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Names of bird species flew out of his mouth almost as fast as they dropped out of sight.

“It’s very hard to actually see a lot of these birds in the wild,” ornithologist Kelly McKay said while leading a 2 1/2-hour class last Wednesday for beginner birders at Nahant Marsh Education Center in Davenport. “You hear a lot more than you see.”

Small details make a big difference when identifying birds by their calls, songs and field marks — stripes, spots, patterns, colors and highlights they develop to recognize members of their own species, among other reasons.

When McKay realized he misidentified four birds flying overhead as greater yellowlegs, his quick correction, preceded by an, “Oh, no!” startled his students. They were whimbrels, he exclaimed, “incredible” large migrating shorebirds that measure about 14 inches in length. He pointed out their long, down-curved, dark brown bills and long gray legs.

“They’re pretty rare here,” McKay continued, noting he had not seen one for about a year. “They breed out in the Great Plains.”

Beginner birding

A group of birdwatchers search for the animals last week during a class at Nahant Marsh Education Center in Davenport. Nahant is hosting 10 more classes June through October. 

Nahant naturalist Jenna Skopek, who accompanied the group of 12 beginner birders, applauded his passion. “You can get anybody excited about this,” she said.

McKay taught two classes last week at Nahant, and he has 10 more scheduled on the calendar through October. The series, sponsored by the Quad-City Audubon Society, covers spring migration, summer breeding and fall migration. Although he said the whimbrel “very well might be the best bird of all 12 trips,” he spotted a LeConte’s sparrow, which are “usually very secretive,” during the second outing on Sunday.

“They’re both pretty equal,” McKay said of the elusiveness of each species.

They documented 72 species during the first early-morning class and 68 species during the second one.

Kelly McKay

During a beginner birding class last week at Nahant Marsh Education Center in Davenport, ornithologist Kelly McKay attempts to trigger a response from a bird in a nearby tree by playing a recording of its song. The numbers on his cheat sheet correspond to files on his digital voice recorder. "Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't," McKay said of the strategy.

McKay deploys a variety of tactics to attract birds into view. Several times he played pre-captured songs of birds on a digital voice recorder.

“This time of the year at this time of the day, everything is singing,” he said about 7 a.m. last Wednesday. 

Tim Murphy, president of the Quad-City Audubon Society, called McKay the preeminent birder in the area. “He knows pretty much all the calls, and he has amazingly acute hearing, which gives him a big advantage,” Murphy said.

Anne Basken of Orion registered for the class as soon as she saw McKay’s name attached to it.

“I learn so much from him,” said Basken, who lives in a wooded setting and enjoys watching birds at her feeder. “I want to get better at identifying what I see, and I thought this was a good way to step into the learning process.”

Sherif Ragheb

East Moline-based birdwatcher Sherif Ragheb, right, searches nearby trees for various birds last week during a beginner birding class at Nahant Marsh Education Center in Davenport.

Another participant, Sherif Ragheb of East Moline, called the hobby, which requires a lot of memorization of names, songs and other identifying traits, a good mental exercise. 

"It's good for you when you're old," said Ragheb, a retired physician from Alexandria, Egypt. He imagines those who grew up hunting or spending a lot of time in nature are better birders than latecomers like him. Ragheb, who has traveled around the world on birding adventures with his wife, Teri, looks forward to "the chase." 

"You really have to be on your toes to see them," he said. "We learn on the fly." 


Jack Cullen covers health, wellness and outdoor recreation for the Quad-City Times.