As part of the Cook County Forest Preserve #birdthepreseves Big Year, I decided to sponsor one of my favorite regular spots, the Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve. As part of this effort I promised to lead a few bird walks throughout the year. The forest preserve did a nice job holding a training session and getting the word out. However, I was still a little nervous that no one would show. Luckily, I was able to entice some of my friends with a post-birding 3 Floyds brewery trip to guarantee that we’d get a few people there, new birders to boot. So I was quite surprised than when 8:00 rolled around, we had 16 people there.
Normally, if I’m not birding alone, I’m with birders who are better than me and whose relationship is most accurately described as “beer buddy.” Having to lead a larger group of beginners and experienced birds who I just met was a little terrifying. If I’m with one of my normal birding partners and misidentify a bird, I only risk a little ridicule. Misidentifying a bird to someone who is counting on you to know what the hell you’re talking about definitely got the nerves going.
I definitely do not shy away from public speaking but, I probably would have liked a more manageable group size for my first bird walk. “Either way,” I thought, “once people get a load of 30+ Great Egrets, that’ll make everyone happy.” So, of course, when we approached the pond, we found that the south winds and taken away all the egrets I spotted earlier in the week. Shorebirds were missing, passerines were silent. There were birds there but, they were far away and not conducive to great observation. After using my go-to tale about Thismia Americana, I started to push the group forward to where we could, at least, get great views of the prairie. In the end, a Field Sparrow, a distant kingfisher, and a calling Sora gave plenty of interest during the first half of the trip. First timers were excited at finally knowing the name of the Red-winged Blackbird which reminded me that my job is not to simply find the rarest bird but, to help give glimpses into the awesome world of even the most common species.
Eventually, we were able to locate a few of those migrants we were hoping for. A mixed group of yellowlegs flew in and walking into the woodland gave us Solitary Sandpiper. However, the best parts came at the end. One of the rookie’s spotted the Downy Woodpecker that had been drumming away and her joy in finding a bird on her own was infectious. Then someone called out, “kestrel! Kiting behind the trees!” Yes!! Kestrels are not rare but, being one of the handsomest birds of prey, are always a pleasure, even for birders who’ve seen it all. One problem, the bird was too big. Eventually, it glided over and, succumbing to groupthink, I uttered, “That’s a slightly larger falcon, a Merlin.”
It was not a Merlin.
When realizing my error, reviewing pictures later, I came to appreciate veteran walk leaders who are so confident and disciplined, that they can analyze a bird without prejudice to “delivering” a particular ID. In this case, I had “falcon” in my mind so it wasn’t until afterwards, that I realized it was actually a Cooper’s Hawk; a bird more than twice the size and of completely different shape. Oh well. That is the nice thing about birding though, a botched ID, as embarrassing as it may be, matters very little. The misidentification may be more valuable than a correct one because a valuable lesson was learned. In the end, a good time was had by a great group of people and the beer at 3 Floyds was excellent… that’s a successful day.
Here’s our checklist.