Longtime volunteers Sigurd Bjorklund ’79 and Dr. Richard Bjorklund, distinguished biology professor emeritus, devote hours each week to counting birds and collecting data for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The father/son team enjoys the quality time, and refuge personnel call their work “invaluable.”
For Sigurd “Sig” Bjorklund ’79, a 3:15 a.m. alarm signals the start of his day off. The Methodist minister leaves his Edwardsville-area home with the same unlikely destination he’s had, rain or shine, for 11 years’ worth of Friday mornings. He’s off to survey birds, a volunteer job he shares with his dad, Dr. Richard Bjorklund.
Behind the wheel of his Honda, Sig’s 155-mile drive takes him to the Chautauqua National Wildlife Reserve near Havana, but the first stop in Mason County is breakfast at his 79-year-old father’s cabin. Richard Bjorklund began teaching biology at Bradley in 1957, the year Sig was born. He retired as a distinguished professor emeritus in 1992. Instead of golf courses or sailboats, nature pursuits have nurtured his retirement. Weekly surveys of the birds along the Illinois River are just one of his volunteer activities, quite possibly his favorite one because of the companionship of his son. Although Sig started “tagging along” on birding expeditions with Bradley students at age 11, the duo has been volunteering together officially since 1996. For 225 weeks, they had a perfect record without a single missed week. Then the blizzard struck last December 1, and the waterbirds went uncounted that week.
The pair spends at least four hours on the bird census. “We’re a team and he keeps me going,” Richard says of his son. Whether it’s below zero or in blistering heat, the Bjorklunds count species as diverse as bald eagles, killdeer, great egret, pelicans, and 19 types of ducks, to name just a few. Starting at the nearby fish hatchery, they make 22 stops on their weekly route, including the final one atop a 99-foot tower at Lake Chautauqua.
Binoculars are used to spot some of the birds, but others are identified by their sounds. “Eighty percent of birding for songbirds is done by ear,” Sig remarks. “But for waterbirds, binoculars and a spotting scope are invaluable.” He does the actual counting while his father records the data as they work. “I call him the Data Meister,” Sig says with a laugh. “Later he’ll spend time assembling the data, and then he enters it in the computer.”
Richard whittles down their 10 pages of field notes to a three-page summary, and then sends it to the wildlife refuge and to the Illinois Natural History Survey. “Birding is not really science if you just look at birds,” notes the retired professor. He and his son also record data such as temperature, barometric pressure, wind, and water conditions because of the possible impact on the birds they observe.
The refuge is intended to be a stopover place for birds traveling long distances. To accommodate the species coming through the area at a particular time, the water level may be raised or perhaps lowered to create mudflats.
“Their data is so valuable,” says Matt Sprenger, refuge manager at Chautauqua. “Their work is as good or better than a full-time biologist,” Sprenger says, estimating the Bjorklunds’ efforts save taxpayers as much as $20,000 a year. “People want a reason why you want to make a change, and their data provides the backbone for that. Their visuals are priceless.”
Dr. Richard Bjorklund expected his career to revolve around fishery biology, but was drawn to birds in the ’60s when he began helping students with a heron colony near Pekin. Bjorklund was dean of liberal arts and sciences at BU from 1973 to 1978.
The father/son duo’s efforts have been recognized nationally and by the state. Richard received a President’s Call to Service Award from the White House in 2005 for 4,000 volunteer hours. In 2001 he was named conservationist of the year by the Illinois Audubon Society. He and Sigurd have been honored repeatedly as volunteers of the year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For these volunteers, however, the work has little to do with awards. So what makes them persevere? Sigurd’s 310-mile weekly journey has given him plenty of time to ponder that question. He offers three reasons that make all the effort worthwhile: “It provides good data for the refuge to make management decisions; it’s something I can do with Dad; and I enjoy it.”
Continuing loyalty to Bradley University is readily apparent in both the retired professor and his son. “One of my earliest memories is on the Bradley quad watching the ROTC practice,” says the 50-year-old father of two college-age daughters. Alison Bjorklund ’09 is a Bradley student, prompting him to serve on the BU Parents Association Board. The pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Maryville, Illinois, since 2003, Sig ministered for 20 years at First United Methodist in Peoria.
His father occasionally hosts Bradley botany classes at Walden West Land and Water Reserve, the prairie restoration site and wildlife refuge he has created. On days when he and Sig aren’t surveying birds, Richard is busy maintaining the 44 acres next to the Sand Ridge State Forest, land that he has purchased gradually since the late ’80s.
He enjoys pointing out plants like wild quinine and rattlesnake master, and visitors can’t miss the small prickly pear cacti that grow in the sandy soil (see Bradley Hilltopics back cover). The regal frittilary, a threatened butterfly, also thrives in the prairie habitat. Moreover, the natural environment seems just right for the retirement years of an always curious biology professor.
Since the ’90s, the Bjorklunds have seen 24 eaglets fledge on their census route, a dramatic increase over earlier decades when bald eagle nests were rare in Illinois. Bald eagles were removed from the list of threatened and endangered species in June.