Series showcases forest preserves when the birding is best

 
 
Posted7/6/2018 6:00 AM
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  • Orchard oriole, the less common of our two local oriole species, excited birders on a FullersBird Friday outing to St. James Farm Forest Preserve in May.

    Orchard oriole, the less common of our two local oriole species, excited birders on a FullersBird Friday outing to St. James Farm Forest Preserve in May. Courtesy of CR Courson

  • Naturalist Keriann Dubina leads the FullersBird Friday walks, a seasonal bird-watching program of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

    Naturalist Keriann Dubina leads the FullersBird Friday walks, a seasonal bird-watching program of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. Courtesy of Jeff Reiter

The first thing you should know about Keriann Dubina is that she likes brown-headed cowbirds. In fact, she's a local authority on the species most birders love to hate.

She goes against the bird-watching grain further by choosing not to keep a life list, and she's not inclined to put her life on hold to chase a rare bird.

But don't get the wrong idea. Dubina is a birder to the core and, more importantly, she's nurtured a lot of new birders since joining the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County as a full-time naturalist in 2011.

Her main tool of introduction is FullersBird Fridays, a series of weekly walks in the spring and fall that began in 2005 and quickly developed a loyal following. Dubina began leading the walks in 2012, which at that time were conducted only at Fullersburg Woods in Oak Brook, where she is based.

Three years ago, the series branched out, taking birders to a different preserve every week.

"We see more kinds of birds now that we move around," Dubina said, "plus it's a chance for us to showcase different preserves."

The idea is brilliantly simple, tailored to those who enjoy organized bird walks in a variety of places. FullersBird Fridays provide the gentle push we sometimes need to go somewhere new and meet other birders.

Dubina and her colleagues have led walks at 22 DuPage County forest preserves since the show hit the road. Meacham Grove in Bloomingdale joined the rotation this spring.

The DuPage system features 60 preserves. Some are considered better for birding than others, but there will always be plenty of choices.

I chatted with Dubina just after we'd finished a walk at St. James Farm in Warrenville. Among the avian highlights that morning were several orchard orioles. This reinforced her point about the value in surveying different properties.

"We never see orchards at Fullersburg," she said.

The Friday walks coincide with spring and fall migration, which guarantees excellent birding no matter where the group travels. Dubina further schedules certain locations for certain dates to maximize success.

On the first or second Friday in May, her choice is always the Elsen's Hill section of West DuPage Woods near Winfield, a perennial hot spot for migrating warblers. The final spring walk goes to Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, a fine place for spotting grassland birds after the warbler wave of early and mid-May.

Springbrook is high on Dubina's list of favorite preserves, given her fondness for prairie habitat. She also likes St. James near Wheaton, McDowell Grove in Naperville and Waterfall Glen in Darien, where she once enjoyed walks with her grandfather.

Dubina grew up in Lockport -- and with birds. Her father worked at Brookfield Zoo, on the business side, and members of the household included exotic parrots. Young Keriann took a liking to wild birds, too, especially the common loons she encountered during summer trips to northern Wisconsin. If forced to name a "spark bird," she'd go with those northern divers.

The cowbird thing happened later in life, at Western Illinois University. Dubina first earned a bachelor's degree in zoology, taking an ornithology class along the way and learning to bird by ear. She stayed on at WIU for a master's in ornithology, focusing on bird behavior. Her thesis? The egg destruction behavior of the brown-headed cowbird.

I attended a lecture by Dubina in 2013 about cowbird truths and myths. Her talk was fascinating, and I've thought about the species differently ever since.

"It's funny how emotional people get about cowbirds," said Dubina, who appreciates the complex natural history of the brood parasite far better than most of us.

Don't worry, if you attend a FullersBird Friday you won't get lectured about cowbirds. What you will get is a guided birding tour of a local forest preserve that's likely dripping with resident and migratory birds. It might well be a place you've known about for years but never visited. The company will be friendly, the scenery interesting and the potential for surprise sightings high. Just ask the Herrick Lake birders who, on April 20, watched a flock of 16 American white pelicans wheel over their heads.

The two-hour FullersBird walks are well-suited to new birders. They average about 20 participants, including some regulars. Those registering in advance pay a $3 fee, which feels like a donation. Walk-ons contribute $5.

The fall edition of FullersBird Fridays begins Aug. 31 at St. James Farm. Check dupageforest.org for the complete schedule and to register for one or more walks.

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

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