An Interview with Andy Stewart by Beau Schaefer

Andy Stewart

Lake County Big Year record holder, Andy Stewart

Beau: So tell us a little bit about who “Andy Stewart” is.
Andy: Well, I grew up in Texas and have always been interested in natural history. Collecting has also always been an interest of mine. I have a sort of “hoarding gene” if you will. Birding sort of fits in that category of “collecting” species. I started birding in high school in Texas in the early ‘70s. It was great fun birding in Texas then. Once I graduated from the University of Texas my birding kind of slowed down a bit. I would chase specialties or lifers. But I didn’t really pursue it as a full-time hobby after starting at Abbott and starting a family and the whole bit. When I retired from Abbott five years ago, it became more of an interesting thing to do full time.

Beau: When you were working, what was your job?
Andy: I was a medicinal chemist at Abbott for 27 years.

Beau: What got you into birding?
Andy: I think it is part of my collecting/hoarding pursuit. I’m just a natural collector, and, as I mentioned before, it also combines with my interests in natural history. I started with butterfly collecting in 1st grade. Snakes were a preschool interest of mine. I also had fossil collections and stamp collections, so I kind of always liked collecting, finding and organizing stuff. Growing up in Texas in the ‘60s you spent a lot of time outside constantly seeing a lot of interesting birds. I wondered what all was out there and it became a hobby for me to find out and “collect” all these birds. It also seemed like a “hippie” cool kind of thing to do back then.

Beau: Did you have a mentor growing up at all?
Andy: When I first moved to Austin as a freshman at the University of Texas, I went on a Travis Audubon Society Field Trip and met Texas birder Ed Kutac, one time president of both Texas Ornithological Society and the Travis Audubon Society. He was an accountant by profession but he was an avid birder. From 1972-1980, I joined Ed on many field trips to Big Bend, The Valley, Texas Coast, High Island, etc. After that, I was pretty much on my own.

Beau: When did you move to Illinois from Texas?
Andy: 1985

Beau: What did you find about birding in Illinois that was different about birding in Texas?
Andy: Initially, birding only part time, I would only chase lifers by following the phone answering tape rare bird alert. Rare gulls, Snowy Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Snow Bunting…basically your northern specialties that normally cannot be found in Texas. White-winged Scoter was another lifer I chased at Waukegan. But I have now seen that Lake County also experiences amazing bird migration, influenced by the lake. Some of the peak migration days in May and fall can be similar to impressive passerine migrations I remember on the Texas coast.

Beau: So let’s go over some highlights of your Lake County Big Year last year. What was your species total?
Andy: 269 (previous best was 265)

Beau: Best bird?
Andy: It was the Hudsonian Godwits at Atkinson Rd. fluddle in May. Both a male and female in breeding plumage. The only down side was that I didn’t find that bird. That was the bird of the year for sure, but there were tons of other great ones, 9 Short-eared Owls one windy morning at Illinois Beach State Park (IBSP) South, another morning 6 Whimbrels on the beach at the Dead River were unforgettable. I think shorebirds were a highlight because I found almost all of the expected birds or those that had been seen in the area.

Beau: Was there a favorite day that you had?
Andy: Some day in May. There are so many great days with such a density of birds that it’s hard to pick one. The Sparrow migration in both spring and fall is also fantastic.

Beau: What did you miss that you think you should have gotten?
Andy: Wilson’s Phalarope, Red Knot (We actually saw this bird at IBSP during a big day but the fog covered it to the point where it was only a silhouette). We saw only shape, and we called the ID. But we couldn’t really call it for sure, or “count it” with the view we had, without seeing any color or plumage field marks. Someone else reported and photographed a Red Knot on eBird 2 hours later also from our location. Ross’ Goose (1 day late!), missed 2 Swanson’s Hawks at the IBSP Hawkwatch by about 30 min one morning, and also missed Northern Goshawk (almost an expected miss).

Beau: What continues to fuel your interest for birds these days?
Andy: Just the beauty of birds up close combined with the magnitude and power of seasonal bird migration. It’s almost unbelievable. It gives you a sense of reality that you can’t get any other way. It’s also the mental challenge of staying focused every day to find as many species as possible. I think 300 is a good number (Lake County life birds).

Beau: What was your biggest challenge last year?
Andy: Physically you just can’t bird 10 hours a day 365 days a year. You can’t. Not just physically but mentally. Going to the same place every day knowing you’re probably not going to see anything new can wear you down. How many times do you look up in a tree for a Long-eared Owl and see nothing? Maybe I’m not organized enough to thoroughly check out different spots at different times but it can be mentally exhausting.

Beau: Did your big year help you improve as a birder?
Andy: Absolutely. I think you always improve as a birder just by getting out a lot. I look at gulls every day and I still learn new stuff about them when I see them. Herring Gulls are so diverse. The repetition helps you to learn.

Beau: You did a really nice job of documenting your sightings. What equipment did you use out in the field?
Andy: I use 12x Leica binocs, and for documentation a Samsung Galaxy S5 phone for pics through my scope (Leica Televid 77). I like the added magnification of the 12x bins for finding waterfowl especially, but I’ve just grown used to them and could never go back to 8x magnifications of any of my favorite birds. If you’re an experienced binocular user you adjust to and accept the limitations of 12x bins. Weight and stability while following distant flying birds is the most problematic.

Beau: What’s your favorite field guide?
Andy: Sibley just because it has the most pictures. That’s what field guides are about is pictures. I also really like the artwork in the old Peterson guides.

Beau: So what would be your advice to anyone doing a Lake County Big Year?
Andy: Start in January, so plan ahead. Plan on spending lots of field hours on the lakefront. There are very few birds that you won’t get on the lakefront. You can switch over to the Des Plaines River area in May to look for warblers, but most of the year, the lakefront is where it’s at. North Point Marina and IBSP South Unit. Waukegan is more hit or miss but always produces its rarities.

Beau: Favorite brding location?
Andy: Probably the South Unit at IBSP just because of the varied habitat and the wide expanse of shoreline. Final thoughts: eBird has made finding birds much easier, and is great for planning and organizing county level Listing.

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