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posted: 3/10/2013 5:00 AM

Quest for 500th "life bird" ends in Evanston

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  • This male varied thrush, a rare visitor from the West, chose an Evanston backyard for a winter vacation.

    This male varied thrush, a rare visitor from the West, chose an Evanston backyard for a winter vacation.
    Courtesy of Jackie Bowman


So there I was in Miami last month, stalking a middle-class neighborhood with my binoculars, searching for a red-whiskered bulbul. The bulbul is originally from Asia, but despite its nonnative status it's considered a "countable" species by the American Birding Association.

Countable is the key word. I didn't want the 500th bird on my life list to be questioned by the ornithological records police.

South Florida is loaded with exotic birds bearing tropical pedigrees, many of them escapees from pet stores or zoos. Only a few of the imports, like the bulbul, common myna and spot-breasted oriole, are considered to have self-sustaining wild populations. This means birders can add them to their coveted lists and feel no guilt.

There were lots of birds among the tightly spaced homes across from Baptist Hospital -- mockingbirds, monk parakeets and even a loggerhead shrike carrying a small lizard in its bill. An osprey and kingfisher patrolled the little man-made lake. A hummingbird perched on a wire. But I detected no red-whiskered bulbuls.

Back in the rental car, driving to my parents' home in Key Largo, I had plenty of time to think. Hey, at least I hadn't been arrested. The streets I'd just finished walking had Crime Watch postings on every block. If there was a sign welcoming binocular-toting birders with pale white legs I missed it.

Soon my thoughts returned to birds, as they usually do. I was still stuck on No. 499, although I hadn't been for long. When the year began my number was 498. A run to the Chicago lakefront in early January netted a red-throated loon, a bird posted on the Internet and seen by hundreds of other birders, too. For several days it floated close to shore near the Shedd Aquarium. As birders would say, the loon was "cooperative."

But an even more cooperative rarity soon would arrive. A few days before I left for Florida, a varied thrush was spotted in an Evanston backyard. Local reports of this species, an occasional wanderer from the Pacific Northwest, always get my attention. It's a beautiful bird and closely related to our familiar robin.

I'd hoped to see my first varied thrush last summer, during a trip to Olympic National Park in Washington. That's where you'd expect to see one, but the species can be secretive, especially in summer. No luck.

Then, in November, a varied thrush was discovered at Morton Arboretum in Lisle. I went there a day or two after the first sighting, reported to the right place and then along with other birders watched a large flock of robins feed on berries for about an hour. Again, no luck.

By the time I returned from Florida, the Evanston varied thrush was a genuine sensation. Apparently it really, really liked the backyard on Cleveland Street and the homeowners were perfectly fine with birders stopping by to see it. The yard features multiple feeding stations, all easily observed from the back alley while peering over a neck-high wooden fence. The thrush would periodically visit a platform feeder with sunflower seeds.

Now ask yourself, how many people would tolerate dozens of birders looking into their yard from 50 feet away, pointing their binoculars and long-lens cameras directly toward their home?

Indeed, serious birdwatchers in this region are incredibly lucky that the varied thrush settled where it did. Jason and Judy Kay, the homeowners, welcomed any and all birders.

Jason, who writes a delightful blog called Garden in a City, didn't know what he had at first. His post on Jan. 27 mentioned a mystery bird and a request for ID assistance. The accompanying photo was clearly a varied thrush and word spread quickly.

Four days later, Kay's blog entry was titled "The Birders are Coming! The Birders are Coming!" And did they ever. Dozens of them, day after day.

"It has been a good experience," Kay wrote, "and should you ever find yourself with a rare bird hanging out in your yard, I would urge you to welcome the birders."

I went to Evanston myself on a raw and rainy Sunday morning about two weeks after the avian celebrity first arrived. An hour went by, and my toes were going numb as I waited under a golf umbrella, my binoculars pre-focused on the platform feeder. Then, like magic, a male varied thrush appeared, filling my 8x42s. What a beauty! That moment was well worth the 35-mile drive from Glen Ellyn and my cold, lonely vigil in the alley.

I really couldn't imagine a better bird to claim as No. 500 -- certainly more meaningful than a red-whiskered bulbul would have been. The "quality" of a milestone bird is important, at least to me.

The varied thrush was still enjoying life on Cleveland Street a full month after the first sighting. It might stay a good while longer. For a rare bird, this one's about as sticky as they get.

• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in the Daily Herald. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

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