Bird Nerd Notes: Early Spring Birding
When I was a kid, I never had much interest in birds. My grandma Bradford kept a feeder, which was visiting by pine grosbeaks and evening grosbeaks. My grandpa Bradford would feed the ducks near his house old bread or cracked corn. My grandma Walli loved bluebirds. Growing up in the country and on a lake, birds were a part of rural life. Birds were interesting, but never caught my attention. Oddly enough, it was plants that captured my attention. I remember in the first and second grade, I would draw pictures of the plants that I found growing in the woods near my home. I folded these pages in half, making botanical guides. I wanted to be a botanist. Birds didn’t interest me much at all.
I enjoy trying new hobbies, so my new year’s resolution in 2016 was to try birding as a new hobby. I simply wanted to try something new and expand my knowledge into a new frontier. My first birding adventure was pretty lackluster. I went to Jay Cooke State Park for a New Year’s birding hike, but we only saw chickadees. However, later that month a wayward Ivory billed gull appeared in Duluth. I set out early one morning before my work meeting to try to find it. Spotting it and then being joined by other birders….all older people with fancy cameras and binoculars, was a neat experience. We were all there for the same thing…though me with a lot less gear. (I do have a camera and binoculars now, but certainly not expensive and i really, really wish I had more ability to zoom… ) I think what really cemented this hobby was my trip to Africa, where I saw over 150 species of birds. But, birding doesn’t have to involve travel or expensive gear. It can happen in the backyard or in nearby parks.
I am still learning to identify birds and I am not terribly studious in my approach. I treat this hobby more like an endless scavenger hunt. It is exciting to add new birds to my list. In the process of searching for birds, I learn more about them, how to identify them, when and where to find them, etc. So, it is experiential learning. It mostly involves seeing the swift departure of some unknown bird and the disappointment that I did not identify it in time. That happened to me several times today. But, when I do find a new bird, it is great! Sometimes, I see a bird, but I don’t have my binoculars or camera. Again, it is a missed opportunity! Another frustrating aspect of this hobby is that most people my age…are pretty indifferent to birds. So, I feel like a bird nerd…who prattles on about some bird that no one cares about. I have to monitor myself to make sure I don’t bore others or put them off with this hobby that they have no interest in.
No birds. The story of my March birding endeavors.
One thing that I have learned this month is that early March is sort of the doldrums of birding. Until this year, I never really paid attention to what birds are around and when. Sure, I always noticed the spring and fall migrations, but I never really paid that close attention to the patterns of bird life around me. In early March, I went to the Sax Zim Bog. This was the last weekend that the bird center there was open for the winter season. I had visited the center in mid-February. The contrast was stark. There were far fewer birds active during my my early March visit. I saw a single gray jay, in contrast to the many gray jays I saw in February. There were no more flocks of white winged cross bills. However, I did see some pine grosbeaks at a feeder on the way out of the birding area. Even though the birds were scarce, I enjoyed taking a snowy hike with my mother. It is too bad that the Sax Zim Bog is so remote. It takes about an hour to drive there and the roads are winding, dirt country roads. Still, it is a great place to go birding.
In mid-march, I went to St. Croix State Park. The goal was to try to do some birding, while reaching my OTHER new year’s resolution of visiting a few more new state parks. I have never visited St. Croix State Park before, but it is only about an hour away near Hinckley, Minnesota. The park was almost entirely devoid of birds, with the exception of crows. I enjoyed a hike and had fun searching for agates in the parking lot with Dan, but as far as birding goes, it was a pretty uneventful day. However, we did spot some immature bald eagles on the way to the park. After leaving the park, we spotted two fields of what I assume were tundra swans. I assumed they were tundra swans because they migrate through Minnesota in March as they head to the arctic to nest. There were also other tundra swans spotted in area fields that week (which is why I made the guess that it could be tundra swans). To really identity the difference, I would have had to see the beak, which is often yellow at the base versus all black (for a trumpeter swan). They also have different beak shapes. Tundra swans are also more numerous, and since there were two fields of swans, it seemed logical that they would be tundra swans over the less common trumpeter swans.
These swans were too far away to perfectly identify.
Throughout the month, I went on various hikes, but did not see much bird life other than black capped chickadees, white breasted nuthatches, and crows. However, with the warm weather this week, there has suddenly been an explosion of waterfowl. Today, I went to Wisconsin Point intent on a short hike, but ended up trudging through swampy cattails to try to identify some unknown waterbirds. I am sure there were new species of birds for me to see, but I could only positively identify a few groups of Common mergansers. Still, this is a new bird for my list! Otherwise, I saw many familiar birds such as Canadian geese and red winged blackbirds. I also saw a gull with a black face, but it flew by too quickly to positively identity. In any event, the sudden appearance of so many waterfowl heralds the end of my birding doldrums this month. In all, my experience this month make me feel more attuned to the seasonal movements of birds in my region. My goal was to see 50 new species of birds this year. That may be a bit ambitious. But, I can say that I am slowly becoming a bird nerd.