Outdoor Activity Of The Day: Birdwatching

Without the usual bustle and car traffic, streets are quieter than ever — ideal for trying bird watching on your daily walks.

Birdwatching COVID-19 Thumbnail
Minette Layne / Flickr
Birdwatching COVID-19 Thumbnail
Minette Layne / Flickr

Outdoor Activity Of The Day: Birdwatching

Without the usual bustle and car traffic, streets are quieter than ever — ideal for trying bird watching on your daily walks.

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Governor Pritzker’s “stay-at-home” order has left lots of Chicagoans wondering how ⁠they can safely enjoy the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the city’s lakefront, adjacent parks, the 606 and Riverwalk have been closed because people were congregating in large groups, you can still go outside to walk, run or bike ride, as long as you remain 6 feet away from other individuals. If these rules are followed, experts say spending time outdoors can be really good for mental and physical well being.

We asked Chicagoans for ways they’ve spent time outside while practicing safe social distancing — and we got a lot of responses. We’re highlighting an activity to try each day this week. Today’s is birdwatching, an easy way to liven up your daily w alk.

Red-winged blackbird
Evanston resident Kat O’Reilly says one of the birds she’s watching for this spring is the red-winged blackbird, which is common to the Chicago area. (Courtesy Tony Yee, contributing member of Chicago Audubon Society)

How to become an ear detective

Kat O’Reilly of Evanston said spring is the perfect time to start bird watching because “birds are just coming back from their wintering spots and starting to sing up a storm.” She added that if you start soon, you can learn to identify the calls and songs of local birds like robins, chickadees and red-winged blackbirds before the soundscape gets too complex.

“Once you have gotten used to the common songs, you will start to notice calls that sound different and, like a detective, can start to narrow down the less common birds.”

Robert Beedle of McKinley Park said birding helps fulfill the need we all have for connection. He recommends walking to a green space you know and moving around to get any restlessness out.

“[Then] find a spot and just stand, breathe in and out, and start to take it in. You can scan the whole area for all the activity or just zoom in on one bird.”

Beedle said the silver lining of having less people out and about is that it’s easier to notice bird sounds.

Sometimes you have to look closely! Herons delight those who are patient enough to stand still and notice their presence. (Courtesy Robert Beedle)

If you want guidance for what to look for, O’Reilly says there’s lots of resources from the Chicago Audubon Society and the Chicago Ornithological Society. She recommends Merlin, a free app that helps identify birds and their calls, and eBird, a community science resource from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“While you keep track of your own experience, you are contributing data about when and where you see different bird species,” she said.

The Chicago Audubon Society has also started a #cassoundsofspring campaign on their Instagram, where they post a picture of a bird with a sound of their song. They use mnemonics to help people remember each bird’s song.

Chicago Audubon Society member Carol Freeman snapped this photo of a robin in Gillson Park in Wilmette. (Courtesy Carol Freeman)

Tips for staying socially distant

O’Reilly said birding is an activity that can easily be enjoyed alone. If you must take a friend, she said it was easy to maintain 6 feet apart on a recent birding excursion. But, since you’re far apart from your birding buddy, “the main trick was figuring out how to draw attention to a cool sighting without spooking a bird or the deer.”

One way she adapted her behavior was to stand behind her friend and “look at the line of his binoculars so I could see the bird he was seeing. It worked just fine.”

Beedle said he’s started wearing light utility gloves on his walks.

“On one hand it makes me feel more comfortable opening garbage can lids, and opening and closing my gate,” he said. “And on the other hand, having the gloves on is a great reminder to not touch your face, phone or keys.”

And when he runs into someone he knows on his walks, he recommends still acknowledging them and connecting, but standing at least 6 feet apart. Or, if you really want to keep moving, just nod your head in greeting.

Nature enthusiast Robbie Telfer said it’s important to remember what’s at stake when we’re outside. He noted that it’s okay to be “a little rude in public” right now — for the sake of people’s health.

“It’s a time where it’s okay to be a little bit stricter with what you’re comfortable with. If you see people not following guidelines, say something. If the worst thing that happens is that someone is annoyed because you were a little bit rude to them, that’s great because the worst thing that could happen if you don’t is that someone might die.”

Robbie Telfer
Robbie Telfer’s partner holds their daughter’s hood while she “fishes” with a stick During their visit to this nature preserve, the family spotted a bufflehead, merganser, and red-tailed hawk and the “butt of a small mammal under the boardwalk!” (Courtesy Robbie Telfer)

Curious Citizens on why they recommend bird watching

“I can’t tell you how great it was to be out in the open, listening for new sounds, seeing deer leaping over fallen trees, watching a woodpecker preening while its red head caught the sunlight — it inspires hope and calm for me. It adds richness to my walks.” - Kat O’Reilly

“I want people to love nature and to enjoy it … One of my favorite sounds is the sound of a bunch of ducks landing on the lake, when they all come in for a landing and skim on the surface. It’s a great combo, of sight and sound.” - Robbie Telfer

“My walks in the park have taken a deeper meaning since the start of the outbreak. I’ve always valued connecting with nature in various ways, and connecting with my neighbors in the park, but now more than ever I can feel the calming effect and benefits to my well-being.” - Robert Beedle

Lynnea Domienik is an intern for Curious City. You can reach her at ldomienik@wbez.org.