Birds and brews and boats

What are the connections between bird watchers, supporting local brewpubs, and exploring new habitats?

Both within the Chicagoland region and throughout the state of Illinois we have an abundance of birds, an amazing array of microbreweries, and a surprising number of flat, easy-to-paddle waterways.

I have kayaked the Chicago River just west of downtown and Salt Creek in the southwestern suburbs. Certain sections of the Fox River are surprisingly wild, especially when you get south of Yorkville, and the backwaters of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers offer some of the best birding in the Midwest.

When you are moving quietly in a canoe or kayak you can easily get into habitat you would never see from shore, even with the best spotting scopes.

Yes, there are some specific refuges where boats are not allowed and for good reason, especially during the breeding season. But if you are paddling solo or in a small group it is easy to quietly glide along with minimal disturbance, keeping your distance.

Several times I have allowed the flowing current to push me past a grooming merganser or a Wood Duck with her chicks hiding under a fallen tree or a heron wading in the shallows stalking its next meal. The bird was not spooked as I froze stock-still allowing the river to keep me moving.

And what better way to end a day of birding than by visiting a local microbrewery. You see, I have a theory… and yes, it might be self-congratulatory for our community… but I do think that as bird watchers we are generally interested in unique flavors and supporting local businesses. We tend to drift towards microbreweries.

The whole farm-to-tap movement is especially intriguing. And for those who do not know, there is a growing trend in the craft beer culture to source all of your ingredients from within a 50-mile radius, über-local. I even created a job for myself at a few local breweries: I am the Director of the Procurement of Unusual Ingredients. This Harry Potter-esque job title means that I sell them some of my maple syrup, honey made by my bees, and I will wild-craft certain fruits and herbs for their brew kettles! Like the growing movement towards shade-grown, bird-friendly coffee, there are breweries that are engaged with supporting local organic farming and habitat restoration.

All of this to say, the Illinois Audubon Society has tasked me with leading a series of bird tours to help get new birders out into the field and give experienced birders a new experience. We will start with an early morning tour at the peak of spring migration, sometimes in boats, and each trip will end at a microbrewery where we get a behind-the-scenes tour, a private tasting, and then order lunch off the menu. Are you game? (Details here).

Whether or not you join me on a tour, allow me to encourage you to travel beyond the borders of Chicagoland this spring to explore a few off-the-beaten-path hotspots and support your local farm-to-fork restaurant or farm-to-tap brewery. Proudly set your binoculars and bird book on the table to let them know that birders support the local economy. Cheers, nerds!

TWiB Notes

Tracking spring north: As I am cleaning my hummingbird feeders and planning for the third annual Bishop Hill Hummingbird Festival (Aug 14-15), I am also following their migration on-line. It won’t be long!…..This week I also walked the Bishop Hill Bluebird Trail and cleaned out all of the bluebird boxes……eBird recently launched the coolest way to track bird migrations for more than 800 species!…..And my favorite new toy, for those of us still working on birding by ear, check out this Minnesota Bird Songs Poster. When you click on a bird you will hear its happy tune! Happy spring birding!

Our guest blogger, Brian “Fox” Ellis, is an author and storyteller, and a bird becoming less rare, a hybrid species, a cross between a beer nerd and a bird nerd! He and his wife run a B & B in Bishop Hill, The Twinflower Inn.

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