Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
This story is about a marine toilet, and some birds.
Birding from a boat – pelagic birding – is quite unlike birding on land, for the obvious reasons and others.
In late September I was in California for two pelagic birding trips. The first time we cast off from Monterey, the second time north along the coast, at Half Moon Bay.
The trips I took, and have taken about a dozen times in the past, are run by Debi Love Shearwater. Shearwater, name of a family of birds, is a sea-going nom de plume, an AKA.
I like Debi. She’s a solid, buxom blonde a long braid of hair trailing from her ball cap. She’s been doing this for 36 years.
Prior to boarding the 50-foot boatw, which usually carries recreational fishermen, Debi gives birders some rules and advice.
Rule One: Don’t stand in the bow of the boat, in front of the windshield, blocking her view and that of the captain.
Rule Two: If you get seasick do not DO NOT throw up in the boat’s lone bathroom.
The room called the head – nautical for bathroom -- is three feet square and an inch or two over six feet tall. This is an ordinary accommodation on boats like this. The toilet itself is the size of a large cooking pot. It flushes by sucking loudly, then releasing a cupful of water. It is a wannabe toilet.
Seasick: a devastating nausea caused by boat motion with no cure but return to shore, something that will not happen until the trip ends, usually hours and hours away.
If you are among the unfortunate, go to the stern of the boat, Debi says, and feel better back there. Don’t be embarrassed. No one cares. No one wants to watch you throw up.
The back of the boat is no picnic ground, stomach problems aside.
Diesel engine fumes fold back over the stern. There is a deckhand there digging into a five-gallon pail of smelly chopped fish, tossing it out to attract birds. You could be sick back there or get sick back there.
Advice concerns staying upright. The ocean has waves and swells, the latter at least 10 feet deep on the second trip. The boat moves in wicked ways. Standing free of grip on some solid boat part is unwise. Grabbing a fellow birder as you lurch is ill-advised, the domino theory applying.
About two hours into this 10-hour trip Debi takes the boat’s loudspeaker to tell us that someone didn’t listen. Consequently, the head is no longer unusable. Embarrassing? The culprit had to tell Debi.
Eventually, one of the deck hands, the heroic one, cleaned up the mess. Unimaginable.
Most people don’t get sick and do hang tight, so they enjoy the birds. And there always are birds: shearwaters of several species, skuas, albatrosses, jaegers, phalaropes, murres, auklets, sometimes storm-petrels.
The albatross we saw out of Half Moon Bay was of the Black-footed species. It settled on the water beside the boat, wings folded, tail tucked, a handsome brown bird with an upright attitude.
Before I saw my first albatross I envisioned those birds as seriously large and dramatic. Some albatrosses are large, but not this species, relatively speaking.
Compactly floating beside us it looked about the size of large microwave oven. Not exactly “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Birds of Paradise -- incredibly beautiful and strangely behaving birds found in New Guinea and surrounding islands. Video of these birds is always worth a look. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Geographic are working on a project that has produced some amazing video footage. You can watch it at https://www.youtube.com/embed/REP4S0uqEOc.
When you are finished with this video go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcGPF2gTRrA for a brief discussion of avian DNA prepared by the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota. It features Dr. Robert Zink, professor of biology and a world expert in bird diversity and how we study it.
Fall is a great time to visit Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge in the northwestern corner of the state. Sandhill Cranes are the main attraction right now, with hundreds on the ground and many more on the way.
The refuge serves as staging ground for thousands of migrating cranes moving south from Canada and Alaska. There is a lack of water this year, only an estimated 10 percent of available wetlands actually wet. Cranes, even though they prefer it wet, will stop at the refuge as they migrate through. As many as 4,000 birds can be expected.
Many species of grassland and wetland birds can be seen here during migration, spring in particular, and as nesting residents. Cranes nest here, along with Greater Prairie Chickens and Marbled Godwits. During a visit to the refuge a few years ago I saw my first-ever Badger.
The refuge, about 36,000 acres of land, was established in 2004. Major intent was to preserve and restore native tallgrass prairie and wetlands.
The refuge is featured in the most recent issue of the magazine “Refuge Update,” published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The article notes that reconstruction of prairie at Glacial Ridge is the largest contiguous tallgrass prairie project in U.S. history.
The refuge also is the largest contiguous tract of Wetland Reserve Program land in the state.
Work on restoration and conservation is a join effort between the USFWS, The Nature Conservancy, and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service through its wetland reserve program.
The refuge is located about 50 miles north of Detroit Lakes and 20 miles south of Thief River Falls. Access is from U.S. Highway 2.. Immediately to the east is Rydell National Wildlife Refuge. Not far to the south are three more refuges: Hamden Slough, Tamarac, and Northern Tallgrass Prairie.
It’s a fair drive from the Twin Cities, but Glacial Ridge a beautiful place to visit if you like prairies and prairie wildlife. The other three refuges are, of course, also well worth a visit. (Below, cranes in migration.)
Perhaps you know of the PBS program series on birds: Earthflight. I've seen the first two programs, North America and Africa. The photography is absolutely amazing. Spectacular work. I watched the Africa segment this morning on my iPad. Loved it. I was particularly fascinated by the images of crocodiles and white sharks catching and killing other animals. Perhaps that's indicative of my cranky nature today. Which might explain my reaction to the narration. The script is terrible. There almost are more cliches than birds. And the use of the word "but" is excessive, way excessive. It got to the point where I could anticipate without effort and say the word about a second before the narrator did. But this, but that, but them, but those, etc. Eventually I turned the sound off, and pretended I was there, watching with binoculars, accompanied, perhaps, by friends who kept very quiet. It's a visual program enjoyable without sound. I think there's a good chance that my reaction to the script would be the same on my best day ever. I watched the credits twice to make certain that I didn't miss the name of the person who wrote the script. There is no credit line for that. I understand why.
Go to www.pbs.org and look for the Earthflight programs. Links appear on the first page.
Two of northern Minnesota's finest artists have collaborated on a book about hawks. The book is "Hawk Ridge: Minnesota's Birds of Prey." The author is Laura Erickson, the artist Betsy Bowen. Hawk Weekend is this Saturday and Sunday. The book is a perfect companion for a hawk-watching trip to Hawk Ridge in Duluth.
Hawk Ridge is an observation point above the city of Duluth. It's famous as one of the nation's best places to see raptors (and other birds) as they migrate. Birds can be seen in both spring and fall, but the fall movement is the one to watch. Some days are spectacular, with tens of thousands of birds flowing over and along the ridge.
Erickson has been a fixture at the main Hawk Ridge observation point for years. She writes with clarity and passion the life histories of 20 species of eagles, hawks, falcons, kites, and vultures. She tells why birds make Hawk Ridge the exciting place it is from August through November, the fall migration window. She writes with grace, knowledgeable sentences flowing as smoothly as the ridge wind.
Bowen, who works up the Lake Superior shore in Grand Marais, is perhaps best known for her woodcut art. Here, she has painted some raptors, drawn others with pen and ink. Her distinctive style is evident regardless of medium.
Timely is the short chapter on visiting Hawk Ridge because this weekend, Sept. 20 and 21, is Hawk Weekend. Erickson details all you need to know, wear, and bring when you visit.
Special events are planned for both days. Help with identification will be available. Live birds will be shown. With appropriate weather, good visibility and a wind from the north or northwest, these could be spectacular migration days. Broad-winged Hawks are the species that usually has the highest count number, often approaching 100,000 for a season, with one or two days when the majority of those birds could pass.
The Broad-winged total for this season stood at 9,504 for the season to date. That means the big flights are yet to happen. To date, 14 raptor species have been seen. (Both species of eagle and Rough-legged Hawk tend to appear later in the fall.)
Find a copy of the book, then head for Duluth. If you plan an overnight, make reservations immediately. The birds and the fall color in the forests make Duluth a high-demand destination right now. For more information go to www.hawkridge.org
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