks for indulging me.
I wrote about my "spark bird" (hooded warbler); 100th yard bird (common yellowthroat); 500th life bird (a varied thrush in Evanston!); and my triumphant encounters with former nemesis birds such as Kentucky warbler and worm-eating warbler.
This column introduced you to birding rock stars like George Archibald, Vern Kleen, Noah Strycker and Julie Zickefoose. You met local birders Graham and Henrey Deese, Keriann Dubina, Ray Feld, David Johnson, Kristina Knowski, Al Stokie and Kyle Wiktor.
You even met my late parents, Rollin and Dori Reiter, who took me on a very cold woodcock watch early in life. I'm sure glad they did.
I profiled the "birdiest" yard in DuPage County; went downstate to observe prairie chickens on their lek; likened birding to fishing; debated bird-watching as sport vs. hobby; covered Big Days and Big Years; reviewed a dozen books; and sang the virtues of the federal duck stamp. One of my earliest columns was about butterflies!
No bird-related topic is off limits. Writing about the racism of John J. Audubon wasn't easy, and it's never fun to report on the steady decline of bird populations, a sadly recurring theme. But people need to know.
Birders tend to care about conservation and the environment, so the more of them the better. If my writings help bring a few more people into bird-watching, then I'm a happy reporter.
You should know that I don't see, or even attempt to see, all the spectacular birds featured on these pages. It's a rush just keeping track of all the action, conveying the experiences of lucky souls who track down their targets or who simply find themselves in the right place at the right time. Fortunately, a lot of them carry big lenses.
High-quality bird photos are essential. They draw people in way better than words. The following photographers have been especially generous with their images: Jackie Bowman, Mike Carroll, Jim Frazier, Christian Goers, Jerry Goldner, Bonnie Graham, Tamima Itani and Matt Misewicz.
Thanks also to you for reading my stuff, and to the Daily Herald for providing a far-reaching platform. I'll try to keep earning my wings.
• Jeff Reiter's column appears regularly in Neighbor. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.