The adventure started at dawn. The young birders still slept. The lovely smell of honeysuckle braced the morning. As the early rain squall dripped to quiet stillness, a green blur shot around the corner of the brick house and hovered above the holly bush, looking at the lone figure staring back from the porch swing. After a brief “good day,” the glistening helicopter zoomed off into the morning.
Dad smiled and slid his note pad from under the bird book beside him. Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Check.
A flash of blue caught his eye as two young bluebirds landed on the swing set. They seemed a bit damp. After a minute of fluffing, primping, and preening, they flew to the top of the tall wooden light pole. There, they helped each other with the hard-to-reach spots, like good siblings should do.
But before the bluebirds finished, a handsome zebra-backed neighbor sporting a red cap landed directly below them. His first powerful peck on the pole nearly knocked them from the top, and they sped away toward a calmer neighborhood. Dad smiled again as he marked down the birds.
At that moment, the young birders burst into the morning. “This is Bird Day, Dad! Did you see any birds yet? Is it going to rain today? Is that a bird?”
Dad smiled wider than ever. “Good morning, birders. I’ve logged three birds already, even if it rained. And I think that’s just a big leaf in the grass, Hadassah. It certainly isn’t hopping like most birds do when you want to identify them. Let’s slowly walk around the house and see how many more birds we can get before breakfast.”
Kenyon, imitating the stalk of a nine-year-old Indian boy, led the birder line as they crept around the house. And the creeping was successful, with two lowly sparrows named Fox and Chipping, a mockingbird flashing white along the treetops, and Chimney Swifts diving and turning high overhead.
After a hearty “Bird Day” breakfast (in which the oldest birder, a twelve-year-old boy named Skylar, ate more pancakes than birds logged so far), the birders peered out the van windows on the way to Grandma’s house. Kenyon, the official bird logger, added several common birds to the list: American Robin, Common Grackle, European Starling, American Crow, Red-winged Blackbird. Then a Killdeer raced across the road, bringing cheers from the crew.
Dad and the five young birders piled out of the van in high spirits and were delighted to immediately hear the towhee’s “Drink your teeeaaa!” Purple Martins dove and chirped around their gourd apartments.
“Come inside,” Grandma welcomed, giving hugs all around. “The bird feeder is busy this morning.”
And so it was. Goldfinches, Black-capped Chickadees, and a Purple Finch dashed in and out, eating breakfast.
“Grandma, we’re going to hike down the woods trail and along the meadow,” eleven-year-old Savanah said. “Have you seen any Baltimore Orioles recently?”
“Yes. I think you’ll have a good chance at seeing one. Watch out for poison ivy.”
So down the trail hiked Dad and five birders—Skylar holding binoculars, Kenyon with the note pad, Savanah carrying the bird book, 7-year-old Hadassah with a water bottle, and 4-year-old Ryan clutching two toads he’d discovered beside Grandma’s garage.
In a minute, a flashy black and orange Baltimore Oriole flitted onto a tree branch.
“Oh, he’s so bright,” Savanah whispered.
“Yes, God loves to paint,” Dad said. “Birds and butterflies, flowers and sunsets—all superb masterpieces.”
Scolding Blue Jays, bright cardinals, and a crested Cedar Waxwing swelled the list as they walked on. As they neared the meadow, Dad halted the line.
“Shhh! Listen. What’s that bird?”
Every birder paused and strained his ears.
“Chirp! Chirp!” came from a closely clutched toad.
“Not that,” Dad said with a laugh.
They listened again. Then they all heard the call from an invisible warbler on their left. “I don’t recognize it,” Dad said at last.
“Look!” Hadassah pointed as an American Kestrel soared over the meadow.
“I’d like to fly like that,” said Skylar. “It must be fun.”
A meadowlark’s cheerful song greeted the birders as they approached the small abandoned cemetery near the back of the meadow. Then Skylar saw something flash. The birders eased into the cemetery, watching carefully. A blue bird flew across in front of them and landed at the edge of the woods for inspection—dark blue with a brown bar on its wing. Yay—a Blue Grosbeak! It soon flew farther into the woods where it sat close to a brown bird—most likely the Mrs. Grosbeak.
As they returned to the house, Savanah said, “This is fun. Where are we going next, Dad?”
“Well, how about a picnic for lunch? I thought we’d go to the Cache River Wildlife Area. It’s about an hour south of here and has a bald cypress swamp, which is strange to Southern Illinois. It’s an ecosystem more normally found in, say, Mississippi. We’ll hopefully see some warblers and egrets there.”
The birders cheered and piled into the van. The hour passed quickly as heads swiveled for birds. A Rough-shouldered Hawk carried off a snake, a Wild Turkey strutted in a field, a gaggle of Canada Geese gawked in a golf course, and a covey of bobwhites crossed the road at the entrance to the wildlife area.
At the picnic area, the girls helped Dad lay out the lunch, since Mom had stayed home with the baby. While they ate turkey sandwiches and cookies, a small bird flew right down to the ground, mere yards from the amazed birders. It was, without doubt, a Black-and-white Warbler. Just then another bird flew down close beside it. This one was similar but had brown on its sides. A Chestnut-sided Warbler! Kenyon grinned with satisfaction as he logged the two special birds.
As they approached the trail head leading to the swamp, Skylar pointed to a sign with pictures. “Hey, it mentions the Prothonotary Warbler and the Pileated Woodpecker. The warbler is a beautiful yellow. I hope we see one.”
The trail led to a bridge that crossed a wide, slowly moving creek, then wandered along the edge among tall trees. In the front, Savanah suddenly stopped, looking intently into the low undergrowth. “I saw a bird go into that nest box.”
She pointed to what looked like an orange juice box mounted to a stake.
“Look sharp,” Dad advised. “It will come back out soon.”
After a long minute, a small bird popped out, flew through the brush, and landed on the trail a short way ahead. It bounced and pecked in the gravel.
“That looks like the Prothonotary Warbler,” Skylar whispered. “See it’s golden head and gray wings.”
Ryan took two steps toward the pretty thing, scaring it away.
“Ryan, you have to stand still,” Hadassah scolded.
“I wanted to hold it,” Ryan sniffed.
“Let’s all quietly wait a little,” Dad said. “She’ll probably return to her nest soon.”
And she did. Then back to the gravel path she went. The birders got more good views of the Prothonotary Warbler.
“Now we just need to see a Pileated Woodpecker,” Skylar said.
The gravel trail changed to a floating boardwalk that zigzagged out into the swamp underneath the spring green needles of towering bald cypress trees.
“It feels like we’re entering a cathedral,” Dad said. “I know we’re focused on birds, but these stately trees are impressive. And look at their knees!” Round wooden cones up to 6 feet (2 m) tall surrounded the bald cypress trunks as part of their root system. “God designed bald cypress knees to help support the trees in the boggy soil.”
At the end of the boardwalk near the middle of the swamp, the birders found some benches where they could rest. As they sat enjoying God’s cathedral, two other hikers walked up.
“This is amazing,” said the lady. “We’re from the city, and sometimes it’s good to just get away and talk to the trees.”
“Yes,” Dad replied. “These trees are awesome, and they cause me to worship and praise our God who created them.”
His head jerked upward as he finished the sentence. “I hear a woodpecker’s call. Look, here he comes. It’s a Pileated Woodpecker!”
The crow-sized woodpecker jerked with sweeping wing beats through the trees, flashing white underwings, and landed high up on a dead cypress branch. He proceeded to enlarge his chiselling with dynamite pecks, much to the delight of the birders below.
“Binoculars, please,” came urgent whispers, and the binoculars made its round as Mr. Pileated continued to pound.
“He’s huge! Notice his flaming red crest and red mustache. He’s got quite a large hole pecked out up there!”
Even the two tree talkers got a turn with the binoculars before the giant woodpecker swept away, calling his loud “kik-kik-kikkik.”
Skylar paused by the sign on their return trek. “It says they have monitored the Prothonotary Warbler here for years, using colored bands, and they’ve discovered that the same warblers return to nest in the Cache Wilderness year after year. I’m so glad we got to see both the warbler and the woodpecker.”
The road home skirted the swamp. Dad kept one eye on the road and the other eye peeled for egrets. Suddenly, he slammed on the brakes and swerved into the ditch.
“There they are!” He pointed out over the swamp. Several large slender white birds waded in the water. “Great Egrets—you can tell by their yellow bills and black legs.”
After an early supper at home, Dad and the birders decided on a jaunt to the local body of water, Rend Lake. They were greeted by the resident groundhog as they rounded the curve approaching the dam. A solitary Mallard swam in the back waters while Tree Swallows soared in great numbers over the parking lot. Savanah was amused to see a gull on each of the orange buoys, with a single cormorant standing tall on the center one.
As the birders hiked along a wooded trail beside the lake, Hadassah saw a huge nest high in a tree. “What bird made that?”
“I’m not sure,” Dad said.
“Here comes a big bird,” Savanah burst out. “It’s headed straight for the nest!”
But the big bird flew over and continued scavenging for supper.
“Just a Turkey Vulture,” snorted Skylar.
Further, during a rest break on a fallen log, everyone saw a Brown Thrasher glide past. And, at the end of the trail, several American Golden-Plovers rested in a puddle on their long flight from South America to the Arctic.
On the way home, Dad took the narrow road that cut through the middle of the lake. As they neared the first bridge, he suddenly pulled over onto the shoulder, tight against the guard rail.
“Dad, that sign says ‘No Parking,’” Skylar quickly observed.
“We’re not parking,” Dad replied. “We’re just pausing to observe some more birds. Look at all those swallows going in and out under the bridge.”
A brisk wind was blowing over the lake, but the swallows balanced and turned in its teeth. One bird hovered close to the van, giving all a good look at its brown back and dusky throat. Kenyon added Northern Rough-winged Swallow to the bird list.
Just as they finished the lake crossing, a Great Blue Heron silhouette pumped across the sunset.
“This bird day has been a lot of fun,” Savanah said. “I’m glad Nature Friend thought of it.”
“I agree,” Dad answered. “I think we just might make it a tradition to do this every spring.”