Earthbound, but still experiencing the wonders of winged migration


The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

Toward the end of my discussion with Al Thomas, I mentioned one of the particular joys that birds can bring to your life.

If you are out looking for birds, I said, you only have to see one species that is new to you. If you can ID it, all the better. But just seeing a new bird makes you happy for the rest of the day.

Al smiled, and said he knew that feeling.

“It’s like golf,” he said. “If you hit a good golf shot, you keep coming back. If you miss it, maybe not. But that’s what it’s all about.

“You get hooked.”

I wanted to talk to Al about birds for a number of reasons.

  Al Thomas, former 
  president of the 
  Thorn Creek 
  Audubon Society, 
  is one of the 
  leading bird 
  watchers in the 
  South Suburbs.

  (Tom Houlihan/
  H-F Chronicle)

He is a longtime member of the Thorn Creek Audubon Society (TCAS) and served as that group’s president for multiple terms before stepping down last year. He does not like anyone referring to him as an avian expert but he has proven chops as one of our area’s leading birders.

Al and his wife Ruth have owned their house in Homewood since 1977 and have spent much of their lives in the H-F area. Al went to public grade school in Flossmoor and Ruth attended St. Joseph School in Homewood. Ruth is an old friend – in the 1990s we worked together at the Star, where she was a reporter.

Mostly, though, I wanted to talk about the spring migration, It’s underway right now and is one of nature’s great shows each year. That means that hundreds of species of birds are on the move through our part of the world. We get to experience cardinals and finches year around, and that’s truly wonderful, but the migration gives us a chance to see many more birds that are traveling between their winter locations and breeding grounds far to the north. 

I have previously described myself on this page as a very modest birder. But during the migration our priorities change and we – Patty and I – actively go looking for birds. I told Al about one big success last spring. We were at Cowles Bog, a historically significant ecological preserve that’s part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. And we ran smack-dab into a flock of migrating redheaded woodpeckers, a bird we’d never seen before. In about an hour, we recorded at least 15 sightings of males, females, young ones, some in groups and some by themselves. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Al worked first as a teacher and eventually became the finance director for the village of Hazel Crest. He said he started birding about 20 years ago after agreeing to do a survey for the Bird Conservation Network, a coalition of organizations dedicated to preserving and restoring bird habitat in the Chicago area. 

For a full year, he went out every morning to what is now the Old Plank Trail recreational path in Matteson. At the time, it was still an abandoned railroad right-of-way. He surveyed the trail area between Central and Ridgeland avenues, which includes a large pond at the Butterfield Creek headwaters.

By the end of the year, he’d recorded 141 different kinds of birds along that one mile of the old railroad line. The pond had an ample supply of minnows and other fish and that attracted water birds – ducks, loons, grebes, geese, herons and egrets. He spotted bald eagles. Songbirds like cedar waxwings looked for berries in the shrubs.

It was the start of Al’s birding career. He took a class in birding and soon found himself traveling as far south as the Kankakee Marsh, as far north as Volo Bog in Lake County, as far west as a cooling pond for a ComEd power plant in Morris. It is safe to say that he has been to every promising birding site in a radius of 40 or 50 miles.

He discovered that you can find birds just by going for a walk in the right area. 

Sometimes, though, you can see birds just by sitting still. 

“I have found that if you have a good location, the birds will come to you,” he said.
A couple of weeks ago, he went to Wolf Lake on the Illinois-Indiana border, east of Torrence Avenue at 127th Street.

The ice was just breaking up on the lake as he looked at the early migration birds.

“There were a lot of mergansers and different species of ducks,” he said. “Canvasbacks, redheads, gadwalls. A horned grebe. We didn’t even have to get out of the car.” 

Al said he always looks forward to the spring migration, which generally lasts through May.
“I try to get out as much as possible during this time of year,” he said.

The Thorn Creek Audubon Society hosts field trips throughout the year on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Al has organized many of them. 

In April, trips are planned to a heron rookery in Highland, Ind., Sand Ridge Nature Center near Calumet City, Goodenow Grove near Beecher, the Monee Reservoir, Gibson Woods in Hammond, Ind. and the Little Red Schoolhouse in the Palos forest preserves.

Information about TCAS programs is available at

In May, the organization will present its biggest event of the year, the annual bird count, which is coordinated with other birding groups across Illinois. This year’s bird count takes place on May 4.

Al said TCAS organizes birders into teams of three or four and sends them to various locations in southern Cook County and eastern Will County. Some participants look for owls in the pre-dawn hours while others continue the count until dusk. 

About 45 birders take part in the count. Last year they sighted 163 species and a total of 12,340 birds.

When Al told me that number, I said I had a hard time believing that 45 people had seen more than 12,000 birds in one day. He assured me that the number was correct.

In May, Al is traveling out of state for a well-known migration event.

Every year, he said, hundreds of birders come to the south shore of Lake Erie as flocks of passerines – perching birds – prepare to fly over the lake to Canada. 

It’s a big trip for such small birds. The songbirds take off in waves for Point Pelee on the Ontario shore. As they leave, throngs of human onlookers lend their support.

“I’ll be there too,” Al said.


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