Words on Birds columnist Jeff Reiter was inspired by his parents

Words on Birds columnist Jeff Reiter was inspired by his parents to love all things fowl

  • The author's parents, Rollin and Dori Reiter, are pictured in 2015 at The Wilderness Center in Wilmot, Ohio. They died in January.

    The author's parents, Rollin and Dori Reiter, are pictured in 2015 at The Wilderness Center in Wilmot, Ohio. They died in January. Courtesy of Jeff Reiter

 
 
Posted4/29/2021 6:00 AM

Bird-watchers often refer to a "spark bird" -- a sighting experience that launched them into this wonderfully addictive hobby. I have one myself, a hooded warbler, spotted in 1994. Seeing it, and then figuring out what it was, hooked me for good.

It's fun to have a spark bird, but there is usually more to the story -- true in my case, for sure. I was interested in birds as a kid. The hooded warbler ignited something that was already there.

 

If I've become a bird nerd, I blame my parents. In a good way. I've been thinking about them a lot since they passed in January, on consecutive days, in Florida. Dad was 92, mom 90.

My folks were not devoted birders, but they were bird friendly. They kept a full feeder in our Canton, Ohio, backyard, and a Peterson field guide within reach.

In the fall, dad would call attention to V formations of migrating Canada geese, a spectacle worth watching. Geese had a better reputation back then.

Our family of four traveled outside the neighborhood for birds, too. I remember an evening trip to The Wilderness Center in Wilmot, where mom did some volunteering. It was March or April, not warm, and we were woodcock watching.

At the time, I didn't know a woodcock from a woodchuck.

I think we saw American woodcocks performing their aerial courtship display, but can't swear to it. The experience, not the bird, is what I recall.

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Fifty-plus years later, I'm a dues-paying member of The Wilderness Center and my father-in-law is at rest in Foxfield Preserve, the center's conservation burial ground.

Another family adventure took us to Hinckley for Buzzard Sunday, a classic "rite of spring" event. I guess you could say it was my first birding festival.

Legend says that the buzzards (turkey vultures) return to Hinckley Ridge every year on March 15. It's Ohio's version of the famous swallows of San Juan Capistrano in California, only more reliable.

Hinckley's been celebrating the homely buzzards every year since 1957. Did we see them? Again, my recall is fuzzy, but the pancakes and hot chocolate were good.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Mom instigated those family outings and encouraged my interest in the natural world.

Thanks to her, I became an avid subscriber to Ranger Rick from the National Wildlife Federation and treasured my collection of annual NWF stamps. I became a nature boy, diverging from my more athletic older brother.

Around age 10, before I was old enough to join Boy Scouts and attend Camp Tuscazoar, mom and dad sent me to a one-week "conservation camp" in Kentucky, a place I surely learned about Ranger Rick.

The camp was in the Land Between the Lakes, near Paducah. I was too young to appreciate the natural beauty of the place.

What I remember most is a mop-topped boy named Jeremy who was obsessed with birds and could ID anything with wings. We called him Bird Man.

I didn't necessarily want to be like him -- perhaps I was beginning to question if birding was cool -- but his skills impressed me.

The author and his dad visited this birding hot spot in 2001, our country's southernmost national park. For the senior Reiter, an American history buff, it was all about the fort.
The author and his dad visited this birding hot spot in 2001, our country's southernmost national park. For the senior Reiter, an American history buff, it was all about the fort. - Courtesy of Jeff Reiter

Flash forward to April 2001, my first of two trips with dad when birding was the main objective. I was deep into the hobby by then, and eager to see new species.

Somehow, I talked dad into a three-day Florida Nature Tours excursion to Dry Tortugas National Park, a group of tiny islands 70 miles west of Key West.

Dry Tortugas was a perfect destination. As a history buff, dad was keen on visiting Fort Jefferson, the massive 19th-century garrison that dominates the park. He'd be happy exploring the fort while I explored the bird life.

My plan worked! Sort of. Accommodations on the tour's small ship were subpar, and dad took ill on the ride back to Key West. He'd spend the next several weeks recovering from acute diverticulitis.

Dad apparently forgave me, because in 2014 he agreed to an all-day field trip with Hendry-Glades Audubon in the Lake Okeechobee region of south-central Florida. We drove up the night before, and this time our beds were fine at the historic Clewiston Inn.

A fading but still beautiful hand-painted mural depicting Florida birds covered the walls in the hotel's little tavern -- a good omen. Better yet, it was fried chicken night in the dining room down the hall, like they knew we were coming.

The next day, his 86th birthday, dad shared my excitement in spotting a crested caracara, my number one target bird for the trip. Later, we bagged a scissor-tailed flycatcher. We enjoyed those birds a lot.

Rollin Reiter's hand-carved decoys, like this wood duck pair, were coveted by family and friends. Some of them won awards.
Rollin Reiter's hand-carved decoys, like this wood duck pair, were coveted by family and friends. Some of them won awards. - Courtesy of Jeff Reiter

Mom wasn't on board for these adventures, opting to stay home in Key Largo with the ducks. Decoys, that is, about three dozen of them. Dad began carving and painting decoys in the late 1970s, soon becoming an accomplished amateur artist.

His ducks, geese, and shorebirds, plus others purchased from master carvers, were widely admired by friends and family.

The decoys (and duck-inspired art on our walls) were an important aspect of my bird-filled upbringing. I learned about the importance of Ducks Unlimited and the federal duck stamp.

Hunting isn't my thing, but dad taught me to appreciate the conservation role played by waterfowlers. I purchase a duck stamp every year, and probably always will.

My final bird walk with dad, if you can call it that, was a brief stroll down his street last October. He was in a wheelchair, pushed by Linda, a young caregiver.

To her, the game of looking for birds and trying to identify them was completely new.

She was amazed when a bird landed in plain view and I told her it was Florida's state bird, a northern mockingbird. Dad knew the species well, his favorite songster, and it momentarily lifted his spirits.

I wanted to thank that neighborhood mocker for its good timing. Today, I'm thanking a higher spirit for the two people who made birds and birding a part of me forever. It's cool now.

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

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