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Birding Illinois: An Interview with Colin Dobson

By Sarah Toner March 23, 2017

Long-eared Owl in Illinois. Photo by Colin Dobson.

This week, we interviewed Colin Dobson, an active 16 year-old Illinois young birder and photographer. Colin is an active member of the Illinois Young Birders club and has been featured for his passion on local news networks. We asked Colin about his experiences as a young birder, his photography, and his future goals.

How long have you been birding? How did you get started?

I have been birding for a while now. It has been around eight or nine years since I started. One of my grandma’s good friends is a local birder here; he has been birding since the mid 70’s. One day I was in his backyard, and I saw a Baltimore Oriole and I thought it was extremely beautiful. I guess you can call that my “spark” bird!

What was your favorite birding adventure?

Well, there have been so many great birding days. I’ll share two out of the hundreds I’ve had.

The first would be seeing my first ever Eurasian Wigeon and Snowy Plover, both in Illinois, on the same day! The day started out when I left early to hear a Least Bittern for a year bird and heard it calling in the night. There was a male Eurasian Wigeon not too far from there, so we decided to look for it. We got there at sunrise, and sure enough it was there, with thousands of coots and other ducks. It was a beautiful bird. As we were going home, we checked North Globe Track, a local shorebird spot on the way. We saw a few things like the first returning Black-necked Stilts, Dowitchers, and American Golden-plovers, but we didn’t see anything noticeably different. Less than an hour later, I saw a post that said “Piping Plover, North Globe Track, Fulton County, IL.” We went back, and just before we arrived, another post came through saying “IT’S A SNOWY PLOVER”. Snowy Plover is a very rare bird in Illinois in general. We parked, walked out, and sure enough, a birder already had a scope set up with the bird in the scope! It was a very distant look, but it was a great bird! I ended up getting much better looks at a different bird that walked right past the car in May of 2016 on a gravel road along a lake, but the one that day was a special addition to a very unique day of birding.

A second great birding experience took place when two local birders and I were planning to do a “May Big Day” in central Illinois, hoping to get 170+ species. One my fellow birders got food poisoning the night before, so only local birder Mike Ingram and I set out for the Big Day. The morning was great as we worked our way through a state park, picking up good birds like Chuck-will’s-Widow, Mourning Warbler, Prairie Warbler, and Hooded Warbler. We then birded some local waterways and added some American Avocets (great bird for the spring) and many late ducks like Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, and a Red-breasted Merganser.

A Purple Sandpiper in Illinois. Photo by Colin Dobson.

We added a few more species along the way to our next area, which proved to be the best hotspot of the day. First, we stopped at a marshy area and added Least Bittern. At the next pull-off we saw two late winter birds, Bufflehead and Snow Goose. At the next pull-off, I spotted a Snowy Egret and Mike spotted two RUDDY TURNSTONES! We then walked a dirt road to our next shorebird spot (which was the same spot that had the Snowy Plover before). I spotted 3 SANDERLINGS and he spotted both Franklin’s and Bonaparte’s Gulls! We drove around to look at the south side and saw some more good shorebirds like Black-bellied Plover, White-rumped Sandpiper, and American Avocet. We were about to leave when I spotted 2 Greater White-fronted Geese and, next to them, I spotted a HUDSONIAN GODWIT! We were rocking! We then checked a reliable spot for Western Kingbird and saw 3 different individuals! It was almost dark, so we checked one last water hole. I spotted a pair of Northern Pintail right after we stopped, then found a phalarope swimming with a flock of shorebirds. We had already seen Wilson’s for the day, but this bird did not look like a Wilson’s. Indeed, it was a RED-NECKED PHALAROPE, a very rare migrant in the spring! We ended the day with 177 species, even with many common misses! I’ve had a lot of great birding adventures, but this one was one of the best!

How do you combine birding and photography? What are your goals as a photographer?

I do take a lot of bird pictures. I also take pictures of the landscape with my phone because the outdoors are always so beautiful and enjoyable! My goal is to keep taking good pictures of birds and other things and to keep finding new and different birds to photograph!

How is eBird a part of your birding?

eBird has been great. I’ll admit, when I started birding, I hardly used eBird, and that was a mistake! Now I try to eBird everything with the eBird app, which makes things so much easier! I can keep my species totals and lists in eBird. It is a lot easier than trying to count each species on a checklist to see how many birds I have in a county or state or anywhere else.

A Broad-billed Hummingbird from Camp Chiricahua 2016. Photo by Colin Dobson.

What have been your experiences with the young birder community? What advice do you have for other young birders and for students interested in birds?

I am a member of the Illinois Young Birders group, and I have led a few field trips for them in central Illinois. Most of the young birders in Illinois live in Chicago, so any time they come down here I join right in! Last summer, I went on Camp Chiricahua 2016, through Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. It was a great trip! With the group of 14 young birders, led by great birders (Michael O’Brien, Louise Zemaitis, and Jennie Duberstein), I saw lots of amazing birds, amazing habitats, and I met amazing birders my age! I recommend it for all young birders!

Do you want to pursue a career in birds, or in something else?
Yeah, some sort of career that involves birds or nature sounds great! I am a “science” person. I like a lot of science. Another thing I really like is meteorology, the study of weather. Since I live in central Illinois, I get it all when it comes to weather. One day it could be snowing; then, a few days later, there could be tornado warnings and baseball-sized hail; then there could be completely perfect weather. Weather is fascinating, but I like birding and learning about birds even more than studying weather!

Editor’s note: the eBird app is a great way to enter your sightings, and it can even be set to automatically submit checklists through the Young Birders Network portal! Click on the gear symbol in the bottom right corner of the home screen, select Portal, and then scroll down to the Young Birders Network. Once you set it, all of your checklists from the app will be submitted through the YBN portal.

-Sarah Toner