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This Birder Combines Volunteerism with Birding

As part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Bird the Preserves initiative, we are featuring one Birder of the Week September through October to highlight the unique experiences and diversity of the birding community. To learn more about birding or to attend an upcoming bird walk, visit our Birding Page.

Name: Michael McNamee
Hometown/neighborhood: Grew up in Pennsylvania, now Hyde Park
Profession: I am one of the Bird Conservation Network (BCN) bird monitors at Orland Grassland, and I am currently working in environmental education as an Orland Grassland volunteer, for example leading bird walks.
Number of years birding: Since 1982

What is the most helpful tool you use as a birder?

I keep a playlist of bird songs and calls on my phone, and listen whenever I can. I move the order around and put songs that are similar together. I also use xeno-canto.org, an open site with dozens of user-posted recordings for each bird species, to check for songs that aren’t exactly like the standard recordings. In one Massachusetts marsh, I absolutely knew by its voice that I was near a clapper rail, even though I barely saw it.

What was your first birding experience?

In college one spring, I happened to live within walking distance of a small bit of open water next to a marsh. I had recently read “The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe” by Julian Huxley, and I noticed that I was able to see intricate and furious mating activity among the ducks and coots. I was fascinated to discover that I could watch wildlife living out feelings.

What is your favorite bird species and why?

My wife and I brought our kids for many years to vacation with friends in the Tetons, and one year I read in “The Mountains of California” by John Muir, a chapter on his favorite bird, the American dipper, or water ouzel. Muir wrote, “For both in winter and summer, he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells.” My wife and I went out and found an ouzel, and for many years since on these trips, we have hiked along the cascades in the Tetons, happily finding ouzels, and watching a little of their busy, exciting lives.

What is your favorite place(s) in the Forest Preserves of Cook County to bird?

At Orland Grassland for two years, I have enjoyed collaborating with the other OG volunteers under stewards Pat Hayes and Bill Fath, and with the great staffs at FPCC and BCN. They have all been welcoming and supportive. Among other roles, I have guided bird and nature walks for families, neighbors, high school and community college students, interns and visitors. I enjoy seeing experienced birders help orient new birders during a walk, and I love being a part of the delight of both new and experienced birders when we all see a nice bird. I’ve been happy to help lead a number of volunteers to see several important birds at the grassland for the first time, like the short-eared owl and the American woodcock. These birds are now using the grassland which the volunteers have spent so many years helping to restore! In one of our walks, Pat saw her first short-eared owl at the grassland in 12 years! And as a BCN monitor, it has been moving for me to be out in the world of grassland birds like the Henslow’s sparrow, and to learn some of their habits.

Birders often brave the elements to see birds, have there been any extreme weather conditions that you have birded in?

25º below zero, on the thermometer, with the wind howling out of the west! On the second coldest day in Chicago history, in 1982, on the lakeshore by the Museum of Science and Industry, I saw my first red-breasted merganser.

What is the most unexpected thing you have seen while birding?

This is also an ouzel story. I first went looking for ouzels during a family vacation with a few other families in the Tetons; I tried several spots but struck out. Then my friend, a botanist and not a birder, offered to come along. We took a crowded tour boat to a popular cascade, and started up a crowded trail. Abruptly, my friend stopped me, led me over to the railing, leaned over and said, “Well, from what I’ve heard you describe, if I was an ouzel I’d be feeding right down there,” and as we looked down, my first ouzel came walking into view along the edge of the cascade, as though from stage left.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee and not necessarily those of the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Support for the Bird the Preserves initiative was generously provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through Chicago Wilderness.