How Bob Dolgan's documentaries capture the magic and mystery of Illinois birds
Chicago resident Bob Dolgan is a birder, a conservationist, and a fan of the Cleveland Guardians -- impressive credentials, in my book.
I first met Bob at last spring's Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, where he was promoting a film project called "The Magic Stump." I'll get to that in a minute. First, a flashback, because I can't resist an opportunity to talk baseball in a birding column.
In 2021, knowing Bob only from his "This Week in Birding" newsletter, I came across his name in a book about the 1948 Cleveland Indians (now Guardians). I zipped off an email asking him about his apparent connection to baseball history.
Turns out the book reference was to Bob's father, a retired sports writer for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. He is credited with giving ace pitcher "Sudden Sam" McDowell his excellent nickname and, Bob Jr. told me, attended the '48 World Series as a fan. Talk about credentials! The Indians won that Series and haven't won the Fall Classic since, no thanks to the 2016 Cubs.
This year, their first as the Guardians, the team surpassed expectations and gave fans an all-too-brief thrill ride in the postseason. Damn Yankees.
OK, calming down and working my way back to birding now. After graduating from Ohio's Kenyon College, the younger Bob, now 47, followed his dad into journalism, including a stint with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He moved to Chicago in 2001, shifted to public relations, and more recently earned a Northwestern MBA.
In 2018, feeling burned out and looking for a change, Bob did what any sensible person would do. He quit his job and went birding. A lot. Like 150 times during the winter of 2018-19.
"It was therapeutic in a way," he said. "Birding helped me think about what I wanted to do next."
At least for the short term, two little birds on a busy Chicago beach helped answer the question. Bob would tell and preserve their remarkable story on film.
The endangered piping plovers known as Monty and Rose nested on Montrose Beach for three straight years starting in 2019. Bob's two short documentaries about them received widespread acclaim and brought needed attention to the issues of bird conservation and habitat management in a high-traffic urban setting.
In October, Bob visited the DuPage Birding Club to show and discuss his latest film, "The Magic Stump." It's a 20-minute piece about some special birds and dedicated birders in Coles County, about 50 miles south of Champaign. We learn how a solitary tree stump in a farm field attracts a remarkable variety of wintering raptors.
The stump became a thing shortly after a prairie falcon -- a species rarely seen east of the Mississippi River -- was found close by in 2010. Tyler Funk, the spotter, was fascinated. Over time, he confirmed that the falcon, and later a second bird, returned to the same place year after year, always in winter. His observations appeared in Meadowlark, the journal of the Illinois Ornithological Society, and inspired "The Magic Stump."
Bob Dolgan made six trips to Coles County to capture the magic, but a trail cam installed by Funk proved more efficient. Besides the prairie falcons, a partial list of birds caught on camera includes gyrfalcon, northern harrier, rough-legged hawk, kestrel, merlin, short-eared owl, and snowy owl. At least 10 species of raptor have visited the gnarly stump, once a thriving Osage orange.
"The Magic Stump" is great storytelling without many words. Birders will appreciate some familiar themes: be curious, expect the unexpected, and bird your local patch like you own it. Funk and fellow birders Ron Bradley and David Mott patrolled their agricultural "backyard" relentlessly, sometimes in frigid conditions. All three appear in the film.
"Some people may come away from the film with the impression that it's easy to find the birds of the stump, and that's just not the case," Bob said. "The stump is a half-mile from the nearest road, and it took the guys in the film a lot of years to record so many sightings."
You can watch a teaser video at themagicstump.com and see a schedule of upcoming screenings.
Bob is back to work, but on his own terms. He founded Turnstone Strategies in 2018, a communications consulting firm with a focus on nonprofit clients. His bird films are Turnstone branded but not intended to be moneymakers. Making them is just something he enjoys.
"In putting together the story, it's really about the joy of birding and how even our ordinary surroundings can have a bit of mystery and magic to them."
In September, Bob received an award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting from Chicago Audubon Society. CAS cited his role in promoting bird conservation, educating the public, and shining a light on the work of local activists.
• Jeff Reiter's column appears regularly in Neighbor. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.