Birdmen: Local attorneys find pleasure and passion in birdwatching

By Brian Cox

Legal News

It was raining and miserably cold hiking up the western range of the Andes, but retired Assistant U.S. Attorney Karl Overman was not deterred by the weather. He was on nothing short of a quest.

He was determined to spot a dusky starfrontlet, a rare hummingbird that can only be found in the high altitudes of the Andes and of which there may only be an estimated 250 in the world.

Overman's trek had started in the rural Colombian municipality of Urrao, a town in the country's Orchid National Park, from where he had boarded a truck to travel 40 minutes into the mountains before mounting a horse to ride a muddy, twisting trail to a guest lodge at an elevation of 8,500 feet where he spent the night. The next morning, Overman hiked with a friend and a guide an additional 3,000 feet up the Paramo de Frontino where he fulfilled his mission, observing at a feeder the threatened hummingbird rarely seen by humans.

"Most people think birding is this relaxing activity, but that couldn't be further from the truth the way I do it," says Overman, who became fascinated with birds at the age of 11 and who can now at the age of 63 boast having seen about 4,400 species of birds.

There are more than 10,000 identified bird species in the world so he still has a ways to go, but in his travels he has seen a few species that are now extinct, including the Cozumel thrasher, a mockingbird that is believed to have been killed off by hurricanes, and the slender-billed curlew, a marsh bird that once wintered in the Mediterranean.

Averaging one foreign birding trip a year, Overman has traveled around the world, including treks to Ecuador, Senegal, Oman, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. He has chased birds throughout Michigan and across the United States and Canada. Since retiring, he goes birding three or four days a week. For many years, he was in charge of organizing field trips for the Detroit Audubon Society. He began keeping notes in November 1961 and has amassed around 2,900 pages of "trip reports," which catalog in great detail where and when he saw a bird.

"For me, birding is the collecting impulse," says Overman, who has posted on his website hundreds of bird photos he snapped during his travels.

For other birders, the hobby is less about collecting bird sightings and is more about the experience of bird watching itself.

Almost 30 years ago, attorney Sid Kraizman read an article about the migration of sandhill cranes near the Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Audubon Sanctuary just outside of Jackson. He and his wife Helen decided to take a day trip to see sandhill cranes descend in the thousands.

"It was spectacular," recalls Kraizman in his downtown Detroit office where he focuses on special education law. "It was extraordinary."

He attempts to mimic the voice of a sandhill crane: a shrill, rolling "garooo-a-a-a."

"It's an almost primal experience," he explains. "You think this is the way it must have been a couple hundred thousand years ago."

The trip became an annual outing and sparked in the Kraizmans an enthusiasm for bird watching that they have enjoyed for decades now.

"It just captures my attention," says Kraizman. "You hear the cry of a red-shouldered hawk and then it comes flapping over the sky. It really makes an impression on you."

In fact, he recalls once standing atop a hawk tower with about 50 other birders at the Holiday Beach Conservation Area in Ontario and watching an immature bald eagle through his binoculars. He was so captivated, he started to lean over the rail and someone had to pull him back before he lost his balance.

The Kraizmans are just back from Grand Bend in Ontario where they viewed some 20,000 tundra swans stopping over to rest on their migration north to the arctic where they nest.

Kraizman and his wife make regular daytrips to the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge or the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in northwest Ohio to go birding.

"There's always something different. Each trip is exciting and unique," says Helen. "Sometimes we bring a picnic lunch."

On a recent, cold Saturday morning, the Kraizmans took a bald eagle tour at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge led by Rebecca Hinkle, visitor services manager, who has worked at the refuge for 14 years, and Visitor Services Specialist Laura Bonneau.

The 5,470-acre refuge has five bald eagle nests. In 1970, the refuge touted only one pair of bald eagles. Today, there are 250 pairs.

"We're often referred to as a bald eagle nursery," says Hinkle as she drives a small tour bus christened "The Blue Goose Express" down a dirt road heading into the marshy grounds of the refuge.

She abruptly stops the bus and points out a northern harrier circling high overhead in the distance against a clear blue sky.

"You see him?" she says, pointing.

"I got him," says Kraizman, who has picked the bird up in his high powered Nikon Monarch binoculars.

In addition to the binoculars and a tattered copy of "Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America," Kraizman also carries with him a spotting scope that has a magnification power of 20 to 60 times, far greater than the binoculars' eight times.

The first bald eagle nest is a black splotch high in a leafless tree on the other side of the marsh. An eagle will return to the same nest year after year as long as the nest remains in good condition. Just off to the west, Hinkle identifies two immature bald eagles soaring at a towering height above the tree line.

Further along, another nest is spotted approximately a 1/4-mile away across the estuary. Through the scope, Kraizman can see rising up above the rim of the nest, the white, angular head of the nesting bald eagle.

As the Kraizmans view the nest, a great blue heron lifts off nearby, its wingspan enormous. Other birds the Kraizmans see on the two-hour trip include a red-tail hawk, mallards, northern shovelers, widegens and spoonbill ducks, hooded mergansers, killdeers, and greater yellowlegs.

It's a good day of bird watching.

"You don't have to be an expert bird watcher to enjoy this," says Kraizman.

Published: Tue, Nov 1, 2011