Grounded by pandemic, international guide brings birding tours to Chicago audience

Josh Engel of Red Hill Birding shifts focus from African savannas to area wetlands, woodlands and prairies during Covid 19.

In leading an international bird tour, it’s getting the logistics right—transportation, accommodations and hospitality—that’s crucial.

“The [bird] guiding is the easy part,” says Josh Engel, founder of Red Hill Birding. “It’s all the logistical arrangements leading up to it, that’s the real challenge.”

One time Engel had just landed in the southern African nation of Namibia with a group of 10—most arrived without their luggage.

Says Engel, “I had to climb up to the very top of boulders to get cell coverage, call the airline and get the luggage sent to meet us at a remote lodge.”

Everything’s changed, though, in the past year. The complex logistics of international guiding have given way to managing small, local tours for birders during a pandemic. Evanston-based Engel has quickly reconfigured Red Hill around Chicagoland trips since last spring.

“I thought I would see if I could fill in some of the void,” Engel says. “A lot of people miss birding and birding in groups.”

What started as a way to pass the time has turned into something of a phenomenon. At the time of this writing, Engel was supposed to be leading back-to-back trips in South Africa, where he’d be looking for hornbills, sugarbirds and sunbirds while seeing the occasional lion or elephant at Kruger National Park. Instead, he was looking for gulls in Lake County, Ill., and Bald Eagles at Starved Rock. Engel’s local trips, which closely hew to Covid protocols, have quickly filled up.

“I am completely blown away,” Engel says. “I keep adding more trips. I’m amazed by the response and especially in this time of year. In winter, people are just dying to get outside, and this gives people a good excuse to.”

Engel says the income from the trips hasn’t matched the dollars from his international days, but it’s “certainly good to have.”

“It captures quite a different audience,” he adds. “A lot of people might not go to Costa Rica or Florida on a birding trip, but they’ll do local trips.”

Engel started guiding in 2016 and went full-time with Red Hill Birding in 2018 after a stint as an ornithologist at The Field Museum. He cut his teeth guiding in Ecuador before moving to South Africa, where he spent nearly four years as a full-time guide.

“Having my own tour company was always something I wanted to do,” Engel says. “I was increasingly having people ask me if I could do trips for them. It was terrifying leaving a job with a salary and benefits to go off on my own. But it felt like I had a good chance for success.”

There are still international trips on the Red Hill Birding tour calendar, in case Covid eases and vaccinations expand by the end of this year. Until then, there is a full slate of local trips and domestic tours to locations farther afield like Texas and Montana.

The trips don’t quite have the same camaraderie that comes with shared lodging, transportation and meals. But they still provide a measure of fun.

“Everyone understands that’s how it has to be now,” Engel says. “You make do, and as they say, make lemonade out of lemons.”

Just a few spaces remain for Red Hill Birding’s trips through the end of March. Check out Red Hill Birding here and stay in touch to learn of new trips.

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Recapping a Christmas Bird Count during Covid 19

Back in December, I wrote about the Lisle-Arboretum Christmas Bird Count and the excitement of spending a winter day counting birds. The totals are now in for the count, which includes some excellent birding areas such as Morton Arboretum, the Palos preserves and Waterfall Glen. The count is one of around 85 in Illinois and approximately 2,000 nationally.

The Lisle-Arb count included 87 counters who saw 75 species, a relatively low figure for recent years. The weeks before the count were quite mild, and sparrow numbers were few. Ironically, a Eurasian Tree Sparrow at Little Red Schoolhouse was an exception, and its presence marked a first in the 66 years or so of the count. This winter’s finch irruption was in evidence, with a pair of White-winged Crossbills, found on only 10 previous counts, at Morton Arboretum. Other notable species included: Wild Turkey, Rusty Blackbird, Savannah Sparrow and Eastern Meadowlark.

Car birding was down this year because of the pandemic, as folks tended to spend more time in the field walking at a safe distance. Overall participation and party hours were relatively unaffected. A countdown of the totals took place virtually on Dec. 22 rather than the traditional countdown at a Lemont pizzeria.

With the Christmas Bird Count and Great Backyard Bird Count now in the books, the next major milestones are the Spring Bird Count and Global Big Day, typically held on the same day in the first half of May.

TWiB Notes

The Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Project is looking for a plover monitoring intern for this April through July in the Huron-Manistee National Forest in Michigan. Writes the Project, “It is a beautiful area, and you would be working with our beloved PIPLs, other important species, and some wonderful people!”…..It’s still unofficial, but it appears the lakefront east of Lake Shore Drive may finally be reopening to vehicles. Dale Bowman shared an item in the Sun-Times, via Montrose Beach Dunes Site Steward Leslie Borns. The lakefront closure has been a confounding situation since the start of the pandemic……Chicago Audubon Society is organizing a one-day hunger strike today in solidarity with environmental justice groups working to stop General Iron from moving to the Calumet area of Chicago. You may sign on to the list of participants here.

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