A bird’s eye view on the Thunderbirds

Though small, the Thunderbirds, Wheaton’s ornithology-delving club, has no shortage of enthusiasm. Even those who have yet to officially join the club find that enthusiasm catching: as freshman Emily Meredith told me, “The members of the club are very passionate about it and they feel very strongly about their activity.”  

Because of their zeal for birding and community, those on cabinet strive to make ornithology accessible to people like Meredith — any individual on campus who harbors an interest in birding. Sophomore Tristan Penson publicizes each outing by making posters, running the club’s Instagram and reaching out to interested students. His recent Instagram post on the club’s account drew in birders through a vibrant design that depicted binoculars closing in on birds. The image gave all the details necessary for first time birders to attend, including the time and place of meeting and the Thunderbirds’ email.

Yet, despite interest in the club and easy access to it, on average only 15 to 30 people attend. With notoriously rigorous classes and abundant extracurricular opportunities, finding time to observe birds amidst the tranquility of nature can prove arduous. So I followed the avid birders on an early Saturday morning to unearth the reason why they create space in their whirring weekends to study birds and creation.

History of Thunderbirds

Throughout my time with the Thunderbirds, I discovered the history of the club. The level of interest I found in the Thunderbirds seems astonishing considering that this academic year is only their second official year of existence. According to senior Sara King, the club’s financial officer, it wasn’t until last year that the Thunderbirds began to receive official funding and participate in the club fair.

Logan Treat, who graduated last spring, was able to unravel more of the Thunderbirds’ history since he helped found the club. Throughout his freshman year, he and a few friends began to grow a mutual love for birding. During that year, the group started to connect with President Ryken, who went birding with them and still occasionally accompanies the Thunderbirds and provides binoculars. Though for the first two years after the club began there were few birders, the Thunderbirds are now expanding in number.

Currently, the club meets biweekly on Saturday mornings from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. at the Saga O, providing transportation for both savvy ornithologists and first time birders alike. Each week, upperclassmen drive students to different locations in DuPage County renowned for glimpsing birds. This semester, the Thunderbirds have traversed to Danada Forest Preserve, West DuPage Woods, the McKee Marsh area and Greene Valley Forest Preserve.

Photo by Giselle Gaytan

Early Birders launch their expedition

At 7 a.m. last Saturday morning, Oct. 21, I joined them. As the vehicles arrived at Greene Valley Forest Preserve, the concrete and buildings that Wallmow talked about vanished. Instead, vibrant, coiling trees surrounded us, lining the walking paths with the crimson and tangerine hues of autumn. For a few silent minutes, no birds could be seen as the students eagerly clutched their binoculars, bird identification books and phones that proudly displayed the Merlin bird identification app. I took this moment to speak with senior Valerie Griffin, the co-president of Thunderbirds.

Griffin, who has been a part of the club since its foundations during her sophomore year, had no difficulty voicing her passion for birding. Her gaze transfixed on the uncurbed nature, she said, “Birdwatching is an important activity for everyone to partake in at some point in their life, because it teaches you how to be still in creation and how to be observant of even the littlest of creatures.” For Griffin, birdwatching does not merely entail pinpointing the species of the creatures she meets; rather, it is a culmination of thankfulness and learning to be still. She continued, “It teaches you a lot of patience, it teaches you a lot of observing skills and it teaches you to really start to appreciate every piece of what God created for us — not just when you hike the tallest mountains or when you’re sitting by the ocean, but in the most random spots of Illinois.”

As I spoke with different members of the club, a similar theme of revelation emerged in each conversation. “I think it’s very undervalued as an activity, because most people don’t really understand why you go,” King said. Although many on campus may not realize it, the birders delve into ornithology for a greater purpose than bird-watching. They make time to be still and notice those things that often dwindle and become inundated by the clattering noise of busyness. As these impassioned birders stood in awe of the intricate artwork in nature, they made this stillness possible by deliberately creating moments of silence and wonder in the midst of stress.

Griffin also shared how the gift of memory can intertwine with the gift of ornithology. As the birders trekked along the path, their steps were suddenly suspended, and their binoculars and bodies hunched carefully toward a tree frosted in minuscule birds. The students looked as enraptured as someone witnessing the rarity of an eclipse. Griffin enlightened me about the rare bird: a Cedar Waxwing. She shared about her “distinct memory” of when she first saw them. She and her mother had been searching for them and eventually heard their high pitched tone, which is incredibly distinct. While she recalled how excited they were to find a Cedar Waxwing for the first time, I wondered if this sighting would become an equally exciting memory for the current birders.

First time Thunderbirders, too, imparted newly found knowledge, both about ornithology and their Creator. Junior Moriah Stuart shared some surprising statistics she discovered, starting with the fact that 900 species of birds exist in North America. Just like many other students, Stuart did not expect that over 300 species of birds would roam the Chicago area. Like Griffin, she recognizes the importance of nature, which spurs thankfulness and wonder for God.  Encouraging other students to join the group on a Saturday morning, she said, “You haven’t really experienced God’s glory until you’ve been in nature. Being in awe of God’s creation is one of the greatest gifts that we’ve been given, and this is one way we can experience that.”

As I reflect on my time with the Thunderbirds, one quote from sophomore Tristan Penson perfectly summarizes what I learned from them: “There’s a lot of variety that we really don’t notice because we’re not paying attention to it. So it’s kind of like looking for what’s hiding in plain sight.”

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