LINCOLN PARK — The Birds & Beer club was started on a hunch: Gathering strangers who share a love for birding and drinking beer just might work.
Six years later, the Chicago-based club is still going strong.
The eclectic group of bird enthusiasts has 285 members on its Facebook group, ranging across all ages and experience levels, and meet once a month in a different city bar, taproom or brewery.
Members like to joke they’re just a bunch of beer drinkers with a birding problem.
Birds & Beers celebrated its sixth anniversary at Galway Arms in Lincoln Park earlier this month, spearheaded by the original trio of Jeff Skrentny, Steve Huggins and Larry “Skillethead” Krutulis.
Huggins and Skrentny struggled to pinpoint the first time they met, but admitted that it was more than likely a brief rendezvous in a field somewhere in Illinois – their eyes glued to the birds in the sky, before the idea of sharing a pint together came about.
“I like to go birding but I also like to have a drink and socialize,” said Huggins, who said he has seen a breathtaking 4,117 unique species of birds out of approximately 10,000. “I thought, it’s really sad there are not more social events for birders.”
Forming the group was a way of bringing like-minded people of the community together. They are people who share not one, but two common interests, albeit one slightly more niche than the other.
“I asked Steve and Larry, good birding mates, if I were to start a birds and beers, will you come?” said Skrentny, who got the idea from a similar group of birders who gather in Madison, Wisc.
“I said if no one shows up, that’s fine and we won’t ever do it again. The first night we did it at Duke of Perth on Clark Street and had about 20 people show up!
“We’ve obviously filled a niche. People want to hang out with similar people with the same interests. Yes, we talk about the minutiae of birding which may drive people nuts, but we also talk about restoration, politics and family. We have birds in common, but a passion for birds often dictates other similar passions.”
Galway Arms catered to the group with three bird-themed local beers on the menu, much to the delight of Huggins, who has also recorded 1,150 different beers on the Untappd beer app. Off Color Brewing’s aptly named Jerkbird was available, as well as the Spiteful Brewing God Damn Pidgeon Porter and Temperance Birdsong.
Gatherings typically consist of anything from 10 to 65 people. Their largest turnout was just over 130 people when Birds & Beers managed to raise almost $12,000 for the Chicago Ornithological Society.
Skrentny admits they were a tad anxious about getting the funds (which included $9,500 in cash donations) home at the end of the night, which of course involved lots of craft beers.
This year he aims to top their last effort and raise $15,000 for LaBagh Woods Forest Preserve, where the money will go towards maintenance and the planting of native shrubs.
Huggins, from Gloucester, England, has been living in Chicago for the last eighteen years. He said the beauty of birds captured his attention from an early age.
“I used to go fishing with my dad as a child,” Huggins said. “But I’d be more interested in the birds on the river bank than worrying about getting a bite on the fishing line.
“My breakout year was 1986. I was probably 14, and finally able to break away from the local farm. I remember a bunch of swans flew over me which shouldn’t have been in the area; they should have been at a local nature reserve called Slimbridge.
“Me and my buddy got on our BMX bikes and rode over there. The whole area was flooded and there were thousands of birds there. It just opened my eyes up to this new site that I could go to.”
Since then, Huggins estimates he has traveled to 30 countries to see different species of birds in their natural habitat.
The bird he is most proud of seeing?
He pondered for a moment before deciding on the slender-billed curlew, which he saw on his first excursion abroad to Morocco in 1991. Sadly, the species has not been seen since 1995 and may very well be extinct.
Contrastingly, Skrentny’s passion for birding came a lot later in life. He was captivated by a book called “The Big Year,” written by Mark Obmascik, which tells the story of three competitive birders all vying to set the record for the most birds seen in the U.S. in one year. Movie-lovers will remember its on-screen adaptation in 2011, featuring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black.
Skrentny breezed through the book and decided he was going to be a birder on January 1, 2006. Now he is entering his fourteenth season.
“The first day I went birding I was only able to identify six birds,” said Skrentny of Albany Park. “It took me two hours to figure out what a ring-billed gull was. Embarrassing! But that’s how I started. Then I began hooking up with these people and they’ve taught me what I know.”
Skrentny and Krutulis’ “Big Day” birding team holds the Illinois state record for the most bird species seen in a day, but they were devastated when they subsequently tied their own record of 191 in their next competitive outing.
“Tying your own record is like kissing your sister; there’s nothing good about it!” Skrentny said. “We couldn’t get another bird and it just pissed us off. Monk parakeets wouldn’t show up for us, and we knew where a peregrine falcon was in a nest but we couldn’t see it. You have to see it or hear it.
“I think our biggest day we drove 800 miles to get 191 species; this is the group I hang out with.”
Huggins and some fellow birders are off to Shanghai next month to search for the spoon-billed sandpiper (a species which has an estimated population of just 400) among other birds.
The next Birds & Beers event takes place at 1 p.m. on February 17 at Metropolitan Brewing, 3057 N. Rockwell Street. The group will host a chili cook-off. For more information, join Birds & Beers on Facebook or contact Jeff Skrentny at email@example.com.
Here are some of Steve Huggins’ photos taken at North Pond in Lincoln Park: