RAINY LAKE, MINN. – From the Twin Cities, it takes about six hours to reach this sprawling, island-studded lake along the Canadian border. From the moment I got my first clear look, I understood why so many in the hook-and-bullet crowd are willing to make the grueling drive: the place looks like a scene from the golden age of Hamm’s Beer art, pitch-perfect in every detail down to the on-cue wailing of the loons.
I didn’t make this trip to harass fishes or wild game. Instead, I came to improve the most embarrassing defect of my self-image as an informed outdoorsman: an ornithological skill set that makes me expert at distinguishing crow from pigeon, then falters woefully.
Poking around nearby International Falls, I asked around about the local birding opportunities and everyone said the same thing: talk to Lee Grim. A retired biologist with Voyageurs National Park, Grim has closely monitored the fortunes of the park’s most conspicuous avian citizen — the bald eagle — since 1973.
“We’ve got the densest bald eagle population in this area,” Grim said. “When I started, there were about five or six breeding pairs. Now we have 40.”
In the course of banding nestlings, Grim has gotten an up-close close look at the national symbol’s happy return from the brink — and its unusually opportunistic feeding habits.
“We’ve found carcasses from raccoons, loons and turkey vultures in nests. We found the radio tracking collar from a cormorant under one nest. And we always find lots of Rapalas and other types of fishing tackle,” Grim said. “One time, we found a dog toy — a stuffed goose — in a nest.”
Eagles are hardly the only notable feathered denizens of the area. Between Voyageurs and several adjacent state-owned lands, observers have tallied 238 species, including 68 deemed of conservation concern. Most of the Minnesota’s wood warblers breed here and, in winter, owls sometimes flood into the area from Canada. According to Grim, these irruptions — which include great gray, boreal and snowy owls — rival those of the state’s best known winter birding destinations such as the Sax-Zim Bog (which has the advantage of a location just three hours from the Twin Cities).
With early fall migration underway, Grim led me to one of his prime songbird spots — the home of his neighbor, Allan Meadows, on Jackfish Bay. As Meadows trained a camera with a bazooka-sized lens on a natural rock bird bath just outside the bedroom, he marveled at the variety of visitors. “It’s amazing what you capture in your own yard,” he said.
A ruby-crowned kinglet — barely larger than a hummingbird — flitted about and then perched on a lichen-dappled branch. Though we were only 10 feet away, I had trouble distinguishing the telling details until I peered at the display on Meadow’s camera, where every feather and glint of light was vivid. BIRDING PRACTICE
At Grim’s recommendation, the next day I rented a small fishing boat and putted across Rainy Lake’s Black Bay to a landing on the Kabetogama Peninsula — a roadless and wild 27-mile long swath of rocks, forests and lakes — and set out on the hiking trails, with a National Park Service birding check list in hand.
My first dose of birding novelty came with a racket — the familiar sound of a grouse flushing — followed by a flash of motion. The bird didn’t fly off in a straight line or race through the thicket on foot, the typical means of retreat of the ruffed grouse. Instead, it perched on a nearby evergreen tree. I detected an unfamiliar glint of color and realized this wasn’t a ruffed grouse, which are brown or gray, but the ruffie’s far less abundant relation, the spruce grouse.
Hoofing along for the next couple of hours, I did my best to identify the smaller birds I encountered. Those results were less definitive. Inspecting my checklist later, I found a preponderance of tentative question marks — even, I am embarrassed to admit, in the elemental matter of the woodpeckers.
In search of readily identifiable bird, I later drove by car about 20 miles west of International Falls. Grim had told me that sandhill cranes — unmistakable became of their size and general flamboyance — were recently spotted parading about the open fields in this lightly populated agricultural countryside.
As I approached the Big Fork River, I noticed a cluster of large birds assembled along the road. These were not the migratory cranes I was hoping for but, rather, an unusual commingling of bald eagles and turkey vultures.
When I stepped out to shoot a few pictures, the dozen or so birds took to wing. I peered into the roadside ditch, where the partly devoured carcass of a road-killed deer was bloating in the sun, and where the eagles and vultures imparted to this rube birder an enduring principle: Everyone loves a free lunch.
Mike Mosedale is a freelance journalist. He lives in Minneapolis.