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.
A quick trip into South Dakota produced this Swainson's Hawk, upset as we walked into a deserted farmstead. A pair of the birds had a nest in a woodlot on the property. Shorebirds were easier to find in the northeast than elsewhere, inspite of much standing water. This American Avocet was found at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge. West of the Missouri River, in grassland and pasture, meadowlarks and Lark Buntings were the major attractions. I was surprised at the lack of raptors. Perhaps, as the Swainson's were, these birds were staying close to nests.
A grandson and I went to Crex Meadows at Grantsburg, Wis, Saturday, hoping he could see the Garganey. When we arrived about 10 a.m., no Garganey. There was a young man with a scope who had been there since 6 a.m. He had given the quest 11 fruitless hours on Friday. I figured he was not going to give up, so I asked if he had a cell phone (yes), gave him my card, and asked him to call me if and when the duck appeared. An hour later, as Cole and I were watching warblers, the phone rang with the anticipated message. Using the phone for an alert was just like the old days.
The Garganey made brief and distant appearances throughout the day. We visited with a couple that had driven up from Oklahoma, and another from Missouri. Guest-book records in the Crex nature center show entries by people from Kansas, Montana, and Oregon, the assumption being that they came for the duck. That certainly is not definitive of visitor travels, but it does indicate the importance many people placed on seeing this Eurasian bird.
The teal in the Garganey pond (County Road F and Abel Road) put on the best show waterfowl yesterday. Warblers were thin, just one location I would call good. There were few shorebirds, this collection of a dozen yellowlegs being the best we saw. We did find six garter snakes, five painted turtles, one snapping turtle, and a bat, all important to an 12-year-old a who loves those creatures along with birds.
We also saw tens of thousands of spiders spread along 150 yards of webbing stretched from weed stems along Pump House Road at Crex. Very strange. If you got too close, as I did, they ran up legs and onto neck and hair. Not good. Larger ones were the size of pennies, the smallest maybe an eighth inch.
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.)
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