Early bird special

It’s 6:45am on a regular Wednesday morning. The giant gray silhouette of the Museum of Science and Industry is barely discernable through the early morning haze, and light is just beginning to limn the lakes of Jackson Park. A stroll along the well-manicured paths at this hour might initially reveal few signs of life besides a handful of noisy ducks scattered across the water. But on the Clarence Darrow Bridge, a distinct human huddle beams down at the lake, energetically spying on the splashing creatures down below.

Hyde Park has long played host to some eclectic enthusiasts, but few seem to bring as much dedication, expertise, and natural friendliness to their hobby as the birdwatchers that flock to Jackson Park on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Veteran birdwatcher Karin Cassell calls the biweekly assemblage “small but solid. ” The South Side park is not endowed with a large native bird population, but seasonal migrations allow viewers to encounter a significant variety. “I think we saw around 280 different species and subspecies,” says Cassell. “You start to get a sense of sheer joy in identifying new ones.”

Prolonged birding seems to imbue the watcher with a kind of Jedi-like hypersensitivity. Cassell stops midsentence, whips out her own binoculars, and peers at an apparently motionless bush. Clutching binoculars in one hand as she hastily thumbs through a field guide with the other, she murmurs, “Aha….a hermit warbler. Nice, though not as exciting as that Western Grebe I thought I spotted by the lake.” Birders can become quite competitive, amassing large lifetime lists and painstakingly learning subtle differences between avian songs. Often, though, for the Jackson Park posse, the expedition is its own reward. “We typically have this beautiful place all to ourselves. Seriously, no one else is here,” says Cassell. “You’ll sometimes interrupt a tryst or something, but that’s it. “

Admittedly, waking up at ungodly hours in order to traipse through an urban park in search of the elusive Western Grebe might not be an appealing prospect to everyone. Once new people give it a chance, however, they tend to keep showing up. The group says it would relish some new blood, but it’s clear that come dawn, no matter the season, some of them will be on the bridge–the only ones in the neighborhood consistently out there, studying the South Side’s plumage, making sure its natural beauty doesn’t just flit away. (Christopher Riehle)

All photos by Matt Wan