Bird travel

Best kind of birding

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

My all-time favorite kind of birding is done on boats on oceans. I’ve taken several trips off the California coasts, but until a couple of days ago only one Atlantic trip, that out of North Carolina. Pelagic birding cannot match whale-watching for popularity, so one day last week Jude and I boarded a whale-watching vessel in the Gloucester, Mass., harbor, and hoped for birds. The chances were pretty good. The whalers go out as far as 35 miles, depending upon where the whales are feeding. That’s a lot of water. We saw five species of pelagic birds: Greater, Cory’s, and Sooty shearwaters, and Wilson’s and Leach’s storm-petrels. The shearwaters are bigger birds, their slender wings almost four feet tip to tip. The storm-petrels are the size of Purple Martins, but with longer wings. They’re all gorgeous
flyers, usually no more than a foot or two off the water, riding the air currents created by wave movement. Pelagic birding guides chum, tossing bits of fish overboard to attract gulls which in turn can bring the true ocean birds within viewing distance. Whale-watching captains don’t chum. You takes your chances. It turned out to be a good day. It would have been even better two days later when the storm named Bob blew by. It surely carried with it birds usually seen to the south. But no tourist boat filled with tank-topped adults photographing whales with their cell phones was going to do that. (There’s something odd about taking pictures of whales with cell phones.) The bird pictured is a Sooty Shearwater, one of two of our five pelagic species generous enough to sit beside the boat for a few moments. Usually, you’re doing your ID work from 300, 400, 500 feet away.


Taking the babies for a ride

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Earlier this year I watched Western Grebes in their courtship dances at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge north of Aberdeen, South Dakota. Last week, in the same spot, I watched young grebes being fed atop a parent’s back. This pair of grebes had two young, both tucked beneath the wings of one of the parents. Sometimes you couldn’t see the small birds. Other times they had their heads and necks extended, mostly when food was offered. The non-carrying parent was fishing for minnows to feed them. What do you do with the babies when it’s your turn to fish? You just extend your wings and rise out of the water. The babies unceremoniously slide off, promptly climbing aboard the other parent. It didn’t look like the grebe chicks were ready for the change, and neither was I, my camera’s shutter speed not fast enough to capture a clear shot of the sliding chick. My favorite spot to watch these birds is the bridge where South Dakota Highway 10 crosses the Sand River in the northern part of the refuge. The river is wide here, lake-like, bordered by high reeds. The grebes fish in the water flowing beneath the bridge. They sometimes are as close to observers as 15 or 20 feet. Terns, gulls, pelicans, and cormorants also feed here.  west-grebe-family-low-rez-51491.jpgwest-grebe-feeds-low-rez-51431.jpg grebe-unloads-trib-5182.jpg  

A week of birding events

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

An urban bird festival begins Wednesday in Ramsey County. This is a free six-day celebration of springtime birds, timed perfectly to match songbird migration. The Urban Bird Festival of Ramsey County includes a dozen bird walks at various locations, observations of Osprey and Bald Eagle nests, displays, demonstrations, bird banding, and a dinner with speaker. This is a come-as-you-are when-you-can event taking advantage of the wonderful bird-watching opportunities in nearby neighborhoods. Take one bird walk, take one each day (Wednesday through Monday). For times, places, and other information go to

The Green Heron shown here is a bird likely to be seen along lakeshores or in marshes and wetlands.


Mark your calendars now for a fun, free celebration of springtime birds, the Urban Bird Festival of Ramsey County, May 13-18, 2009. Everyone is invited to all or part of this six-day event, including kids and their families. Billed as “Where Birds and People Meet,” the festival welcomes everyone, from brand-new to experienced birders, to view the many interesting birds found in St. Paul and suburbs.

Water ballet

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

We’re back from a week of birding in North and South Dakota. We began at Devil’s Lake, working our way south through Jamestown and down to Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. The amount of water on the ground is overwhelming. Every refuge or game preserve we tried to visit was unreachable because of flooded roads. Sand Lake NWR is pretty much under water. The lake is a wide spot in the James River, which begins north of Jamestown. Most of the water we saw in ND will have to flow through the Sand Lake refuge before it can return to normal. Staff there says that could be this fall. High water did not stop Western Grebes from courting, however. At the SD Highway 10 bridge over the James River at the north end of the refuge, a couple of dozen pair of grebes were courting. This was the first time ever that I’ve seen the water dance these birds do, the rush across the top of the surface. Time and location finally coincided. We parked at the bridge (truck traffic is terrible on this road), and watched the show from our vehicle. The birds danced not more than 50 feet from us. It was worth the trip. There is a lot of calling and posturing that precedes the dance. Then, boom, they jump up and run across the water for two or three seconds. Here are shots of preliminaries and the main event.west-g-dance-prelim-6899.jpgwest-g-begin-dance-6900.jpg  

North Dakota

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

We’ve been birding near Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. From the looks of things, it’s been raining here since God was a boy. Can’t tell lake from land. There are some migrants. Ducks and coots are swimming right along the edges of US Highway 2 concrete. Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge was a destination, but we could not find open roads to take us there. Water covers everything. Here is a bird with wind problems. Can you identify it? Answer several clicks down.


American Coot

All three bluebird species

Friday, March 6th, 2009

The northwest corner of Nebraska and a bit of adjoining territory to the north in South Dakota are the only places on the continent were you have a chance to regularly see all three bluebird species — Eastern Bluebird, Western Bluebird, and Mountain Bluebird. The latter is what we are seeing the past two days in South Dakota’s Custer State Park. Pairs are establishing territories and choosing from the nest boxes set here on fence posts along the wildlife tour route. Below, a female Mountain Bluebird approaches a nest box. The male was foraging in the prairie grass nearby, where he found this grub. Eastern Bluebirds should be in Minnesota any minute now, if not already there. They are our nesting species.



Geese at sunset

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

This flock of Canada Geese was flying over the North Platte River at sunset Tuesday. We saw huge flocks of Snow Geese from Kearney, Nebraska, up the river to Lexington. Then, only Canada Geese were in the air, heading northwest.

Way more geese

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

Taking photographs of a quarter million geese at a time has given me trouble. I can’t find a way to capture even the idea of that many birds in one flock. Below is a picture of a very large flock of mostly Snow Geese that rose off a sandpit pond as we left Kearney, Nebraska, yesterday afternoon. It looked more like a weather event than birds in the air. We followed the North Platte River northwest toward Scottsbluff, on our way to the Black Hills. The Canada Geese we found flying against the sunset offered a better photo op. The geese will be leaving the Platte River valley any day now, to be replaced by huge numbers of Sandhill Cranes. There’s still time for you to make the drive down there, but call ahead for a lodging reservation. Thousands of birders will be there, too.



Tens of thousands of birds

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

One of the continent’s biggest bird spectacles is underway along the Platte River in central Nebraska. Uncountable numbers of Snow Geese, Canada Geese, Sandhill Cranes, and Horned Larks are here, feeding and resting before resuming their movement north. We are at Kearney, birding the river flats and farm fields south of town. From sunup to sundown the sky today was laced with strings and flocks of birds, thousands overhead at one time. At the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary here we found Harris’s, White-crowned, and Tree Sparrows, and male Lapland Longspurs just beginning to show breeding plumage. The geese are beginning to move out, while most of the cranes are still working their way here from wintering grounds in Texas. It’s cold, predicted warm weather apparently moving with those Texas cranes. But it certainly looks and sounds like spring. The photos show larks and geese.



Birding in The Bog

Monday, February 9th, 2009

 gray-jay-9155.jpgA friend and I spent Sunday in the Meadowland-Sax-Zim area, the wonderful birdy bog west of Highway 53 and north of Cloquet. Birding there is good naturally, particularly in winter for finches and owls. Residents of the area, however, have vastly improved your chances of seeing good birds by creating bird-feeding stations in their yards and inviting birders to stop and look. There even are feeders and feeding stations more or less in the middle of nowhere, tended by generous souls. The busiest of these consisted of portions of two deer carcasses smeared with peanut butter and fastened to a tree with bungie cords. Not fancy, but it certainly worked, offering us the best birding of the day. (This site is on Admiral Road four miles north of Sax Road (For directions and maps, see Hendrickson’s Web site, linked at right.)  Overall, we found two Northern Hawk-Owls, dozens of Common Redpolls, with Hoary Redpolls mixed in the flocks, Gray Jays, Boreal and Black-capped Chickadees, Black-billed Magpies, ravens, Evening and Pine grosbeaks, and nuthatches of both flavors. The feeders are in place because of the work of Duluth birding guide Mike Hendrickson. He encouraged bog residents to welcome birders and the business they bring to the small community of Meadowland. A visit to the area would be a winter highlight for any birder. The birds are a Hoary Redpoll (I think), and a Gray Jay. redpoll-9092.jpg