I recently watched Bob Dolgan’s nature documentary “The Magic Stump,” and it’s a beautiful and thoughtful meditation on the love of birding, the friendships it helps to deepen, and the lives of Prairie Falcons and other birds. It reminds us that birding is the perfect alternative to our fast-paced, immediate gratification society that seems to make few of us very happy. The birders (Tyler Funk, Ron Bradley, and David Mott) who are profiled in “The Magic Stump” spend hours and days chasing elusive sightings of Prairie Falcons (what beautiful birds!) and other bird species (Northern Harriers, Rough-legged Hawks, Merlins, and a Snowl Owl), and the quest seems to be almost part of the joy of birding. And these guys have lot of fun in the process. Finally, “The Magic Stump” is a wonderful inducement to get outdoors in the winter. Much of the film was shot during the winter, where we’re more apt to curl up on the couch than go outside for nature adventures. There’s beauty, peace, and adventure waiting for us in all seasons if we just try. I recently talked with Bob Dolgan about his film, his blog, and birding in Chicagoland. See this movie, read his blog, go birding, and read on for the interview.
Q. Can you tell me about your background and blog, This Week in Birding?
A. I’m a lifelong birder, and my career background is in communications, marketing, and public relations, primarily in the nonprofit sector. I was in the midst of a job transition a few years ago when Piping Plovers “Monty” and “Rose” arrived at Chicago’s Montrose Beach. I made two films about them that have been accepted to film festivals and shown on public television. When the pandemic hit, I started writing This Week in Birding on all sorts of birding topics and as an outlet to tell a few other stories. I don’t have any formal training in filmmaking. These projects have been story-driven more than anything, and I’ve been able to apply my many years of experience of bringing people and teams together. In this case it’s been about identifying sponsors and talented collaborators who bring skills to the project that I don’t necessarily have.
Q. What is the Magic Stump, and what inspired you to make a movie about it?
A. The Magic Stump is an Osage orange tree stump in the middle of a barren farm field three hours south of Chicago. It’s attracted an extraordinary number of wintering raptors through the years, some of which are quite rare. I’d only seen a few photos and clips from the stump going back about 10 years but didn’t know much else. Then I read an article about the stump in Meadowlark, the quarterly magazine of the Illinois Ornithological Society, and I understood more about why so many species were congregating there. It occurred to me that it would make for a great follow up to “Monty and Rose,” a very different birding story set in a very different part of the state. It also has a lot of mystery and a little “magic” to it, of course. There was quite a bit of archival footage from the stump that had a lot of potential, and thankfully that footage is in the film.
Q. What are a few interesting things about Prairie Falcons, which feature prominently in your film?
A. These birds don’t get as much love as their more famous cousins, Peregrine Falcons. But Prairie Falcons also are amazingly fast, fearsome predators and they are the only falcon endemic to the western United States. Unlike Peregrines, they prey on not just birds but mammals also, particularly ground squirrels in the west. They’re birds of arid grasslands and desert and can survive on meager diets. That might be one reason they can get by in winter in Illinois.
Q. Birding seems more popular than ever. Any thoughts on why this is so (if you agree)?
A. I agree, it’s certainly come a long way since I was a kid! Though I do think we have a ways to go in attracting and welcoming more people to birding. I think the pandemic had a big impact on outdoor recreation across the board. Whether it was birding, fishing, camping, or playing golf, these were all things that generally continued through 2020 and into 2021. Locally, I think Monty and Rose had a big impact as there are so many new names and faces involved in birding now. It’s also gotten a lift from social media, which makes it easier to find birds and share sightings, photos, and more.
Q. What are three pieces of advice that you would give to aspiring birders, who might feel intimidated about getting involved in birding?
A. The first thing is to become familiar with the more common birds, the neighborhood birds and the birds in local parks. Not just their appearance but their vocalizations, too. From there, it becomes easier to recognize the outliers. I’d also suggest studying range maps and sightings on eBird, which is an easily searchable citizen science online database and app. Last, don’t feel intimidated! Just enjoy what you see and hear, even if it’s just a few common birds, even if you’re puzzled by a bird. As long as you’re getting outdoors, are at peace, and having fun, then you’ve already succeeded.
Q. “The Magic Stump” is the first in a series of three films you’ll be creating as part of “The Prairie State” series. What topics will you cover in your next films?
A. Yes, I just started the second film, “Fluddles,” which is about the watery areas all across Illinois that are sort of secret wildernesses and loaded with birds. These places are lesser known, mostly on private land, but they’re vital to birds, to other wildlife, and to improving water quality and reducing erosion and runoff. The third film remains up in the air, but the goal is to give people a glimpse of our remaining natural habitat and the amazing species that utilize these places.
Q. Chicagoans are obsessed with Piping Plovers (the subject of your first two films), but can you spotlight another rare or endangered bird species in the Chicagoland area that Chicagoans might be interested in?
A. That’s a great question. Piping Plovers are hard to top for so many reasons. I’d probably go with Sandhill Cranes, though they’re not that rare anymore. They’re fairly easy to find around Chicagoland and are beginning to nest in places like suburban subdivisions. They’re beautiful birds and the sound of a migrating flock overhead is an amazing thing to experience. And there is something primordial about them since they go back millions of years.
“The Magic Stump” (running time: 20 minutes) will be shown at Uncommon Ground-Edgewater in Chicago on Sunday, October 2, with dinner and drinks available. Dolgan will introduce the film and share other birding video stories. I’ll be there with my family to see this great documentary. If you can’t make it on October 2, there will be showings at Imperial Oak Brewing, Willow Springs (October 4); in DuPage County (DuPage Birding Club, October 13); Chicago (Chicago Ornithological Society, virtual presentation, October 27); Highland Park (Lake-Cook Audubon, virtual presentation, November 1); and other locations through January. Additional dates may be added. Click here to reserve a seat/register.
Copyright (non-interview text): Andrew Morkes; Bob Dolgan holds the copyright to his interview responses
Copyright (photos): as credited
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ABOUT ANDREW MORKES
I have been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titles. They Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. Stories about my work have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Southtown, Beverly Review, and Practical Homeschooling.
In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).
My poetry has appeared in Cadence, Wisconsin Review, Poetry Motel, Strong Coffee, and Mid-America Review.