I don’t know what birds are chirping about. I haven’t a clue why they flit from tree to tree or perch on chimneys and belt it out like Caruso. So for me, standing on a gravel road in the middle of Carver Park Reserve, a cacophonous 3,700-acre bird paradise west of the Twin Cities, feels like attending a parliamentary debate in a language I don’t understand. Fights are waged and alliances forged, all while I peer upward, an interloper with a monocular and water bottle.
Lucky for me, I’m accompanied by the local birding scene’s flock leader, Sharon Stiteler, widely known as the Birdchick. As her moniker suggests, she isn’t your typical bird watcher. Far from the retiree in the wide-brim hat and multi-pocketed vest with trusty dog-eared field guide in tow, Stiteler dons purple-framed eyeglasses, blue nail polish, and a baseball cap. She snaps photos with her phone through a high-powered, $4,000 spotting scope and posts them online in real time. Why is she called the Birdchick and not the Bird Lady? “I’m no lady,” says Stiteler, who just turned 40 but looks closer to 30.
We’ve been driving for a few hours, and this is the umpteenth time she’s asked me to pull the car over, having spotted something bright or noisy in a tree. This time, it’s a blue-winged warbler, a small bird with a yellow breast and gray-blue wings. “You hear it?” she asks, and then describes its descending buzz-like call in language that might make a Bird Lady blush: Bitch, please. Bitch, please.
Photo by James Kloiber
Stiteler knows birds, and last year she displayed her expertise by authoring the well-received guide, 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know. Yet she’s something of a rebel in the notoriously tradition-bound birding world. In her view, bird watching is for everyone, even people like me, who like to get up late and laugh loudly in the woods. Besides speaking at birding conferences and leading tours all over the world, Stiteler blogs ferociously and runs collegial Birds and Beers gatherings at local bars. At a recent event, she made introductions from atop a chair, clutching a glass of whiskey and wearing a Doctor Who T-shirt that read, “Hello, my name is Sexy!”
Bird watching is becoming more popular—perhaps even sexy—thanks to cultural nostalgia, online bird cams, and the cinematic 2011 Owen Wilson and Steve Martin homage to plumage, The Big Year. (In fact, Stiteler has made her own cheeky, double-entendre-infused YouTube video about a bird called the woodcock with Mystic Pizza star and avid birder Lili Taylor.) According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are approximately 47 million birders in the United States—that’s 15 percent of the population. The real shift in the hobby, however, is the emergence of a new type of birder, one who is technologically savvy like Stiteler and combines a data bank of nerdy bird knowledge with a love of the chase and a knack for social media.
Photographing birds via iphone
Photo by A. Steinberg/Sidecar
Stiteler acknowledges a rift between “the old-school, hard-ass people who are like, ‘This is how you have to learn birds’” and those who are dragging the pursuit into the modern era, shortcuts and all. “In one of the workshops I give on iPhone birding, I have a picture of this pile of stuff people usually keep in their cars and used to take out with them: bird-finding guides, field guides, the GPS, and film,” she says. “Now you can condense almost all of that down to your iPhone.”
Photo courtesy of Sharon Stiteler
A theater major from Indianapolis with seven older siblings, Stiteler started on the path to birding as a kid, when she saw a pileated woodpecker in a field guide. “I just thought the idea of a crow-sized woodpecker was really cool,” she says. “I could not wait to see that bird.” Her greatest gifts as a birder, she says, are the ability to identify calls, shoot candid photographs, and know when not to take that last step. “Birds think humans are these big things that stare at them,’” she says. “I can tell from a bird’s behavior when it’s thinking of flying away. That’s when I stop. If a bird poops, it’s going to take off.”
Stiteler’s interest in nature extends to beekeeping—a hobby she’s taken up with British author Neil Gaiman, who has a home in Wisconsin—and a part-time job as a ranger with the National Park Service. At home in Minneapolis, she lives with her husband, “Non-Birding Bill,” a rabbit, and a cockatiel who harbors a grudge because Stiteler travels so much: “She sees me as a bad member of the flock.” The bird has fixated on Bill, indulging a deep love of bristly facial hair. Stiteler jokes that she has offered up her unshaven legs in winter, but to no avail.
Here at carver park, with tips from staff naturalist and Birdchick ally Kirk Mona, we are searching for the eastern bluebird, the cerulean warbler, and the bobolink, which possesses one of Stiteler’s favorite calls. We walk along the gravel road, Stiteler with her scope slung over her shoulder like an axe. She provides a running tally of the birds she hears: yellow warbler, clay-colored sparrow, ovenbird, and great crested flycatcher.
Mostly these birds are declaring their territory, she says: “They are saying, if you are a lady, come check me out. I have great fertilization for your eggs. If you are a male, stay away.” Cardinals aside, it’s mostly the males who sing.
Trying to get the blue-winged warbler to “pop up” and show itself, Stiteler makes a psh, psh, psh sound toward the trees. This tactic is called “pishing” and it’s designed to roust birds, an all-purpose utterance that may or may not resemble an alarm call. “Some species are more pishable than others,” the Birdchick says.
Psh, psh, psh, she calls, while the ovenbird cries, tcher, tcher, tcher.
Meanwhile, three indigo buntings are staging a war, flying from one side of the road to the other, chattering furiously as they fly, landing higher and higher in the trees. A high perch equates dominance, Stiteler explains. Much of the time, birds are mad at other birds, especially during peak mating season. “They are flying around with erections for four weeks, so they are a little worked up this time of year,” she says.
The warbler has not popped up. Stiteler pulls out her phone and plays a recording of its call. If it thinks there is a competitor around, the warbler might respond. This bird-song app is considered cheating by some, but Stiteler argues that using a smartphone call, which she does sparingly, is less damaging than tramping through habitat to draw the same response. “It’s like Spider-Man,” she says. “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Sure enough, the warbler flits forward onto a nearby branch. Stiteler waits for it to retreat and calm down. When it reappears, she spies it through her scope, an experience that feels like peeping through a keyhole and realizing you are right next to the moon.
Now we are examining an impossibly lush, rolling meadow, where at least six species are calling at once. Birding is like a treasure hunt, Stiteler says, her eyes on the sky: “The treasure moves around and sometimes changes color. You have something to do no matter where you go. You never know what you are going to see.” One can bird almost anywhere, she adds, including through an office window during a boring meeting.
“It’s a bobolink! There he goes!” Stiteler says as the bird flies overhead. The bobolink has an odd metallic call, like a voice recording played on fast-forward. Through the scope, I see that it’s unusual looking, too, with a black face and belly and a tan cap and white back, like it has its outfit on backward.
In the end, we don’t spot the cerulean warbler, deterred by some particularly bloodthirsty mosquitoes in a patch of woods. But we do find an eastern bluebird. Stiteler leaps over a river of mud to get a bit of footage. “He just coughed up a pellet!” she calls excitedly, looking through her scope to see the bird regurgitate its undigested food.
As Stiteler climbs into my car, she reveals a tattoo on her lower back of a sandhill crane with its wings and feet outstretched. She tells me that she got it a decade ago, after writing an essay for a magazine contest where entrants were asked to describe how they show their “birdiness” (the prize was a pair of binoculars). She didn’t win, but the contest put her in touch with bird expert and author Paul Johnsgard, who created the piece of art.
“Not everybody has a 72-year-old ornithologist design their tattoo,” Stiteler says with a grin.
The Birdchick’s Fall Birding Picks
The spring and fall migrations— when birds pass through Minnesota on their way north or south, headed everywhere from Argentina to Alaska—offer some of the most interesting and varied watching. Keep your eye out for these Birdchick fall favorites:
PHOTO COURTESY OF SHARON STITELER
Hawks and eagles:
“The real action bird-wise in Minnesota is up at Hawk Ridge in Duluth,” Stiteler says. “The ridge’s proximity to the lake literally funnels thousands of birds of prey that don’t want to fly over Lake Superior on their migration south.” On display in late September and October: northern goshawks, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, and rough-legged hawks.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SHARON STITELER
“This colorful woodpecker seems to spend more time foraging on the ground for ants than in trees,” she says. “They are distinctive for their bright flashy yellow feather shafts visible when they fly.” Look for them on roadsides and in open areas.
Canvasback ducks and redhead ducks:
“The Mississippi River is a major flyway, and the waterfowl numbers are spectacular,” she says, noting that in October huge numbers of canvasback ducks pass through, along with ringnecks and lesser scaup. “If you can get near pools four and seven along the Mississippi [in the vicinities of Lake Pepin and Lake Onalaska], you could see tens of thousands of the large, red-headed ducks.”
White-throated sparrows and fox sparrows:
Watch for them “kicking around for millet under your bird feeders,” Stiteler says. Fall also brings back to Minnesota winter inhabitants—birds that summer as far north as the Arctic—such as the American tree sparrow, the dark-eyed junco, and the pine siskin.
Northern Saw-Whet Owl
PHOTO COURTESY OF SHARON STITELER
Northern saw-whet owl:
“Not many people are aware, but Minnesota’s smallest owl passes through in October,” she says. If you hear some angry chickadees and nuthatches sounding off in a cedar tree, look up and you might see this 8-inch-tall owl.