Area's most prolific birder writes daily report fellow watchers love

  • Al Stokie, shown at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve in Downers Grove, recorded his 400th Illinois bird last December in Channahon, where a great kiskadee made a first-time appearance in the state.

    Al Stokie, shown at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve in Downers Grove, recorded his 400th Illinois bird last December in Channahon, where a great kiskadee made a first-time appearance in the state. Courtesy of Jeff Reiter

 
 
Updated 3/10/2021 7:19 AM

We are all creatures of habit. But to describe the daily routine of Al Stokie as habitual would be selling him short. It's much more: curiosity, discipline and obsession all rolled into one.

The man went birding every single day in 2020, usually leaving his Park Ridge home before sunrise.

 

When I contacted Al for this column, he was hesitant.

"I'm not really a very interesting person," Stokie said. "I'm just an old retired guy who goes birding a lot."

Birders in the Chicago region view him differently. To us, Al is a fountain of information. His daily journal entries, composed after his morning adventures, are posted on the birding list-Serv known as IBET, short for Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts.

The reports tell us where Al went today, what he saw, what he missed and who he ran into. We learn about places to visit, best times to go and what to expect. And through Al's words, we experience the ups and downs of the hobby we love.

Al Stokie scans the open water at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve in Downers Grove, looking for something special among the Canada geese and mallards. "You can't have a kiskadee every day," he said.
Al Stokie scans the open water at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve in Downers Grove, looking for something special among the Canada geese and mallards. "You can't have a kiskadee every day," he said. - Courtesy of Jeff Reiter
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Each post begins with "Hello Bird People" and ends with his Bird of the Day award. Occasionally, he'll declare a Fancy Pants Bird of the Day, an honor reserved for a particularly striking bird that catches his eye. Mammal sightings, fast food preferences and unusual license plates may get a mention, too.

A Vietnam vet with a master's degree in early modern European history from Northwestern, Al spent his entire working career at DoALL Sawing Products in Des Plaines (now Wheeling). His job involved "getting reports out and distributed to the proper people."

Hearing that made perfect sense. At 75, Al is still reporting.

The year he retired, 2013, Al purchased a Prius C that now sports 135,000 miles, reflective of his Iron Man birding ethic. Rain and snow may alter his plans, but he still goes birding -- some days solo and other days with a friend or two.

"What I like most is searching for whatever birds I may find. Every day is different!"

Ah yes, the search. I can feel birders nodding their heads. Most of us love that aspect of bird-watching, especially when a rare species comes to town.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

What sets Al apart, besides dogged persistence, is his humble acceptance of whatever a new day of birding may bring. He's a master of finding little things to celebrate. Last month, he went out of his way to track down a reported killdeer -- a common shorebird that's quite uncommon in January. He recognized the significance of that bird and had to go see it.

Almost a year ago, in early March, Al challenged himself to see how many kinds of ducks he could find in a single day, touring the Palos area. His best-case scenario, with luck, was 20 species. He found them all, and his postgame report offered a fascinating lesson in bird-finding strategy.

Rarities, of course, get Al excited just like the rest of us. He often plans his birding around sightings gleaned the night before from IBET, eBird or messages from his birding buddies.

"I may want to chase a rarity but if there are none [being reported] then I might try a place I haven't been in a while, or check a place that should be good for a certain species at that time of year."

Sometimes his destination is a no-brainer, as it was on Dec. 6, 2020, when Al made a beeline to Channahon for a mega-rare great kiskadee reported the day before. That bird became Al's 400th species for Illinois, a milestone that only nine other birders have achieved.

Sightings of an American redstart and saw-whet owl in the late 1970s inspired Al Stokie to get serious about birding.
Sightings of an American redstart and saw-whet owl in the late 1970s inspired Al Stokie to get serious about birding. - Courtesy of Jackie Bowman

Al didn't begin serious birding until 1985, but he recalls two formative sightings in the late 1970s, both in Des Plaines. The first was a male American redstart, a colorful member of the warbler family. Al was impressed.

The other bird was a tiny owl in a tree. After seeing it, Al spent a half-hour walking back to his car and drove home (another half-hour) to retrieve his camera. He then returned to the bird, which fortunately hadn't moved. He took photos and later figured out it was a saw-whet owl.

Sightings of an American redstart and saw-whet owl in the late 1970s inspired Al Stokie to get serious about birding.
Sightings of an American redstart and saw-whet owl in the late 1970s inspired Al Stokie to get serious about birding. - Courtesy of Philip Dunn

"If anything was a spark bird, that was it," he told me.

These days, Al has a particular fondness for shorebirds, a category offering significant ID challenges. He's good at telling them apart, but firmly denies being an expert.

"They're big enough to see well and they aren't as flighty as warblers," he said, explaining his attraction.

Something else needed explanation: his lack of cellphone. Can a man who seeks rare birds not own such an essential tool?

"I've been with birders who get calls and messages every 10 minutes and I'd rather not go through that. I know that I miss some information about sightings, but so be it."

Al isn't against technology; he just prefers to be off the grid while birding. I find that admirable, but not half as much as his eagerness to share what he sees and learns. Reading his stuff can make you a better birder.

Little wonder that Al is beloved within the birding community. That won't change, but his daily regimen probably will. He talks about slowing down due to mobility issues. The Prius is fine, his legs are not.

Fortunately, there are many ways to bird -- phones are optional, and so are long hikes! Al might finally spend some time watching his yard. I'll be reading those reports, too.

To join the IBET network, a free service, send an email to ilbirds+subscribe@googlegroups.com.

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

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