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Bird Nerd Loves Feathered Friends

Michael O'Keefe, of Independence, Mo., has a passion for watching birds. (Brent Frazee/Kansas City Star/MCT)

Michael O'Keefe, of Independence, Mo., has a passion for watching birds. (Brent Frazee/Kansas City Star/MCT)

Don’t call Michael O’Keefe a birder. Or a bird-watcher.

He’d rather be called a bird nerd.

“A friend of mine came up with that,” he said with a laugh. “For me, it just kind of stuck.

“I don’t look at it as a negative term. That’s what I am - a bird nerd.”

Walking a trail at the Burr Oak Woods Conservation Area in Blue Springs, Mo., he was acutely aware of his surroundings.

With high-powered binoculars on a strap around his neck and a bird identification book in the back of his coat, he began spotting birds left and right.

As two feathered friends flew over a treeline in the distance, O’Keefe quickly raised his binoculars and got excited.

“There go two pileated woodpeckers,” he said, following their flight path. “They are the biggest of our woodpecker species.”

Farther down the trail, O’Keefe heard a flock of birds before he saw them. A group of blue jays was making a racket, their shrill calls echoing through the woods.

“There must be a hawk around here someplace,” O’Keefe said. “That’s called mobbing.

“They’re trying to tell others that there’s danger.”

Sure enough, a hawk flew over and the racket died down.

Later, O’Keefe spotted bright-red cardinals flitting from branch to branch, a white breasted nuthatch climbing on the bark of a tree, downy woodpeckers feeding on suet, and a flock of turkeys parading to a feeder filled with sunflower seeds. One tom got up on his tiptoes to peck at the seed in an elevated feeder, and O’Keefe smiled.

“It really is amazing what you will see out here when you just slow down and not make a lot of movement,” he said. “Burr Oak Woods is a great place to view birds.

“It has diverse habitat, all the way from forests to grasslands to ponds. And that draws a diversity of birds.”

By the time O’Keefe had finished his hike on a recent morning, he had spotted 10 different species of birds. For him, that amounted to a good way to start the day.

As a veteran, er, bird nerd, O’Keefe leads hikes and programs across the city. He often can be found at Burr Oak Woods, where he is a volunteer for the Missouri Department of Conservation. He also leads monthly hikes for the Wild Bird Center of Independence, and he gets involved with other events.

He developed his love for bird-watching the same way many people do. He got a bird feeder as a Christmas present in the 1990s and a novelty turned into serious hobby.

“One feeder led to two, that led to binoculars, and that led to books,” said O’Keefe, 54, who lives in Independence, Mo., and works for KMOS-TV in Warrensburg, Mo. “I became a volunteer out here at Burr Oak Woods, and I really got involved with birding.”

Today, he is a font of knowledge about birds. He is out year-round, viewing their habits. His favorite time? From April into mid-May, when the songbird migration reaches its peak.

“The second week of May is usually the peak,” he said. “Day by day, you will see the numbers build.”

But other times of the year, including the cold of winter, offer viewing opportunities as well. Northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees, blue jays, robins - they’re all common sights during January and February.

O’Keefe marvels at the birds’ ability to survive harsh weather.

“They’re more adaptable than we give them credit for,” O’Keefe said. “They’re strong little guys

“They have the ability to puff up their feathers to stay warm, and they’ll just hunker down someplace out of the wind.”