At 7 a.m. on a spring, weekday morning while most people are getting ready or on their commute to work, Eric Secker is already out the door bird-watching at Judson University in Elgin.
Secker, who serves as the webmaster and campus photographer at Judson, is also an avid birder in his spare time and takes walks almost daily with his wife Sally on the campus grounds.
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During his past eight years of birding on campus, first as a student and then as an employee of the university, Eric has amassed a list of more than 180 species of birds.
His efforts were highlighted on May 5 with the discovery of a Black-throated Gray Warbler. The bird, normally found along the West Coast, from California and Washington east to Colorado, strayed from its normal migration path and found its way to the 90-acre campus in Elgin.
Secker isn't aware of any other records of the species in Kane County within the past 20 years.
Secker shares his bird lists with other birders who all compete for the top spots in the state in different categories. After alerting others about the Black-throated Gray Warbler, birders flocked to the site with hopes of adding the species to their list.
"For some people, myself included, birding is a competition, but it's also about the joy of discovering and sharing a rare find with others. When this bird showed up, it didn't take me long to start thinking about when I could bring my wife back out to see it and to start coordinating access for other birders."
Secker, who grew up in Wheaton and now lives in Elgin, said his parents were the first to introduce him to birding.
"I've been birding ever since I was old enough to hold a pair of binoculars, and had a life list of birds I'd seen by the time I was 6 years old," Secker said.
Considering Secker is only 29 years old, his involvement and leadership in the birding community are impressive.
"I have been actively involved with the DuPage Birding Club and the Kane County Audubon Society -- including leading Kane County Audubon on a couple (of) bird walks at Judson," Secker said.
"I also serve as a Kane County Audubon representative for the Bird Conservation Network and serve as the Bird Conservation Network's volunteer webmaster. I also recently helped lead a project with BCN studying the population trends of breeding birds in the Chicagoland area. I served as an analyst and web designer for that project."
His recent Black-throated Gray Warbler sighting isn't the first time Secker has encountered a rare bird on the Judson campus.
Other unusual sightings have included a Prairie Warbler, American Avocet, and a Snowy Egret -- all birds that many people have never seen in Kane County. According to Secker, his list of birds at Judson University is the third largest list for a site of its size in all of Illinois.
"Judson's campus is special to me because of its beautiful setting along the Fox River," Secker said. "I think the warbler liked it for the same reason. I am very proud of our campus, both for its well-maintained natural environment and the university's commitment to sustainability.
"Thanks to the school's location and initiatives, Judson attracts a diversity of birds that rivals or even surpasses bird lists at larger forest preserves in the area. This warbler was obviously passing through and chose to stay here rather than move on to one of the many other nearby natural areas."
Among the school's initiatives, Secker points to the Harm A. Weber Academic Center as one of Judson's biggest highlights. Built in 2007, the building has a LEED Gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council and is one of the most environmentally self-sustainable academic buildings in the U.S. The grounds around the building include native habitat for birds and butterflies.
Thanks to another government grant, the university also recently completed a restoration and bank stabilization project along Tyler Creek, which runs through the campus.
Interested birders can even take a class on the topic at Judson, Secker said.
"Judson has a great environmental science program on campus, and one of the professors, David Hoferer, also teaches a class on ornithology and takes students out birding," Secker said.
In addition to those initiatives, Judson University was one of the first 240 schools to sign up for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System program, and is also a member of the Illinois Campus Sustainability Compact.
"As a Christian institution, we believe in our calling to be good stewards of God's creation, and as a university we believe that we should serve as a role model for educating the public," Secker said.
"For Judson, providing a temporary home for one bird as it makes its way north to its nesting grounds may only have a minimal influence in the grand scheme of things, but serving as a role model, educating, and shaping the lives of others has a much greater, exponential impact.
"I'm glad to identify Judson as a place where I have been able to pursue my education, vocation, and even my hobby of birding."