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Feder follows the flock

By Staff | May 23, 2010

Wayne Feder is somewhat like a storm chaser. Instead of pursuing tornadoes and lightning storms, he follows the flocks. Flocks of birds, that is.

Feder, a former biology and science teacher at the Blue Earth Area High School, has long been hooked on birding – or as he explains it “extreme bird watching.”

“As a child, I was generally outside hunting, fishing and trapping, so birding is a continuation of what I always did,” says Feder. “Once I became a teacher, I always taught a birding unit and took my students on field trips.”

His love for birds has even extended the past 50 years to raising pigeons. Currently, he is internationally recognized for his pigeon racing as he placed second nationally and ninth internationally. But, that’s another story.

Now that he is retired from teaching, he has more time to indulge in the hobby of birding. He says birding involves more study and competition than the traditional sport of bird watching and there is no better time to do it than during the month of May. It is at this time when the many varieties of birds are either migrating through the county or finding nesting areas for the summer.

Feder has been a bird fancier for many years. In fact, as a sophomore at Mankato State University, he took a class in ornithology and has followed the flocks ever since.

“I was a lab assistant during my junior and senior years at MSU,” recalls Feder. “I remember going birding early every morning. Other than my lab duties, I sometimes cut my other classes so I could bird all day. That’s how much I enjoyed it.”

After 25 years of teaching and coaching, followed by a few years of operating a seed company, Feder is now fully retired and confesses he birds almost every day. It is not unusual to see his pickup parked alongside a road or a marshy area with him gazing through a spotting scope or binoculars at the birds he has discovered. When he sees a new species, he is much like a thrilled storm chaser or an excited child at Christmas.

Each bird watcher has his or her own level of interest when it comes to bird watching, says Feder. Nevertheless, humans are easily attracted to birds because of their fascination with flight and because the birds are often visually beautiful and vocally interesting.

He says the bird industry is an amazingly big tourist attraction and business for some areas. Avid birders often spend much money on equipment and accommodations in their quest to follow the flocks and see a new bird in a different setting.

The hobby of birding really began to increase in popularity with the emergence of optics, the publication of field guides and the advancement of air travel.

Passionate birders, like Feder, have a life list, or an accounting of the types of birds they have spotted, the location and other details. The goal is to document as many species as possible.

In his lifetime, Feder says he has seen 242 different kinds of birds in Faribault County.

“I wish I would have kept better records,” says Feder. “For the past five years I have kept a diary or a checklist of the birds I have seen. Before that, I used to pride myself by telling others I was the only birder who didn’t keep lists.”

Even though he says he has seen every common bird in the county, he admits he has never seen a screech owl.

His favorite bird is the American golden plover.

“This bird migrates non-stop from Argentina,” explains Feder. “It rests here for a few days before traveling on to the tundra in the Arctic. A shoreland bird, it flies at a speed of about 40 mph and loses over half of it’s body weight during the flight to Minnesota.”

Among the birds that arrive here in mid-May are the warblers, says Feder. There are 25 different types of them and they are all smaller than the sparrow. He adds most small birds live less than three years due to such dangers as predators and the weather.

“The thing I find disheartening,” says Feder, “is that during my lifetime I have seen the population of birds plummet. I used to see 10 species of warblers within a five-minute period in a day. Now, I don’t see 10 species in one year. This is due to the fact of their loss of habitat in South America…in particular, the loss of rain forests. Their food supply, during migration, is diminishing because of this.”

Even though some birds are disappearing, others, such as the bald eagle, turkey vulture and Canada goose are thriving, he says.

“I predict the Eurasian collard dove will be everywhere within five years,” says Feder. He has already seen them in Minnesota Lake and Winnebago and most recently in Blue Earth. Another bird he predicts will thrive is the house finch. It has only been in town about ten years, he says.

“Certain birds can survive with man…the house finch does real well,” he adds with promise in his voice.

But if you want to do some serious bird watching, Feder advises daybreak is generally the best time to go because they (birds) are starving and feed at this time. After eating, they rest before migrating again. Some birds, he says, migrate between 30-50 miles per night.

Marsh birds can be observed any time of the day, though, he adds.

Feder says the best places to bird watch in Faribault County are the woodlands along the Blue Earth River and the areas around Walnut Lake and Minnesota Lake. The grassland remnants from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) make for great sighting areas, too, as do marshes, weedy fields and abandoned areas.

One of Feder’s favorite spots to observe birds is Minnesota Lake. Here he can see the more rare birds of the area such as gulls, terns and unusual duck breeds. Another area he enjoys ‘scoping out’ is Pilot Grove Lake.

“Some years it is unbelievable for shore birds,” says Feder of the Pilot Grove area.

“One year I saw 20 different sandpiper species feeding on the mud flats. This year, the water has been too high for them.”

The woodlands along the Blue Earth River are also good sites for birding. However, Feder says he always seeks permission from landowners before he does any birding in these areas.

Feder has also developed three birding loops within the county to aid birders who are unfamiliar with the area. These trails have been published on a map, available at the Blue Earth Chamber as well as City Hall. They come complete with descriptions of what habitat can be seen; which birds one can expect to find; and the GPS coordinates for these locations.

“At all times you have to look up,” he advises about seeing the birds. “You just don’t realize what’s up in the trees without a good pair of binoculars, either.” He also advises the bird enthusiasts to carry along a good bird book and a spotting scope in order to view water birds.

Even though Feder says common, normal people don’t look up as much as he does, he says it is the only way a person will get to see the most birds.

“I can look up for two hours and the strain doesn’t bother me a bit,” says Feder.

Another skill he has acquired through the years is the ability to ‘call’ the birds.

“I can pull up to a marsh and use either a recorded call or use my own voice and they (birds) will answer and appear,” he says. “I’ve learned theircalls by following them around.”

Although ornithologists have deemed the second week in May as the peak time for bird watching, anytime is a good time in the summer, says Feder.

First, there are the early birds who are seed eaters or live on pond material; then there are the insect eaters. Feder is anxiously awaiting the insect eaters.

“The spring of 2010 has been a bit different for birders, says Feder. “It has been a case where the leaves got ahead of the birds.

Now that the weather has settled into somewhat of a pattern, Feder is anxiously awaiting the thrill he will feel as he discovers new birds for his county list.

“Last year, I found four new birds,” says an enthusiastic Feder. “This year, I have found one so far. It is the Swainson’s hawk.

Feder says once you have seen most of the bird varieties in your area, you want to be prepared to see a new one. He has a three-tiered wish list that breaks down as: 1) the 10 most likely birds to find; 2) the next 10 most likely birds to find; and 3) the next 10 birds most likely to find. By going in small increments, his goals seem more attainable.

“I study the possibilities in the bird books,” says Feder of his hopeful sightings. “Sometimes I find a bird from this wish list.

Also helping make him the expert birder he is, were the times he used to conduct weekend trips throughout the state on behalf of the Minnesota Science Museum. He also is a member of the Minnesota Ornithologist’s Union (M.O.U.), an organization of both professionals and amateurs interested in birds. It is headquartered at the University of Minnesota campus.

With an entire summer of bird watching ahead of him, Feder is also looking forward to what he refers to as the “Big Day.

“A couple of my birding friends and I get together,” explains Feder. “We go out at daybreak and bird watch until dark or we run out of gas. Last year, we saw 120 different species of birds during the day. I think that was the best day we ever had.

Although Feder sometimes goes afield with relatives, an organization of fellow bird watchers or with friends on such excursions as the ‘Big Day,” it is still his ears that hear the bird calls and his eyes that see a birds’ shape, pattern and color. This is what is so exciting for him. To spot a bird he has not seen before is as thrilling to him as a stamp collector finding a new stamp, a coin collector finally obtaining a special coin or a storm chaser getting fantastic footage of a tornado funnel.

There are birding tours throughout the world, says Feder, but he has never gone on any of these.

“As fanatical as I am about birding, I’d go on these if I didn’t have so many other hobbies and diversions,” he says.

Some birders are indeed chasers and fanatic about compiling their life list of bird sightings from around the world. Wayne Feder is not quite at this level.

“I’m just a small fish in the big pond of birding,” Feder confesses as he grabs his scope, hops in the cab of his pickup and heads to the next marsh or grove hoping to spot a new specimen on his wish list.