"We did see them, right beside the car, picking at seeds in the snow.
"Of course, we had to get up at 4 a.m."
I had asked the man about prairie chickens. We were near Meadowlands, Minn., in the Sax-Zim Bog in late February. I was interested in his answer until he said 4 a.m.
I've done 4 a.m. — military, civilian, fishing, hunting, birding, at least 13 states and one foreign country. Never liked it. Still don't.
I think this fellow was from Pennsylvania, so the chickens counted as a new bird. You make sacrifices for that. I've seen prairie chickens in three states, but I'd enjoy another look, in a reasonable situation.
In the bog you watch for two things, birds and cars. The terrain is mostly hayfields or thick black spruce forest. Birds atop a snowy white field are a gimme. Birds in the forest, well, that's why you watch for cars.
A car parked on those narrow empty bog roads pretty much means the person/people there stopped because she/they've seen a bird. With any luck at all it will be in place when you pull up. And she will point at it.
I missed a barred owl by about 15 seconds. Hate those close calls. The man who was tucking his tripod and camera into his car told me that this spot was very close to where that marvelous owl photo had been taken in mid-February.
Did you see that picture, the owl flying at your face? Great photo. It ran full-width on the cover of the Friday Outdoors section of this paper that week. Just an incredible photo. Well worth 4 a.m.
Anyway, the fellow I talked to said it might be the same owl, not that it was going to behave in the same way. Moot point in any case. It flew away before I got there.
The next car, however, had stopped for white-winged crossbills. Really? Where? Up there, in that tree, which was a tall tamarack, a winter skeleton, the birds little clenched fists at the very top.
At several spots in the bog, residents maintain bird feeders — seed, suet and peanut butter. The feeders are on a bog map, also often marked by one or several cars parked nearby. My midweek visit at one feeding station was a five-car stop. Someone told me that the previous Saturday there had been 20.
Today, so many birders have cameras. It's often hard to tell which passion defines them best, photographer or birder. In either case, if the bird isn't at the feeder, they wait.
How long does one wait? Many bog visitors come from other states, had long drives, accommodation costs, maybe got up at 4 a.m. If you have waited, say, an hour, you might become impatient, but that will be tempered by your investment, plus the thought that as soon as you leave, guess what will happen.
It's like fishing or hunting — patience is part of the skill.
Basic old-fashioned birding offers intangible rewards. You see the bird, period. There is nothing in hand, just a memory, a story. Stories, of course, last forever, to be shared, to be told and retold (ask a non-birder), unfading memories, more so than recollection of whatever restaurant your spouse liked in whatever city you were visiting that other year.
Today, birders are apt to keep a photo, actually many photos of the bird, tagged with date and place, to be uploaded to tiny cellphone screens, the bird perhaps too small to recognize.
It doesn't matter. It's still a story, now with illustrations.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at email@example.com. Join his conversation about birds at startribune.com/wingnut.