Thursday, October 20, 2011

Birder Profile: Jeff Reiter

Jeff Reiter
Glen Ellyn, Illinois
How and when did you get into birding?

I've been birding seriously since 1994. That year I saw a bird at KiawahIsland, S.C., that really caught my eye. My naked eye, too, but it was only about 15 feet away. Later I was able to easily i.d. the bird as a Hooded Warbler. So that was the spark. And what also helped was that I learned the same or next day that Kiawah had a nature center with real live naturalists who offered bird walks! They even had a Kiawah bird checklist! Of course I looked up Hooded Warbler on that list and learned it was an R-rated bird in September! That fired me up even more. I'd been very lucky to see that bird and it was the first of many lifers that I'd see at Kiawah, where my in-laws had a vacation home. I saw my first Bald Eagle at Kiawah, too.

How often do you go birding? And where do you regularly go birding? 

I lead a bird walk each month at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, IL, where I am employed. I am assisted by my colleagues from the DuPage BirdingClub. The walks began in September 2008 and we've never missed a month. Our list is up to about 130 species and still growing. So Cantigny is probably my favorite birding spot, my "local patch." I also love backyard birding. I think we all know the thrill that comes from seeing a really uncommon bird on our own property or flying over. My yard list has 110 species after 14 years of observation. My favorites on that list are the one-timers, like Prothonotary Warbler, Belted Kingfisher, American Kestrel and Peregrine Falcon. I live in a regular neighborhood surrounded by other houses so I've been pretty lucky!

Where is your favorite place to bird in Illinois? In the U.S.? in the world? 

Besides Cantigny Park and my backyard I love The Morton Arboretum in Lisle (IL) and the Chicago lakefront. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Joliet is another favorite place, and also Horicon Marsh up in Wisconsin.

Most exotic place you have gone birding?

My only birding outside the U.S. has been during family trips to England, Ireland and Northern Ireland. Those were not birding vacations and all my birding was solitary, without guides, but I still saw a lot of new birds. It was great fun discovering things on my own, such as in London's Hyde Park when my family was still sleeping. My best single day of birding occurred at Madera Canyon in southeast Arizona, followed closely by Dry Tortugas National Park. Oh, and yes, I did see an Elegant Trogon!

How would you describe yourself as a birder? A “watcher”, a “lister”, a “chaser”, “ticker”, “twitcher”, an “ornithologist”, all of the above, or something else? 

I'm definitely a lister but not over-the-top about it. There was a time when I might drive an hour or two to see a new bird but not anymore. My life list is at 489 species and I'm excited to reach 500 but not rushing it. I do have a few nemesis birds like Worm-Eating Warbler that I'd definitely go out of my way to see. My goal is to finally see one in 2012!

What kind of birding equipment do you use? 

I love my Pentax 8x43 binoculars, and my back-up pair is an older model Pentax 8x42. For the money they are great optics. Strange I guess but I've never owned a scope and really don't want one. I like to travel light in the field.

How do you keep track of your bird observations?

I am not an eBird user but hope to be soon. I've heard it's a great tool. Right now I record life birds manually in a spiral-bound book I ordered from the Cornell Lab, and also on a simple Word document stored electronically.

What is your favorite bird sighting and what is the story behind it? 

I'll go with the Prothonotary Warbler that turned up in my backyard one April for about 5 minutes. I will probably never see another one in the yard. I do not live near a marsh or water of any kind. It was such a random thing and total luck that I was outside at the right moment. The sighting occurred around 6 am and about an hour after an earthquake was felt all across Chicagoland. So I think of that gorgeous warbler as my "earthquake bird" even though I'm sure the two events were unrelated. Or were they?!

What is your favorite yard bird?

My favorite regular visitor is the Red-Breasted Nuthatch. They love my peanut feeder. Plus it's a bird that makes many of my local birding friends jealous! The species is very local around here. In fact, we have still never seen or heard a Red-Breasted Nuthatch at Cantigny Park, which is only 5 miles from my home.

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend? 

I'm a big reader, can't get enough. So I currently subscribe to BirdWatcher's Digest, BirdWatching and WildBird. I like all three for different reasons. Plus I'm a member of ABA and the Cornell Lab, so there's another couple magazines! It's hard to keep up but I hate to miss anything and the publications give me ideas for my own writing. (I've been doing a monthly newspaper column called "Words on Birds" since 2004.) I know there are MANY great birding blogs out there but I have trouble finding the time to explore them.

Which is your favorite field guide and why? 

Sibley is my "go to" guide. I like it's simplicity and layout. The text can be very insightful too. I'll give you an example. I was once trying to identify a bird at Cantigny Park. I was pretty sure it was a PineWarbler. This would be a first-time sighting at the park so I wanted to be 100% sure. The bird was feeding on one of the roads inside the park, eating whatever was falling to the pavement from overhanging trees. Chipping Sparrows were also feeding. I thought it was strange to see a Pine Warbler on the ground. But later, looking at Sibley, I found this on the page for Pine Warbler: "sometimes joins bluebirds and Chipping Sparrows to forage on the ground in suburban settings." Talk about perfect validation!

Do you use any birding apps for smartphones or tablet-like devices?

So far I am not a fan. I really like my birding without wires and batteries. Maybe I am showing my age, which is 52!

Which three books from your personal birding library would you recommend to other birders?

My favorite books tend to be about birders chasing birds in different parts of the country. So naturally I loved "The Big Year" and of course "Kingbird Highway" by Kenn Kaufman. "The Feather Quest" by Pete Dunne is right up there too. "The Grail Bird" by Tim Gallagher is another GREAT book. Sorry, that's more than three!

If a fellow birder had a question about a bird, do you consider yourself an expert (or at least proficient) on any specific family of birds?

I do not think of myself as an expert but most of the questions I get are not too difficult because nonbirders are asking them. I am "the bird guy" at work. That said, a lot of questions send me running to my birding library. I can usually find the answer and really enjoy "hitting the books" because I always learn something in the process. It's good to be curious.

What future birding plans do you have?

I plan to continue writing "Words on Birds" for the Daily Herald here in the Chicago suburbs. I do it for free because I like to write and hopefully it gets more people interested in birds and birding. It's a way for me to give back to a hobby that has been so fulfilling to me. And it's a creative outlet. I'm proud of the column and receive a lot of positive feedback about it. My blog, also called Words on Birds, is simply a depository for all my monthly columns. I'd like to expand it and make it more. I also plan to get more involved with kids through the Illinois YoungBirders, a club launched by the Illinois Ornithological Society about two years ago. Attracting more kids to the monthly Cantigny Park walks is another goal. Truth is, I find myself getting more and more satisfaction out of introducing people to birds, and not just kids. Of course, some day, I also want to visit some of the great birding hotspots, like Costa Rica, Peru and Trinidad & Tobago. Hey, at this point I'd just like to visit Texas! My kids are ages 15 and 10 so that makes it hard to go on faraway birding trips.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

I am very active with the DuPage Birding Club. I've served five years on the club's board and was president in 2009. We have about 200 members. This year I chaired the club's big fundraising auction, an event we do every other year.

What is your current nemesis bird? 

Worm-eating Warbler tops my list, followed by Kentucky Warbler and Louisiana Waterthrush. If I see just one of these three warblers in 2012 I'll be thrilled. A less exciting bird that's also eluded me is Vesper Sparrow! The good news is that all of these birds can be seen in the Chicago region at certain times of year and if luck is on your side. My day will come.

Any birding related pet-peeves you’d like to vent about here?

Sure, why not. On the bird walks I lead, some participants are LOUD! Socializing is fine, but let's talk SOFTLY!

Anything about your family you’d like to share with us? 

I've been happily married to Catherine for 21 years. We met in Ohio, my home state. Our daughter Rachel is 16 and son Jay ("The Jaybird") is 10. Jay shows some interest in birds now and then, and goes on some of the walks at Cantigny Park. But he'd rather carry a camera than binoculars. And that's OK! Jay contributed a photo to my Words on Birds column this year and received a photo credit in the newspaper. That was cool for both of us.

Outside of birding, what are your other interests or hobbies?

I like golf but don't play much, and love going to baseball games. I've been to 41 Major League ballparks! My son and I went on baseball roadtrips around the Midwest during each of the last two summers, watching major and minor league games and visiting other local attactions. Good times! I snuck in a little birding on those trips, too.

Any funny or embarrassing birding experiences? 

Can't think of anything except that I still mistake chipmunks for birds sometimes.

If you were a bird, which species would you be and why? 

I'd choose the coolest looking bird I can think of, the male Blackburnian Warbler. It would be fun to look down and see all the birders admiring me. Plus, I'd not only look good, I'd get to spend my winters in places much warmer than Chicago!

Your mission in life as a birder? 

To introduce more people to the hobby of a lifetime!

Birder Profile is a weekly blog segment at "Birding is Fun!" spotlighting a fellow birder.  If you would be interested in sharing a little about yourself and your birding experiences, please send me an email.  Is there a birder you'd like to see featured?  Please nominate that person by sending me an e-mail too.  Enthusiasm for birding is the only prerequisite!


  1. This was fun thanks for sharing. I too mistake chipmunks and squirrels for birds--that quick movement on the periphery always gets me excited, but alas.
    I must admit, I also once watched a large black garbage bag blowing away in the distance trying to figure out if it was a Turkey or Black vulture. It was neither.

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  3. I have seen many "leaf birds" in my time.
    Also, my friend and I BOTH mistook snow clumps as Swans on the airport property. lol
    I love your favorite bird books and own them all.

    I'll be visiting your blog and vicariously enjoying Midwest birding through you. :)