Sigrid Schmidt’s philosophy is to be outside as much as she can. It was something that was instilled in her as a young child. “My mom always used to make me be outside,” she said. Her three favorite hobbies—golfing, gardening and birding—are outdoor activities, and she walks her dog, Quincy, along the river nearly every day. It’s primarily here where Schmidt looks out for the thrushes and warblers and any other birds that come through the area.
Schmidt wouldn’t call herself a serious birder, even though she’s been to birding festivals in North Dakota and San Diego and has traveled to Texas, Florida, Ecuador and Africa to go birding. “Like any hobby, there are serious and casual birders,” she said. “I’m casual.” She marks the birds she sees in the U.S., but that’s about it, she says.
Schmidt grew up near Wolf Lake in Indiana, just across the Illinois boarder. At a young age she says her mom always made her go outside whenever possible. It was here when she first saw migrating birds. Then a teacher in grade school got her interested by taking Schmidt to the local parks to spot birds. That’s when her love for birding took off. “I was interested in birds before it became trendy.”
The bird watching trend is not just a Chicago phenomenon, bird watching has exploded into the No. 1 sport in North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There are 51.3 million birders that generate more than $120 billion in economic activity.
The city, especially under the Daley administration, was much more responsive to naturists. “The city has learned that it’s less expensive to put up a natural habitat,” Schmidt said. “It’s still a challenge because the city is always mowing.” Many activists work with the park district to create natural areas for birds. Schmidt said it would be great if the city could capitalize on this support and have its own birding fest.
Birding has even gained popularity in recent years, especially among young people, Schmidt says. The Illinois Young Birders was started in 2010 and brings kids from 12 to 18 out on field trips to go birding. “Birding is getting more press,” she said. “Especially when special things happen.” Schmidt says the spotting of a Snowy Owl in Chicago about two years ago helped to boost interest in birding. Now when she goes out during migration season, Schmidt counts up to 100 people watching for birds.
Just over two years ago, the city was told by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the Chicago River. In April 2012, Governor Quinn announced that the state will contribute $10 million to the effort. A new study commissioned by the Friends of the Chicago River stated that a cleaned-up Chicago River could generate more than $80 million and $6 million in new taxes. Lately, City Hall has even gotten into the act, spending more than $100 million over the years on public access, new boat launches and revamped river walks downtown.
Beyond the Chicago River, Schmidt likes to go to Montrose harbor, where the magic hedge is at. Migratory birds for years were stopping at a particular hedge near the harbor. Several years ago, the city let the area surrounding the hedge grow naturally and now it is a small habitat for birds. Schmidt also heads to the larger parks in the city to see the birds migrating through the area. Two weeks ago, Schmidt said 135 species were spotted in the area.
It might not seem like it, but Chicago is in the center of a great migration pattern that allows Schmidt and fellow birders to spot dozens of species flying through the city twice a year. Chicago sits at a unique spot where birds coming from South America will head up to Michigan or even the Arctic.
In her years birding, Schmidt has seen a change in the bird population in Chicago. “What we find is that species are actually changing. Southern birds are moving north. We saw a Northern Mockingbird, which usually only goes as far up as Indianapolis, in Chicago. We’ve seen a Turkey Vulture. Things are changing.” This puts greater pressure on existing species and creating a competition for reasons.
With so many different birds to keep track of, it might seem like a daunting task to start spotting birds. Schmidt dismisses that notion. Like anything, Schmidt says it takes a lot of practice to identify birds. A birder uses shapes, colors, and geography to help identify a bird. “It’s really easy to get into. All you need are cheap binoculars and an iPhone app.” The best way to identify a bird is to hear it, she says. The most dedicated birds can identify which birds are migrating through the area just by their song.
Since retiring two years ago from a job as a commercial real estate appraiser, Schmidt has found more time to devote to birding, something that she finds relaxing. Even though she says her favorite bird is the one she is currently looking at, she says that her favorite is probably a warbler.
“Birds are beautiful,” she said. “I think a lot of people like birding because people want to fly.”