Getting 'birded' in Lincoln Park

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Hooded Warbler

A Hooded Warbler, rare for this area, at the Lincoln Park Zoo where researchers from their Urban Wildlife Institute are surveying birds in order to replicate a 1898 to 1903 study published in Wild Birds in City Parks. (Michael Tercha, Chicago Tribune / April 25, 2013)

Like at least one of them has been doing almost every morning since March, Mason Fidino and Kelvin Limbrick are standing in a flat, grassy patch north of Lincoln Park's nature museum, looking intently at sky and trees and listening like, well, hawks. 

The binoculars give one clue about their purpose, the field notebooks another.

And then the dialogue seals it. "Downy woodpecker at 20 to 30 meters," says Fidino, as Limbrick makes notes. "Ring-billed gull flyover ... Another golden-crowned (kinglet) at 30 to 40. ... That's the same flicker ... And that's a branch."

They are making a systematic catalog of the birds near Lincoln Park Zoo. But they aren't just any birders, and this isn't just any ornithological survey. Fidino and Limbrick, both in their mid-20s, are Lincoln Park Zoo urban wildlife specialists, and they are spending the spring re-creating a survey of park birds done more than a century ago — and rediscovered last year in a modest book in a Galena antique shop.

Their job is, literally, a walk in the park. To tag along with them one April morning is to witness science in action and to get at least a starter course in the highly specialized and surprisingly popular pursuit of birding. 

Identifying birds, for instance, is done as much with the ears as with the eyes; its call might be the one thing that can help you distinguish one brown sparrow from another. The brown thrasher mimics other birds' calls so well that you think, "Oh, there's, like, 15 species in that one tree," Fidino says. "Oh, wait. It's one single brown thrasher."

Birders hear things others don't: That full-throated avian battle call that accompanies the eagle in the opening credits of "The Colbert Report," Fidino says, belongs more likely to a red-tailed hawk; the bald eagle's cry, which we soon hear while walking past its enclosure in the zoo, is rather meek. 

Birders rely on an alphabet soup of acronyms: NOFL, pronounced "nah-ful," for northern flicker, for instance, and CAGO for the ubiquitous, annoying-to-many Canada goose. As Limbrick likes to say, "You can't spell Chicago without CAGO."  

Also, birders use the term "birded" as shorthand for spotting birds and, indeed, for doing most anything related to birding. "It's like an all-purpose bird 'aloha,'" says Seth Magle, director of the zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute. 

When Limbrick found a kite bearing an eagle pattern abandoned in the park, he mounted it above Fidino's desk with one word written on the accompanying slip of paper: "Birded." 

When Fidino spots a rarity on the morning's walk, a hooded warbler (HOWA), the "coolest bird" he's seen in the Chicago area, not only is he moved to high-five his partner, they also say to each other, yes, "Birded."

The idea for the walk is to compare avian populations then and now, a notion that's scientifically valid, of course, and will, it is hoped, lead to a paper in a scientific journal. Fidino, too, will give a public talk on it May 2 in the zoo's education building.

But this one has the added charm of a great back story. It got its start more than a year earlier, when another zoo scientist, antiquing in Galena during a trip celebrating an anniversary, came across an intriguing turn-of-the-last-century book. 

"Wild Birds in City Parks" turned out to be a detailed record of the birds its authors witnessed in the park, beginning in 1898.

"Being hints on identifying 145 birds," said the subtitle, "prepared primarily for the spring migration in Lincoln Park, Chicago."

It was written by a couple with the same last name, Herbert Eugene Walter and Alice Hall Walter. Married? Siblings? (Married, it would turn out.) 

It had authorial flair, bits of bright verbal plumage: "A pair of field or opera-glasses is a valuable aid, although practice is necessary in learning to adjust them rapidly and to fix them instantly upon the bird," the authors wrote.

And it was a record of urban wildlife, a burgeoning field now but something of a rarity then. The book evangelized, in its way, for what the zoo does through the Urban Wildlife Institute, which is study city fauna: "During the migrations of the birds, city dwellers have one of the keenest delights of country life brought to their very doors, because many birds, migrating largely at night, are attracted by the lights of the city, and stop off on their long journey to feed, so that a city park often contains a greater variety of feathered visitors than an equal area of the country." 

"I usually check antique shops for natural history books," said Allison Sacerdote-Velat, Lincoln Park Zoo's reintroduction biologist. "You can usually find some pretty cool field guides with good antique plates of animals and wildflowers."

"Wild Birds" was "a small book tucked away in a shelf of other natural history books. I was picking ones that had interesting bindings. This one had a small, plain, green binding."

It rather pointedly did not have plates or illustrations. "We wish to remind those of our friends who have asked for pictures in a future edition," the Walters wrote, "that every springtime this book is copiously illustrated in our parks and around our homes by hundreds of living birds and that these illustrations are all life size, absolutely accurate in detail and colored true to nature." 

But inside, Sacerdote-Velat says, "I saw it was based on bird counts in city parks. What I thought was really interesting was that the book included arrival dates. I thought that would be a really interesting comparison."

So she paid what she remembers as $8 — which she has not expensed to the zoo — and brought it back. And the urban wildlife team agreed with Sacerdote-Velat's assessment. 

Fidino did some test surveys last spring, and he and his colleagues decided that in 2013 they would try to re-create the "Wild Birds" study to learn what has changed and what, if anything, might be done.

For their survey area, they are focusing on Diversey Avenue to North Avenue, Fidino says, who believes the area is similar to the study's time. The path is still up the middle and even much of the statuary is the same, Fidino says. Where the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum now stands, there was another structure, a barn.

But there isn't as much pond now as there was then and, more meaningfully, Fidino says, the book's authors merely present their results, in tables of species seen and arrival dates, without explaining their methodology.

"We kind of had to just assume they were either doing some sort of standardized method," says Fidino, "or Mr. Walter, who was a teacher at the time, likely himself and his wife, Alice, were just going through a walk in the morning. Or Mr. Walter did nothing and his wife, Alice, did all of the counts. We had no idea."

But the standardized method is a safe assumption. Herbert Walter, zoo staffers learned, had trained at Cornell and was teaching high school science in Chicago at the time. He would go on to have an eminent career as a biologist at Brown University. (A building at Brown, in Providence, R.I., is named after him.)

The book was conceived with amateur bird watchers in mind and was fairly popular in its day. A "sixth, enlarged edition," published in 1910, can be found for free, digitized on Google Books. 

The earlier edition that Sacerdote-Velat bought included a fold-out sheet of graph paper for people to make their own field notes, plus, she said, a catalog of birds handwritten on the back of a page of poetry and folded into "Wild Birds" by, presumably, its owner. 

"Ada Calcutt, Kewanee High School, Kewanee, IL," was written in the book, and Sacerdote-Velat looked up the name to find Calcutt was a 1909 Kewanee High graduate. 

So most every morning since March, Limbrick, a research intern, and Fidino, coordinator of wildlife management, have been walking north and south through the park, on as straight a line as possible. They've introduced new methods, such as the double-observer variable circular plot point count designed to get a single-point picture of bird life as well as test the acuity of both observers. The iBird iPhone app is, obviously, new and, according to the scientists, first-rate. 

But most of it is done the way the Walters must have done it, but with high-powered binoculars replacing the opera-glasses. As much as science has changed, says Magle, "We've never found a better way to track birds than to walk around and count them."

Can this be dangerous? Actually, it can. The dogs, joggers and fellow birders they encounter in the park are fine. The Virginia rail that Fidino got so close to while photographing that it pecked the camera lens was fine, even a little thrilling, says the 26-year-old Washington state native whose degree, from Western Washington University, is in environmental science.

But looking up all the time means "we do a lot of tripping," says Limbrick, 24, a recent University of Illinois graduate with a degree in natural resources and conservation sciences. Just the day before, the Sugar Grove native says, he found himself on one leg, fighting for balance to keep from rolling into North Pond

The highlights of the walk include the large nesting colonies of black-crowned night herons, red-eyed, football-shaped creatures, that have been flocking to the park and are "our own little celebrities," Fidino says; and the second red-winged blackbird Fidino has spotted, posing on an art deco light fixture at North Pond.

The blackbirds were rarely seen in the park in the Walters' day, Fidino says. Since then, they've gone from being marsh specialists to more generalized birds. The northern cardinal was spotted once then but is common now. Also new to the survey area are the now widely prevalent European starlings, an invasive species that was on the East Coast in 1900 but hadn't reached Chicago.

Some birds' common names have evolved. The Myrtle warbler is sometimes known as the yellow-rumped warbler, Fidino says. And some have disappeared: No more loggerhead shrikes in the survey area, Fidino says, or the Henslow's sparrow.

At the park's South Pond, surrounded by the zoo's Nature Boardwalk construction, Limbrick spots a snapping turtle and Fidino says, "Ah, there's a belted kingfisher out here."

What's encouraging, he says, is that the overall species count is roughly constant — the zoo counted 84 species last year (and 56 to date this year), while the Walters tallied 84 in 1899."We live in an ecosystem," says Magle. "Most of the time we're blind to it," to the predation and the struggles to reproduce, eat and find shelter. "But often all you have to do is look up."

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

Birding in Lincoln Park

What: Conservation and Science Department lecture series featuring Mason Fidino

When: 1 p.m., May 2

Where: Education Building, Lincoln Park Zoo, 2200 N. Cannon Drive

Tickets: Free; 312-742-2000 or lpzoo.org

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