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.
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
Cooler water, better birding. That's the message I've been getting from Debi Shearwater as she reports via email on her pelagic birding trips along the central California coast. I'll be out there later this month for two trips, one out of Monterey, the other from Half Moon Bay, north of Monterey. Debi has written with excitement about encounters with flocks of seabirds when the boat carrying her and her clients finds cooler water, water at or very near 60F degrees.
A little Internet research found a report about birding along the Mendocino Ridge, which is north of San Francisco. South of the ridge, which extends 2,500 miles offshore from Cape Mendocino, water depth plunges 5,000 to 10,000 feet. Cooler water from those depths can be pushed to the surface when driven against the face of the scarp. Cooler water, as I understand it, is appropriate habitat for animals, particularly krill, that are eaten by certain seabirds and whales. A report on scientific work done along the ridge said temperature drops of three to four degrees were found, the lowest temp at about 60 degrees. The appearance of cooler water can occur at other points along the California shore, depending on topography of the sea bottom and wind and currents. It is this 60-degree water that Shearwater seeks. Whales alone would make her trips exciting. One day last week she reported seeing 11 Blue Whales plus 20 Humpback whales, the latter feeding together, occasionally breaching near the boat.
My question is what happens to the krill and other creatures eaten by birds and whales if, because of risings sea temps, the preferred colder water cannot be found? What happens to the krill and the birds and whales? Pelagic birding along the California coast would change, I assume, and not for the better. I'm glad I can go out on those boats now.
Birding on the Shearwater trips is the most exciting, the best birding I've ever done. The photo of the Black-footed Albatross was taken on a pelagic trip out of Monterey.
This is about travel, something most of us do, with some birders high on the frequency list.
Later this fall I’ll be in California for two pelagic birding trips, one out of Monterey, the other from Half Moon Bay. I’ll need lodging. Monterey was simple; I’ve been there several times. Half Moon Bay will be new to me. I went online to look at motel accommodations. I usually go to the local Chamber of Commerce web site for a list of motels. I found one I liked. It had open rooms. I tried to book on the motel’s web page, but it was not working. This was Saturday night. I decided to call the next day.
Back on that motel web site Sunday morning I found an 800 number. Why not spend their dime instead of mine? The connection was scratchy, the man I was talking to obsequious. He took my information, then told me the motel was booked full. He’d have to find me something else. Strange, I thought, a 14-hour flurry of bookings at my chosen location. But, a nice offer – to find me a room if his motel had none. I’ve actually had motels do that if they are full and another motel in town might have room. The desk clerks made a quick call or two, and usually found me a room.
The man on the phone did find me a place …. 25 miles from the Half Moon Bay dock from which my birding boat would leave at 6 a.m. No thanks, I said. Drive is much too long. He said he would keep looking.
By this time, the suddenly full motel, the bad connection, the strange man on the phone finally raised the question: who the hell am I talking to. I asked.
motel.com, the man said.
Turns out Google was being overly helpful. It placed the phone number for motels.com on the home page of my chosen motel. I was talking to someone somewhere who did not have my motel on his customer list, and so was lying to me about availability. He was trying to put me into a motel that paid a commission for that service. I said I had to rethink this, thank you, goodbye. I called my motel of choice, and got a room without a problem.
I avoid web sites that offer big discounts on rooms, cars, etc. I am by nature skeptical of just about everything, particularly 50 percent off or cars for $12 a day. At the same time, I expect people to be honest. I suppose almost everyone who uses a computer to find rooms for travel could have told me what was happening. Now I know.
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