When the Riverside Tutorial first started ten years ago the program was located at the gorgeous Mayslake Peabody Estate, which is a breathtaking Tudor mansion surrounded by eighty acres of savannah, prairie, a lake, and a small pond.
One of the first families to join Riverside had two boys who loved birding, which seemed a unique passion in this digital age. It was their enthusiasm that sparked the tradition of birding at Riverside, and I am ever in their debt for this; it has opened up a world of creatures for me and it has also inspired many lads through the years.
We began going on birding walks with these two boys and from the start it was obvious they were experts in the field. They could identify birds by song, flight pattern, behavior, color, and they knew where to find them. I remember when the warblers came, as they do each year in May, and we took our first birding walk. In the beginning we Tutors were learning with the rest of the group. Our two lead birders led us on a journey through the forest, prairie, and around the lake and pond pointing out warblers high up in the trees that we couldn’t see; they could hear them, and see them with their oversized camera lenses. There was something thrilling about discovering a new bird around every corner. As we walked they would hold up their hand in silence, and everyone would quiet down, look, and wonder. Birding opens up a whole mystery of creatures, and there is ever a desire for a new sighting.
Birding also is one of the most contemplative naturalist activities we do at Riverside. There is always a bit of difficulty for those who don’t get it to pour themselves into this activity and not just see it as a mere walk with friends. I tell the boys that when they have kids and grandkids of their own, they will be so grateful if they take birding seriously. Why? Because of all the creatures around us in this area, no other species has as many kinds as birds. There is a whole world of sound and color continually surrounding us at times during the year, but most are deaf and blind to it. These boys will someday be able to walk with their sons or grandsons and help them come to know the birds, to identify them, and to appreciate these marvelous creatures.
There was one boy in our 2022-23 Friday Tutorial session named Eamon who made us laugh with his passion for birding. All throughout the year we could hear the impressively loud voice of this ten year old as he yelled, “Bald Eagle” or “Red-Tailed Hawk.” It was as though he was in a continual state of wonder. Even while playing dodgeball, he would make sure to stop and shout out a bird he saw soaring in the sky above him; the game inevitably would come to a halt, not because all the other boys shared this same passion, but because Eamon’s vociferous identification calls could be mistaken by others as an emergency. This is the kind of passion we hope every Tutorial boy will develop.
Each April/May at Tutorial we commence the Big Month. This is a competition to see who can identify the most birds in one month. The top three get prizes of some sort. Of course for boys the competitive nature of the project definitely sparks interest. There are some who will keep their number a secret because they know if another top birder wants the glory, he will try even harder to beat that number. A few boys even ask their parents to drive them to all sorts of birding destinations, though most are local. They are embracing the project, and in the meantime are gaining knowledge and often growing in friendship as they walk the wooded paths with their fellow bird enthusiasts. Birding is a perfect example of a successful project at Riverside: it is creative, it inspires boys, provides fellowship, and offers an end result that makes them proud.