Bird Is the Word

local columnist pens bird-watching book

Carrie Weiss, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

First-time author, Steve Betchkal, doesn’t take himself too seriously.  Two years ago, the local columnist was challenged to write something on birds, and Betchkal admits he “got a little carried away.” All of This and Robins Too: A Guide to the 50 or So Best Places to Find Birds in Wisconsin is the resulting product. “Its really arbitrary to pick 50 spots,” explains Betchkal, thus the “50 or so” theme runs throughout. Betchkal’s guide actually ranks 49 places for bird watching in Wisconsin, beginning with Cook Arboretum, which Betchkal notes in the guide, “is almost Illinois, but birds don’t know the difference.” Betchkal’s 50th position is left blank.

The ranking criteria are straightforward; first, Betchkal has to have visited the site himself.  Then, the rankings are based on accessibility, aesthetics, and the number of atypical birds.  For each site, Betchkal ranks the top-ten rare birds found there.

As a guide, Betchkal says, “I’m trying to prioritize for someone that is looking to be efficient.” Betchkal compares his book to a more formal guide; “If you pick up the 500-page book and you’ve got the time to wade through it all, you might say, ‘Well, they all look good.” The book is targeted to out-of-staters that want to visit the best possible spots in short trip. Betchkal devotes two whole pages of specific description to each location, as well as a map and GPS coordinates. He also wants his readers to have a laugh, because, he says, “birders…like a good joke as much as anything.”

And Betchkal should know.  He began birding in Racine, Wisconsin at age 11.  Using 39 years of birding experience, Betchkal writes a birding column for the Leader-Telegram, and has been published in several magazines including Wisconsin West and Birder’s World magazine. His authorial venture began two years ago; “I made a brash prediction to a friend, ‘Ah I can write this book in a week!’ ” Betchkal recalls.

    Adventures in writing slowed his progress a little.  Though Betchkal has birded every county in the state, he realized he didn’t have maps to show the exact locations of his most prized spots. So, like any self-respecting outdoorsman, Betchkal decided to draw his own; “It was like being Stanley Livingston in Africa! I was walking around in a jungle, trying … to draw maps from the ground!” Creating the index to the guide also proved a challenge; “I joke in the book that I’d rather have a live wolverine duct-taped to my face than do one of those things again,”  he says.

After over a year of work, the guide was nearly finished, and Betchkal still hadn’t found a publisher.  He left the project idle for nine months, until last February, when Betchkal was invited to speak before the Chicago Ornithological Society. It was then he decided to publish the guide himself. It was completed in August, just in time to accompany Betchkal to Chicago in September.  Since then the book has been picked up by six bookstores, already selling nearly 130 copies. Betchkal’s local renown has increased; recently he’s been invited to give talks and book signings in La Crosse, Wausau, and Milwaukee.

Despite his aviary notoriety, Betchkal has not let his early success go to his head. He admits, “maybe I really do need an editor here, to hit me with a stick every once in awhile.” Betchkal eagerly awaits fellow birder feedback, especially on those jokes.

Steve Betchkal’s All of This and Robins Too: A Guide to the 50 or So Best Places to Find Birds in Wisconsin is available at Crossroads Books, Beaver Creek Reserve, and the UWEC bookstore.