Breaking the ice with a new birder at a Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union meeting is easy.
Just ask them how many of the state’s birds they have on their list.
President Daniel Leger of Lincoln has seen 342 species in Nebraska — 280 in his home county of Lancaster.
“I get a kick out of the knowledge I can identify anything I can see and practically anything I can hear,” Leger said.
Warblers will be the target when 60 to 75 birders gather Friday through Sunday in Auburn, Nebraska. It’s one of two union meetings each year — one in May when birds are returning and the other in September when they head south again.
This week’s meeting also corresponds with Nebraska International Migratory Bird Month.
While the state earns attention because of the sandhill crane migration earlier in the spring, Leger said that’s not a birder’s bag. They are more excited about rare and uncommon species.
That’s why May is such an important month. Birds are on the move, and just might have been blown off course and into Nebraska.
“Almost every meeting there will be something everybody is all abuzz about,” Leger said. “You get 50 or 60 or more of the top birders in the state all together in one place and they go out all day searching, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll come across something that is unusual.
“We won’t know what that will be until we get there and do it. That’s what makes it fun. What will be the bird of the trip?”
A few years ago in Valentine, members spotted two birds never before seen in Cherry County. One was a violet-green swallow.
With the eastern edge of the state about as far west as eastern woodlands species will go, members this weekend will hope to spot magnolia or blackburnian warblers or a pileated woodpecker, a dense woodland species found only in extreme eastern Nebraska.
Small-group field trips are scheduled each of the three days.
Leger has been a part of the NOU, the oldest state-level birding organization in the country, for the past 10 years. While many of the about 250 members are older, birders of all ages are involved. Leger estimates there are probably 1,000 or more birders in the state.
“Birders are about as nice a group of people as you’ll ever find anywhere,” Leger said. “Everyone is extremely helpful.”
That’s why there is no secrecy if an unusual bird is spotted. Instead, everyone is informed so they can share the experience. A birder stays in the area to guide any interested members to the correct spot.
While they can count on seeing a lot of the same birds at every meeting, environmental changes are affecting the habitat that some of the regulars depend on.
One species they are seeing more often is the scissor-tailed flycatcher, which traditionally has not strayed north of Kansas. A pair is nesting outside of Lincoln for the second year in a row.
A species that is becoming less common is the yellow-billed cuckoo. Birders aren’t sure why.
Last week, Leger was out birding several times on his own. He can schedule more outings after recently retiring as a professor at the University of Nebraska, where he taught psychology and biology. He’s planning a birding trip to South Africa in September and another in January to New Zealand.
He said it’s kind of fun to go in a group, so he’s looking forward to the meeting. It’s a time to catch up with old friends from across the state.
“My daughter doesn’t understand this,” he said. “I go to these meetings and I feel normal for a change. The rest of the time I’m the weird guy with binoculars looking at stuff.”