Bird Nerding Notes: Birding with My Mother
My mother and I don’t spend that much time together. I keep a pretty busy schedule which doesn’t always align well with the schedules of others. But, last weekend we both went birding together. I wanted to visit Savannah Portage State Park and Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge for some birding adventures. I invited her along and since she wasn’t busy, we set off together for a Saturday of bird watching.
The day began with a drive to Wright, MN. It is only an hour from where I now live, but I only visit a few times a year. We went to what once was the Wright Place Cafe, which I hadn’t eaten at in over a decade. I was a waitress there for a summer, back when I was 19 years old. In a way, it is surreal returning to where I grew up since it is very foreign to me, yet near. I feel like a ghost. That I was never really there at all, since the person I am now is so distant from that past self. There are so many years between us. Following breakfast, we set out on our birding adventure.
Our first sighting was just outside of Tamarack, MN. We noticed a grayish, hawk-like bird on a power line, overlooking two pastures. I turned the car around to get a closer look. Unfortunately, this scared the bird away. After a careful pursuit, I managed to get a photograph of the unknown bird. The zoom capacity of my camera is not that great, but it is enough to aid in the identification of birds (even if the photos themselves are not that wonderful). We flipped back and forth between the camera image and our bird book. Finally, we determined it was an American Kestrel. I wrote it down in my little notebook.
Our journey continued towards Savannah Portage State Park. The road wound around various lakes, where we caught sight of swans. However, the shoulder was too narrow and the ditch to deep to stop and look at the swans. My mother promised that I would see swans later, but it was frustrating to have to pass up so many of them along the way! Finally, we arrived at the state park. I bought a sticker for the year and a patch (I am collecting state park patches). What should I do with my collection of patches? My mother suggested that I could sew them onto a jacket, which I wear for my state park adventures. This seems extremely nerdy, but also like something I might actually do. I like having special apparel for various occasions.
Savannah Portage State Park did not have many birds. The small lakes in the park were still frozen and it was the middle of the day by the time we arrived. We went on a short hike by a lake and over a bog walk. This was neat, since we found frozen pitcher plants and overturned trees (from the storm last summer). I would like to visit again during the summer.
We drove around Big Sandy Lake, spotting more swans. In 1850, Sandy Lake was the site of a massacre of Native Americans. Although I never learned this in school (and grew up just 30-40 min away), over 200 Ojibwe died there from illness, starvation, and cold. They were told to go there to receive their yearly annuity payment and supplies from the BIA, which arrived late and in short supply. There is a small plaque memorializing the events at a rest area along Highway 65. This is a reminder that the area really doesn’t belong to settlers, even though it serves as a recreational area today.
After stopping at the Dairy Queen in McGregor, we continued on to Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge. This is where we spotted many birds. Our first encounter was on a small bridge, where we saw various ducks. Of course, the ducks were shy and quickly scattered. I used my camera to try to hone in on some of the distant waterfowl. There were some unique sightings. The first sighting was a duck with a light gray colored back, dark head, and black chest. This was hard to identify and we wrongly identified it as a canvasback. However, after re-examining the photos, it was actually a Greater scaup (or it could be a lesser scaup?). The duck had a blue bill and yellow eye. It was my first time identifying a Greater scaup. Another duck, was a small, black and white duck which frequently dove underwater. We identified it as a bufflehead. This is the first time that I have identified one since I began birding.
We explored the many lakes and roads of the wildlife refuge. Interestingly, when we were stopped on the bridge, a friendly Native American man on a makeshift motorbike stopped by to invite us to watch him make maple syrup. We didn’t take him up on the offer, but he said that there was a group of people making syrup in the park. Even though the refuge is mostly used for recreation and bird watching, it was also a reminder that it also has cultural significance. The park is still used by Native Americans for harvesting wild rice, which as the name suggests, grows in the lakes of the area. The park also features burial mounds which may date back to as far as 1000 BC.
On Rice Lake itself, we spotted bald eagles, trumpeter swans, various ducks, a muskrat, and an Eastern bluebird perched nearby. We heard whooping cranes from somewhere in the area. The ducks were too far away to identify, but the area was teeming with life and I finally was able to see the swans!
We returned to my mother’s house about 20 minutes away. Near her home, we spotted a killdeer and a turkey. The turkey was quick to escape my camera, so I only obtained a photo of its rump. We also saw two more trumpeter swans on School House Lake near her house.
Overall, it was a fun day. Birding can actually be tiring, since there are highs and lows. It is definitely a high to see a bird that I haven’t recorded before. The fact that birds move quickly or might be too far away to identify is a low. It also requires some degree of focus and vigilance, since birds can appear anywhere and may be hard to spot. By the end of the day, I was tired!