The Birders are Coming! The Birders are Coming!

Remember that post about the unusual bird I was trying to identify? Well, that bird has turned my back yard into the epicenter of an avian sensation.

Turns out it was a Varied Thrush. And a Varied Thrush (which I shall refer to henceforward as VT) in the Chicago area is a Very Big Deal. How do I know it is a big deal? Because every morning I come down to breakfast to see people standing in the alley, bundled up against the freezing cold and peering into my yard with binoculars and cameras (cameras equipped with massive zoom lenses).

Watching the Birdwatchers Watch the Bird

You see, VTs are seen in the Chicago region only once or twice a year. (This I am told by Ann, a friend of mine who is a serious birdwatcher). Their normal range is in the Pacific Northwest, but they have been known to make rare and mysterious appearances, like Elvis, in other parts of the US and Canada. To learn more about the VT, check this out.

Varied Thrush: A Star is Born
Varied Thrush: A Star is Born

So this is a very rare opportunity for Chicago area birdwatchers, a chance for a “lifer” – meaning a first ever view of a particular species.

With my permission, Ann posted an announcement about the VT, along with a link to this blog, on a Yahoo Groups site for Chicago birders. Within two days, my little blog got over 800 views. That may not impress some of you, but for me it is a BIG number. So forget Search Engine Optimization – just find yourself a rare bird!

And then the emails started. I had told Anne I didn’t mind people coming to see the VT, they should just write first and let me know. Within hours I had heard from dozens of people, from as far away as St. Louis (about a six-hour drive). All were extremely polite, and most wrote as if requesting a rare and precious privilege. Although I remember one, perhaps a veteran, who asked with military flair: “Request permission to view Varied Thrush!”

Varied Thrush

Eventually, at my request, some helpful birders put out the word that emails were not necessary, people just needed to observe a few simple ground rules. Since the birders started arriving on Tuesday morning, I believe those rules have been observed scrupulously.

I should say here that while Judy and I enjoy watching birds, we are not serious birders. We like the birds to come to us, to be viewed from the comfort of our covered porch.

So I admire the zeal of the birders. And I will say that without exception they are very nice people, and extremely grateful. One of them brought me oatmeal raisin cookies. Many others have emailed me their thanks, along with detailed accounts of all the birds they saw in my yard and nearby, sometimes with photographs.

It has been a good experience, and should you ever find yourself with a rare bird hanging out in your yard, I would urge you to welcome the birders.

In fact, I feel sometimes that the VT’s celebrity status rubs off on me a bit, as with the business manager of a rock star. I try not to let that feeling get out of hand, or become distorted by jealousy (“You don’t care about me! You just want to look at my bird!”).

So what about you – are you a serious birder, or just a dilettante like Judy and I? What extremes, if any, would you go through to see a beautiful bird for the first time?

62 Comments on “The Birders are Coming! The Birders are Coming!

  1. You must feel honoured that it chose your garden to rest in! I’m glad it was still there when all the birders came from far away!! Over here serious birders are called twitchers and will travel from one end of the country to the other just to see a new bird. Me, I’m like you , happy to see them in the garden here! Just the other day we had a white pheasant on the field next door, too far away to photograph and it was gone in 5 minutes.

  2. Bird paparazzi! Love it.

    I got a not very good pic of a river otter this week. Do you think that would draw some hits for my new blog? Smiles.

  3. Wow, what an experience. The power of the internet to communicate, and the lure of a rare sighting to excite people. Our neighbors are serious birders who go to Ecuador and other exotic locales on their vacations to go birding. I have learned a lot about birds from them, but will never be able to stop mid-sentence and exclaim “listen, do you hear that, it’s a xxx” They can bird by sight and by ear. You certainly are a rock star among birders now!

  4. Wow! What a huge event! And to think, just last weekend we were having dinner and discussing whether or not this could be a Meadowlark. Who knew a week later you would be celebrities hosting a famous bird in your back yard and welcoming dozens of bird watchers! Proving once again how life can change in an instant :).

  5. That’s “Request permission to view Varied Thrush, SIR!” Your 15 minutes of fame! I’m not a birder either, but I do enjoy watching them from the comfort of my four-season room, as does the cat. Finn was an outdoor cat in his previous life, and I sometimes feel bad about keeping him inside, but then I read about the billions of birds killed by those outdoor cats. Too bad no one has bred a cat that targets only nuisance birds and rodents. Glad you are enjoying your visitors, to both your yard and blog.

  6. As a neighbor on Cleveland Street. I appreciate your sharing this beautiful and special bird. I seldom look at a flock of robins that I don’t think that maybe there is a VT involved, but I have not found one on my own in the Midwest. It will be interesting to see what the weekend brings in terms of even more birders?

  7. I love this! Those people looked very cold, though. I am not a birder just a watcher. I have 7 feeders on my back porch so I can view them from the comforts of my living room, sitting by a cozy fire and drinking my tea. Enjoy!

  8. As one of many lucky birders to visit your vicinity, thanks so much for letting us all in on what is really a rare sighting. I wish I had been a bit taller to get my big lens over the fence but so many others have taken such great photos of the bird and I am thrilled to have seen it so well.

      • That’s funny. I put up the highest fence I could to keep my neighbors across the alley from me from complaining about my bird feeders. Maybe karma has come back to haunt me! Thanks again.

  9. Pingback: The Birders are Coming! The Birders are Coming! | musicbirdblog

  10. Wow! This whole event is so awesome. Personally, I am a dilettante, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy birds any less. Lots of feeders and birdhouses in my gardens, and I have the utmost respect for these creatures. I dream of flying, so maybe I was a bird in a former life! :O)

  11. I am an avid birder who has been known to travel a bit to see some rarity, but the journey to Chicago is a bit too far for me. There is a place in far west Texas has had a Varied Thrush hanging around for three months. Check this link to see the anniversary photos:

    It is far out of it’s normal range there, too. I have been to this place earlier this year, but it is a bit too far for me to make it back. About 300 miles, and a difficult drive back into the mountains with only a high clearance vehicle..

    I am glad you got the great photos. Congrats!!

  12. It’s funny, when you first posted about your visitor, I thought, ‘that looks like those guys I see in my yard everyday,’ but didn’t think it possible…but I am no birder, because I have about a dozen or so birds which I recognize, and the rest are “those guys.” Super cool, and how fantastic to be recognized in a completely different context of ‘naturalism.’ And very, very good of you to be so accomodating. Interesting garden = interesting wildlife!

    • It is funny that when something is unusual it is more desirable. The same bird that is just nice in the northwest is a sensation in Chicago.

  13. Hi Jason, nice piece! Like your yard, wish I still had one so I could make it a nice native habitat. I was there 2 days ago at 4:30 pm but didn’t see it, I hope to try again soon! Suzanne Coleman

  14. Thanks for being so gracious to the birding community! I may see you this weekend… and hopefully the VT! Cheers from a fellow avid wildlife habitat Chicago gardener!

  15. What a lovely bird! I love bird watching, but I’m not a real birder–probably because as soon as I get my camera out, the kids or the dogs scare away the birds! Still–it sounds blissful, doesn’t it? And how gracious of you to welcome the birders. Now, I think I’ll go refill our feeders! Thanks for sharing such a lovely story.

  16. How exciting to have such a rare bird in your own back yard. And to be able to have the birding community coming near and far to see it must be a little surreal. Very nice of you. I, myself, love to see birds, but am not at all a “birder”. We did, however, once go on a birding tour. I mistakenly remarked “Oh, look at the pretty pink bird!” The lady beside me said “That’s a rosetta spoonbill”. She said it very s-l-o-w-l-y so I could catch the name and remember it. (I do.) She was being nice, but I was so embarrassed, I decided no more birding tours after that!

  17. Woa dude! Paparazzi at the edges of your yard, 800 hits to your site – Pretty cool. And I can say I knew you way back before you were a big celebrity! I love birds and very much enjoy seeing them. I’ve been thrilled when somewhat unusual birds hit the garden (Scarlet Tanager, a big flock of evening grossbeaks) but think that getting off of the couch and walking to a window is about as far out of my way as I’d go to see them. Although, we don’t have cardinals in the west and I’ve always wanted to see one so I might plan a trip to visit relatives with birdfeeders in the east some year.

    • Actually, it was 600 hits, the excitement of the moment must have warped my capacity for arithmetic, but still. I’ll send you some Northern Cardinals if you will send me some Scarlet Tanagers or Evening Grosbeaks!

  18. I have to admit, it has been a little odd coming downstairs in the morning and drinking my first cup of coffee on the (enclosed) porch and seeing the birders show up. I was very nervous at first that the thrush would not show up, and everyone would be disappointed! But he really has been most cooperative. And, he is neither a small bird nor a subtle bird, as you can see from his photos. The first day I saw him, just over a week ago, I knew immediately he was something new.

    I’m now out of town for a week for work, so Jason is left to fend for himself. I’m interested to see whether VT sticks around, and whether the fuss dies down or whether word continues to spread. Who knew a little bird could be so pleasing to so many people? I’m definitely getting a kick out of the whole thing!

  19. How very exciting! You are so kind to share with fellow birders. We were really excited to be hosting two hummingbird this winter. It does feel special to have an unusual visitor in your garden. Although Rufous hummers are the most common winter hummer in Georgia I still feel special that they choose our garden. I have become rather spoiled now that if they don’t return next winter I am sure to be disappointed. Do VT return to the same spot to overwinter? Your garden obviously is the right habitat for this bird. Maybe he will tell his friends!

    • It’s funny, a birder who lives in the neighborhood (but whom I had not met until this episode) told me that the VT had been in his yard last year, so we we’ll have to see!

  20. My goodness – I think I’ll have to fake a rare bird appearance to get all that expertise to appear at my place and help me with my common-or-garden bird IDs! – just kidding. Wonderful to hear of this unusual experience, and nice to know there are so many nice people out there. The bird really is pretty – worth viewing whether rare or not!

    • You know, there’s a movie – I can’t remember the name – that has a plot very similar to your idea: a rare bird sighting is used to save a restaurant at the edge of a small town in Newfoundland. I agree that rarity is not what makes a bird most enjoyable to watch.

  21. Wow, what a pretty bird and lucky you. I have a rare bird coming up too, so I will have to tag it like you. Have you ever heard of a Leucistic bird? It is an abnormal coloring of regular birds. Cornell asked permission to use my images of it on their site. I was pretty pleased about that. You could send in your bird too since they have the listing of the Varied Thrush. Then you will be famous like your bird! :smile:

  22. Wow, well wouldn’t you know? I would never have guessed it was a rare bird, and would set off a chain that ended up with people from all over coming to your garden to see it; what a treat for it to visit you! It certainly is a very beautiful looking creature.

  23. I was able to see the Varied Thrush on Saturday morning. Thank you so much for letting us descend on your backyard!

  24. This is too funny, but you know what if I lived in driving distance from you I’d be there with my bino’s and camera too!!!

  25. Your gracious hospitality is greatly appreciated! My husband and I were lucky and were able to get a wonderful view of the VT the moment we arrived yesterday at about 2:30PM. The feeders were quite busy! So generous of you guys to welcome all us crazy birders!!

  26. Ditto what Joan said. I was the nut outside your home yesterday, in the rain! I had a blue and white umbrella. The VT finally appeared after a 1 hour wait. My toes might have lasted another 30 minutes at most! But it was time well spend and worth the wait — the VT was my 500th life bird! I will be writing about the experience of reaching 500 in my next Daily Herald column. “Words on Birds” appears monthly in the paper. By the way, reaching 500 is a cool milestone but some of those birders in the alley have seen many more species than me!

  27. Jason, I have a question: Does Evanston have a local newspaper, perhaps one of those freebies that hits your driveway once a week? If yes, do you know if they have written about the VT? I Googled but did not come up with anything. Will send you a link to my next column. Is it OK to use your name in it? I will probably quote a few lines from your blog. Thanks!!

    • Jeff, there are several local papers (weekly, bi-weekly), but none of them have written anything about the Varied Thrush. They certainly haven’t said anything to me. You are welcome to mention my name, and I’d be grateful if you mentioned the blog!

  28. Thanks and will do. I will send you a link when my column publishes, probably in mid-March. I am drafting it now. “Jason Kay” is correct?

  29. As proof that I’m not really the serious birder you credit me with being, it wasn’t until today that we made it up to Evanston to check out the Varied Thrush for ourselves. We waited for a while, admiring all the mourning doves, woodpeckers, cardinals, and nuthatches and then took a bathroom and taco break and came on by for one more look before heading back to Oak Park. Sure enough, there it was, conveniently hopping along the alley! You do have a great yard for birds–thanks for making it so hospitable for them–and us!

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