Ed-left, Mark-right

Ed Brogie has been birdwatching since he was 10 years old along with his brother Mark.

“My dad would point out birds in our back yard,” Brogie said when he was growing up near Hoskins. As the brothers grew up and attended Wayne State College in sciences, they began donating time banding birds at the Banding Station near Wisner operated by John and Willetta Leushen as part of the US Fish & Wildlife program.

That’s really where the brothers got their feet wet.

“Willetta was a bird lady in northeast Nebraska and an official bird bander for the US Fish & Wildlife Service,” Ed said.

Even though the Leushens are no longer living, a bird watching group near Norfolk still carries their name as a tribute to their landmark efforts to keep track of birds in Nebraska. Mrs. Leushen and her husband were leaders in birdwatching and her contributions can be found in the Nebraska Bird Review magazine.

Ed is a retired biology and chemistry teacher living near Wayne and birdwatching keeps him busy year-round. He describes bird watching as a citizen science, a recreational activity for observing wildlife by everyday people. The activity is voluntary but many sightings are used by the US Fish & Wildlife to track migration and bird numbers. It is also believed to be the largest citizen science group today.

“It’s nothing for me to see a bird species someone has spotted near Valentine and hit the road to see if I can see it, too,” Ed said. “Usually the birds are in an area for a period of time and if my brother is too busy to go with me, I get my wife to go.” Ed’s wife is a retired science teacher also.

Birdwatching is a fairly simple hobby. All it takes is a pair of eyes, a good bird reference book or smart phone app and a set of binoculars although Ed also recommends a good spotting scope so birds from farther away can be spotted. It is also a good idea to have a journal to record a day’s sightings for documentation and a good camera to photograph a sighting is helpful, too. In today’s world, a couple good computer programs downloaded to a smart phone like an eLibrary to identify birds can replace books and be used to record a day’s sighting.

But the most revolutionary tool in bird watching is a website called eBird, a website and free app created by Cornell University. Since its evolution birdwatchers have access to much more information Ed said because it contains birder information from all over the world. If a birder has registered with eBird, he can spot a bird, find the photo in the app, go to the satellite icon, document your time and position and it is recorded world-wide.

“The great thing about eBird is you can download the app to your phone and when you have a sighting, you can record it so other birdwatchers belonging to the website can note the bird you have spotted and they can travel to see it to,” Ed said. “Early on it was meant for citizens to keep track of the robins and cardinals that you see around but has grown to so much more.”

Recording the birds spotted on eBird also provides documentation for state record keeping. Ed’s brother keeps a written journal for all of his sightings and to date, Mark has sighted more birds in the state than anyone else, numbering 420 plus. Ed’s record of sightings of bird species is 388.

“You can’t just stay in your backyard,” Ed said. “First, you need to find the physical environment, the plants that live there and a water source, and then the birds will come in certain seasons.”

Ed calls it a strategy game. Some species are only found in certain areas in certain trees or plants or watering areas. Research is part of the game but sometimes he said one just gets lucky.

“I travel all year round to see birds and most of my travels are in the state of Nebraska,” Ed said. “Although I have been known to travel all across the US to see bird species – you know, plan a vacation and spot a bird.”

For the Brogies, bird watching is a year-round hobby and the reason is fairly simple. Northeast Nebraska has certain species that southeast Nebraska doesn’t have and vice-versa. Ed made a special trip to the Kansas border to find a scissortail flycatcher and other trips took him to Scottsbluff in the Panhandle and Sioux County by Harrison to find other species.

Birders have to travel where there are trees the certain bird species like to roost and live. Ed recalls a certain type of woodpeckers who favor trees in areas after forest fires, looking for insects living in the damaged wood.

Ed guesses he spends a minimum of 10 hours a week birding. More birdwatching is done in the summer but he notes this time of the year there are different species migrating through like certain snowbird species which are rarely seen in Nebraska and then snowy owls show up in December.

Ed’s special bird sighting memories include his brother Mark. They visited California and together spotted California Condors and closer to home west of Chadron, the duo sighted a three-toed woodpecker.

He added Knox County is a great place to spot birds with all the diverse habitats of trees, river beds and creeks.

But documenting bird sightings in the eBird app alerts other bird watchers so they can enjoy a sighting also. Another good place to share bird sightings is Facebook because Ed said Bird Nerds love to share their bird photos in that public forum.

But all in all, Ed considers his brother Mark a better authority on birding. Mark is also a retired science teacher living in Creighton but also hold degrees in ornithology and forestry.

“Ed started working with Willetta Leushen and I just followed in his footsteps,” Mark said. “We went from catching and banding birds to, hey, let’s see what other species we can find.”

Not all birds can be caught in traps or nets so the brothers started looking for other birds in Nebraska. But it didn’t stop there. Their hobby saw them travel all over the US and Canada.

Mark’s love for birds led him to now hold a position of Rare Birds Records Committee Chairman for the Nebraska Ornithologists Union.

“So not only do I keep records of rare bird sightings in Nebraska, when someone sees something rare, I go looking for all the rare sightings, too,” Mark said.

The brothers try to travel in all the counties in Nebraska, keeping track of records across Nebraska in order to increase the knowledge of birds of Nebraska.

But Ed and Mark are not the only birdwatchers traveling the state, keeping track of birds. Mark said the Nebraska Ornithologists Union has meetings and plan field trips. He estimates a couple hundred people across the state who are passionate about birdwatching.

If a species is sighted in say, for instance, Cherry County, Mark will probably head to the coordinates to see if he can catch a sighting, too, and add it to his list of bird sighting.

Both Mark and Ed are in the top 100 list on eBird for bird sightings for the year and the all-time list.

Actually, both men are in the top ten for Nebraska bird sightings.

“It’s kind of a little competition game to see who can see the most in a year or different counties,” Mark said. “So, besides the scientific reason for doing it, there’s a little competition, too.”

It’s all on an honesty policy but people can cheat. Where’s the fun in that though Mark said.

“People see they’re only a little bit behind someone they know and after they see other’s numbers on eBird, it motivates them to get out,” Mark said.

In addition, there are people working for the Game & Parks Commission who run routes across the state to monitor breeding bird activities for a survey. They run these routes year after year to monitor bird population. Issues they keep track of are increases or decreases in certain species or the condition of bird habitats – are they declining or deteriorating.

One major survey conducted every year is the Christmas Bird Count which can be traced back to the early 1900s. This survey happens all over the state of Nebraska and around the world. Mark said there will be designated areas near larger communities and it usually covers a 15-mile radius around a community like Norfolk. Birders survey that area for a period of about two weeks and it helps keep track of bird populations trends in the winter months. Obviously, there will be different birds in these areas in the winter months than summer months.

Just because it is called the Christmas bird count does not mean it is done on Christmas day.

Communities can designate when their count is held and birders often travel around to several Christmas Birds Counts in different areas of the state.

Since Mark is snow birding in Arizona at this time of year, he will help with Christmas Bird Counts in that area this year. He is fortunate to be able to sight birds in Arizona he would never see in Nebraska.

Mark’s personal rarest bird sighting was a Ross’s Gull near Yankton at Lewis & Clark Lake. This particular bird is rarely seen below the Arctic Circle and other birders from 20 different states trekked to Yankton to see this bird. It was resting on the ice with several other gulls.

Birds which typically do not appear in this area will show up if they are hard pressed for food in the northern regions. Mark recalls a few years ago there was an invasion of snowy owls for that reason and sighting a snowy owl is a once-in-a-lifetime event so spotting dozens was quite a visual treat for Nebraska citizen scientists.

“Birding is a passion and we do it pretty often as my wife is a retired science teacher also,” Mark said. “The equipment is pretty simple and some people keep written journals as well as electronic recording.”

Mark is also well-known for writing over 50 papers on bird sightings and keeps very detailed handwritten journals of his birdwatching.

A good birder friend of the Brogie Brothers is Roger Dietrich of Yankton.

Dietrich, a retired clinic administrator, spends a lot of his free time now as a birder but has spent the last 25 years enjoying birdwatching.

“I enjoy getting out in nature and seeing birds,” Dietrich said. “I used to do a lot of photography back in the day and I was seeing a lot of birds.”

Dietrich decided it would be smart to identify the birds he saw so he took photos. Eventually he just became enamored with finding birds and of course, the rarer birds he could find, all the better. Just recently he spotted a long-tail duck at Lewis & Clark Lake, which he had seen before, but knew was a rare species to see in this area.

“Finding something unusual is a challenge for me and identifying birds is a challenge, too,” Dietrich said. “It’s just an interesting pastime.”

Dietrich finds himself out at the Lake a couple times a week taking in the birding sights. He considers trips to Sioux City, Ft Randall, Sioux Falls or Lake Andes fairly local areas or many birding opportunities. He also has traveled across the country to see birds, traveling a far as Cuba on a birding trip. Dietrich has done vacation birding and he has also taken trips just to see a certain species of bird.

Whenever Dietrich goes places, he looks up on eBird to see what birds have been sighted in the area. It will show a map where the bird was seen and birders can go to that area for a sighting. Now, since birds fly, they may be gone when he gets there. Several years ago, a Ross’s Gull – the same one spotted by the Brogie Brothers - was sighted at Lake Yankton and it stayed for a week or more and several people traveled here to see it.

A birder may also have a list of birds they have never seen and eBird will tell them where they have been sighted. There are birders who are doing a big year, documenting all their sightings and eBird is a great resource.

“The Internet is wonderful because of eBird and rare bird alerts,” Dietrich said. “A rare species may have been sighted north of Duluth and an interested birder could run up and try to get a sighting.”

Dietrich used to keep paper notebooks with notations of birds he had seen but now he does everything on eBird. He said it’s so easy to go into the app and see what birds he has seen and where he saw them.

This year he believes he has around 250 bird sightings.

Wherever birders go, they are looking for birds because birds are different all over the world whether it is Mexico or Italy or Germany.

There are always different birds and birders never miss an opportunity to see a special bird sighting.

One of Dietrich’s special memories is a rare bird sighting in Cuba.

The smallest bird in the world is a bee hummingbird and can only be seen in Cuba. There are 26 unique birds endemic to Cuba and he was very pleased to have sighted 23 and heard a 24th during his visit there.

The Internet is a great tool for today’s birders with apps for identifying birds or documenting sightings, but for years there were bird guides.

Dietrich is excited about a new publication being released in South Dakota by the South Dakota Ornithology Union.

“South Dakota has never had a printed bird guide book and a USD Professor, Dave Swanson, has just finished compiling a birder’s guide,” Dietrich said.

The American Birding Association never saw a need for a guide in South Dakota because they didn’t believe there was a big enough audience for one.

Like the Brogie Brothers who not only bird but also volunteer for outdoor activities, Dietrich has been part of adult education courses, teaching bird photography at Mount Marty College and assisting in

birding workshops around the state.

“There is a demand for that kind of stuff because there are a lot of birders,” Dietrich said. “They are out there but you don’t always see them.”

From what Dietrich has read in recent wildlife association magazines, birdwatching is a very fast-growing hobby. There are different levels of birding. Some may just look at birds out their window, which has created a strong market for selling bird seed and turned it into a big business, there are those who bird watch from their car, or there are those who travel the state parks and wooded areas for the feathered friends.

Often times when Dietrich goes birding on a nature trail, he doesn’t notice other birders but when he gets home and checks eBird, he sees a friend was out there, they sighted the same birds but not each other.

There are so many good trails out by the Lake and the nature trails near Gavins Point Dam, especially in the spring and summer, are some of the best in the area. He also loves to go birding in Union Grove State Park near Vermillion or Newton State Park near Canton but during the cold days of winter, car birding is often the best bet.

It doesn’t matter what season it is for Dietrich when he’s birding.

One day he was birding near Sioux City and his Fitbit told him he had walked seven miles, some of it through thick terrain.

“Of course, it’s much nicer to be hiking when the weather is warm but everywhere you go there are interesting birds,” Dietrich said.

“You’ll run out of time to search for birds before you run out of places to search.”