When Mike Papenfus of Corvallis, Oregon found out he would be attending the Joint Aquatic Sciences Meeting at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids last year, he packed his binoculars and his birding journal.
“I knew the conference was going to be on the river,” said Papenfus, a researcher for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Then I started looking at the eBird (a smartphone application) map and saw that, actually, Reeds Lake was a real hotspot.” As soon as he had some downtime, he hopped on a bus to East Grand Rapids, hopeful that he would be able to add some new birds to his list, because that’s what birders (don’t call them birdwatchers) do; they make lists.
“And it was in May, which is migration season. Not only do you get to see the resident birds, but you see ones that are passing through,” said Papenfus.
He’s glad he made the trip because he hit the jackpot. Within just two or three hours he saw five new species of birds he hadn’t seen since he began keeping a journal: a Baltimore oriole, a mute swan, a northern cardinal, a common grackle and a warbling vireo.
The eBird App referenced by Papenfus is popular with birders all over, according to Felix Perdue of Kentwood. Birders use it to identify areas of interest and to input data about the birds they see so that others may find them, a practice Perdue refers to as “citizen science.”
Perdue’s interest in birding started in the nineties when he was visiting a friend at Calvin University (Perdue attended Grand Valley State University). While on a picnic with his girlfriend, his attention was drawn to a nearby pond where a large bird was spearing fish, one after the other, with its beak. Perdue noticed that the bird knew how to manipulate the fish so that when tossed in the air, they went in the bird’s mouth headfirst.
“If it went in tail first, the gills would get caught in the bird’s throat on the way down,” said Perdue. The skillful bird enamored Perdue so much that he soon found himself in a Kentwood retail store, Wild Birds Unlimited, purchasing a field guide, “Sibley Birds East.” He found out the bird he had seen was a great blue heron.
“I thought about it that night. I wanted to see it again.” Perdue went back to the same spot to get a closer look with some binoculars. The same bird (or one that looked identical to it) was there.
“Most birders have a spark bird, that one bird that first piqued your interest. That great blue heron was my spark bird,” he said.
Perdue has always been interested in nature. He grew up in the city of Wyoming at a time when there were still empty fields everywhere, like the one behind his house where he used to see ring-necked pheasants. “I was always in nature and watching nature shows like Wild Kingdom and Wild America with my dad. Still do, till this day, I watch shows like that.”
One aspect of birding that really appeals to Perdue is that it can be done anytime, anywhere. “On vacation, at the in-laws, in your backyard, a local park, ball field, soccer field,” said Perdue, who used to do a little birding while on the job, too. Perdue is a retired Grand Rapids Police Department patrol officer.
“I always had a set of binoculars in the car” (to watch birds with during breaks), said Perdue, who’s become known as the “go-to bird guy” by his peers. “I still get emails from people I worked with, sending me photos of birds they’ve seen on vacation, asking me to identify them.”
What started out as a hobby grew over the years into a passion. Perdue is now known, not only by his friends on the police force, but in the local birding community, which keeps tabs on birds (and one another) through eBird and other groups on WhatsApp and Discord.
“I can put out a text on either of those saying, ‘I just saw a white-winged scoter at Reeds Lake’ or ‘I just saw a slaty-backed gull at the garbage dump on 100th Street’ and birders will just flock there. The Muskegon Wastewater Treatment Plant, is another one, It’s a gold mine…gold,” he said.
Known officially as Muskegon County Resource Recovery Center, the plant uses a land treatment process that encompasses 11,000 acres, with basins, lagoons and irrigated cropland rich with nesting and migrating fowl.
“Anyone who’s a birder knows that one,” Perdue said.
He’s not wrong. David Bratt, who frequents the Reeds Lake boardwalks with a long-lens camera, concurs: “Muskegon wastewater is the Mecca, but there are other great places to look. Huff Park is a great place to see various kinds of woodpeckers. Ball Perkins Park has a pond that hosts egrets and herons. Reeds Lake has a little bit of everything, including a couple of bald eagles that sort of rule the lake,” said Bratt, who got into the hobby during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was interested in photography before I really got interested in birds. When travel wasn’t an option, I needed photographic subjects that were close by. And I needed to get outdoors…Before I knew it, I’d found my way into a kind of mindfulness practice. Then I started posting the photos to Instagram (@dwbratt), which was a way to connect with friends and family over my new hobby during the lockdown, when I didn’t get to see them much. So, it became a way to connect with nature, and a way to connect with people when I couldn’t see them in person,” Bratt said.
Perdue agrees birding is a great way to connect with people. In fact, guiding people through their birding journey is becoming a bit of a vocation for the retired police officer.
“What’s really cool about it is that everyone can do it. Young, old, black, white, it’s for everyone,” Perdue said, and noted a special camaraderie he feels when he meets a fellow birder. Perdue said he’s usually suspicious of strangers, but when he finds out someone is into birding…
“Next thing I know I’m out in the middle of nowhere looking at birds with some guy I just met.”
Perdue has made lifelong friends and often meets up with three other birders to discuss their shared obsession. Bill Sweetman, his mentor who leads a birding interest group at Calvin University, is one of them. The group calls themselves “The Cuatros Amigos” (Perdue, Bill Sweetman, Dave Jacobs, Larry Burke). Perdue has been on multiple birding excursions with one or more of the “amigos”– from Costa Rica and as far south as Colombia, and to Panama where he was a group co-leader. What’s next for Perdue? The Cuatro Amigos are going to Ecuador next year and in the future, he has plans of starting a bird guide LLC of his own: LTD Birding 365.
“LTD stands for Living the Dream,” Perdue said. Look him up on Facebook: LTD Birding 365.
Birding in pop culture
A Big Year is an informal competition among birders who attempt to identify as many species of birds as possible within a single calendar year. A 2011 comedy, “The Big Year,” starring Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black, about two bird enthusiasts trying to defeat the cocky, cutthroat world record holder, is a humorous depiction of people who engage in the hobby.
Get involved: Anyone who would like to see what birding’s all about can attend monthly meetings at the Grand Rapids Audubon Club. “They’re accepting and accommodating. They want to bring everyone into the fold,” Perdue said.
Take part in a birding field trip: The Grand Rapids Audubon Club will host an evening walk to the Hodenpyl Woods at the west end of Reeds LakeReed’s Lake on Tuesday, May 9, 6-8 p.m. Meet at the East Grand Rapids Utility Building parking lot on Reeds Lake Blvd north of Gaslight Village at 6:00 PM. Waterproof footwear and insect repellent may be useful. Poison Ivy is thick in places. For more information, visit the event Facebook Page or graud.org.
Local birding hotspots:
Ken-O-Sha Park, 1353 Van Auken St SE, Grand Rapids,
Huff Park, 2399 Ball Ave NE
Ball Perkins Park, 1675 Perkins Ave NE, Grand Rapids, MI
Muskegon County Resource Recovery Center, 698 N Maple Island Rd, Muskegon. To visit, passes must be obtained. Call (231) 724-3440 or visit mcresourcerecoverycenter.com.