The meeting spot for every first Saturday’s free Beginner Birder Walk in Forest Park is hard to miss: a dozen or so enthusiasts wearing binoculars and cameras — some in hiking boots and safari hats — huddled closely together at a designated intersection, peeking at each others’ birding books and comparing previous avian adventures.
At this time of day, around 8 a.m., the Park’s grass is still dewy, and any noise from Forest Park Parkway is still just a whir, giving birders the prime opportunity to listen for chirping and focus on their path. Runners, bikers and dog walkers are on the paths with us, but aren’t yet populous enough to cramp our style. For this month’s walk, we’ve gathered near the Steinberg Ice Rink, at an area known as Steinberg Prairie, which is complete with a marshy waterway and open land spotted with trees.
The Forest Park Forever-organized tour begins with a lesson in how to use our binoculars — known in the birding world as “binos” — which are available for those without. To track a bird in a tree, we’re instructed to keep our eye on it while bringing the binos up to our face slowly without flinching. We are also told to share locations of birds with others by using the directions of a clock face. A feathered friend at the top of a tree would be 12 o’clock. One hanging off a drooping left branch would be at 7 or 8 o’clock.
Once the technical matters are out of the way, there’s a last call to visit the bathroom. “I won’t say it’s 5-star, but it’s better than a bush!” Amy Witt informs us, pointing to a brown building to our west. The birders giggle then murmur and a few scuttle off to heed her advice. Amy’s a Nature Reserve Steward for FPF and one of the co-leaders of today’s walk. Her curiosity, spunk and fascinating factoids keep the expedition educational yet informal.
During the summer season, some birds are breeding. Others are migrating south. And yet some are hiding in the trees, keeping their babies out of sight. Today we get glimpses of Song Sparrows and starlings, Blue Jays and robins, goldfinches and herons. Seeing them mate or dive bombing for fish is rare, so it’s mostly just grooming and catching flies this morning.
As with any tour group, there’s a lot of walking and stopping and pointing and shuffling. And it ebbs and flows in terms of sightings. We’re encouraged to call out any bird we see and become guides ourselves rather than leaving it to only the experts to show us the ropes.
“Flying, vocalizing, flying, vocalizing,” says Pat Lueders, local birding guide and St. Louis Audubon Society board member and trip leader. Pat repeats this phrase until the group finds the purple martin diving and swooping around the white bird mansion — built specifically for this species — mounted by the marsh-like waterway. The awe is contagious. There are ooh’s and aah’s amidst the cluster of watchers followed by a flurry of questions to Pat, Amy and co-leader and owl watcher Mark Glenshaw about their own run-ins with birds of this type. “I found a small piece of eggshell on my…” and “When I moved into my new house I found a nest…”
We learn from Pat that barn swallows have fork-shaped tails, that wood ducks nest in trees’ natural cavities and have to jump out of them into the water before they can fly, and that Yellow-shafted Flickers are a member of the woodpecker family. We are led through unfamiliar parts of the Park that are so well manicured they look to be part of a botanical garden or nature preserve. It’s peaceful and secluded, save for the occasional runner who I’m tempted to ask, “How do you know about this place?”
While trying to get a frontal view of a smaller bird sitting at 3 o’clock in a large tree coined the “Heron Hilton,” someone spots a large Black-crowned Night heron fairly close by in the marsh. Perched on a log, its reflection in the water gives us a two-for-one sighting. It stares at the water intently, leaning forward and to the side as if tracking a fish swimming nearby. While it’s not completely rare, you don’t expect to see a bird of this size or exotic nature mere yards from you in Forest Park.
People eagerly crowd around on the footbridge, bringing their binos to their focused eyes as instructed. Bikers whizzing by ring their bells and shout “Excuse me!,” but the bird is unphased by any commotion. We stand staring for a good 10 minutes, hoping the bird will dive in after his prey. One woman on a bike apprehensively approaches our group and tries to see what we’re absorbed in, looking at us, then looking in the direction we are looking, then looking back at us. She does not speak to anyone or get in our way, but the expression on her face and her dedication to wanting to see what we see tells me she’s bound to be a future birder. Before we move on, we see what we’ve been waiting for: the heron gulpes up a crawfish.
But, as is prone to happen, birds will become motionless, it will get boring and people will get antsy, so Pat guides us a little off the path to an area just at the foot of the Parkway where she gets out her iPhone and pulls up an app that plays bird calls. She instructs us to be judicious about using an app like this — never during mating season, never if the species has any conservation risk, never for a larger bird before calling for a smaller bird. At the moment, she’s trying to call a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher who was known to have successfully nested around these parts, but the phone’s speakers aren’t loud enough to be heard by the group.
One fascinating thing about birds is that they settle like people do — not too close together but not too far apart. They each have their preferred habitats, and that’s what makes Forest Park the ideal place to call home: the presence of so many ecosystems that allow for birds — whether acclimated to water or land — to spread out and live in their favored environments.
It’s approaching 10:30 and it’s time for the walk to end. The birders, no longer beginners, show a bit of fatigue but are still excitedly gabbing about what they’ve seen, where they’ve traveled, any upcoming trips. We circle back through a less marshy area toward our starting spot, without much avian activity.
With just a few minutes to spare, our leaders attempt to call our attention to a final sighting —
first toward a grackle, and then toward an Indigo Bunting, we’re told a fairly rare and beautiful bird.
We look. And look. But our untrained eyes seem unable to spot them.