This is my annual warning about wood ticks and the diseases they carry. Birding isn't necessarily dangerous, but ticks are, and Minnesota is tick territory.

Several years ago I was birding in an abandoned cranberry bog in western Wisconsin. Paths were visible, but overgrown. Deciding where to step next I noticed a wood tick atop a long grass stem, perched, waiting for my pants to brush by, giving it a free ride, closer to its next blood meal.

If I hadn't seen the tick I might not have seen it until I pulled it from my leg or stomach. If I saw it then.

This was a wood tick, large enough to see or to feel as it climbs toward your neck. Ticks by nature crawl up — to the top of the grass stem, to your crotch, up your back and onto your neck.

Deer ticks also carry diseases; they are very small, hard to see, very easy to overlook. It was a deer tick that bit me, I believe, because I never saw or felt it.

Driving home to our house in the Wisconsin woods after visiting my mother in Robbinsdale I suddenly felt ill. I was sweating heavily, very tired, and had a serious headache.

At home I took two aspirin and went to bed. The next morning I felt worse.

I checked into the hospital in Shell Lake, Wis.

The blood draw told the story. I was infected with ehrlichiosis, a tick-borne bacterial disease, not Lyme, but maybe worse, even with the continuing misery Lyme can deliver. Ehrliciosis, untreated, can kill you.

The doctor said I was to be treated there, overnight. I asked to first go home for a toothbrush and book. Sorry. Twenty minutes later I had tied the gown to cover my butt, and had an antibiotic feeding into my arm. I went home in two days, feeling fine.

Later that summer two elderly women in our county, infected with ehrlichiosis, blamed the flu, got no treatment, and died.

Nowadays, out birding in wooded or grassy habitat I tuck my pant legs into my socks, hoping the ticks stay on the outside where they can be more easily seen. If I am birding with a companion we monitor each other closely, on the spot, no waiting for home.

At home I turn clothing inside out, look at the seams. Often, clothes go right into the wash.

Ticks are found in more places these days. Our Orono backyard, unkempt for wildlife but still in a fairly typical suburban neighborhood, had ticks. Discovering that was a disappointing surprise.

Since my Wisconsin adventure I have modified my birding habits. "Is it worth it?" becomes a question when looking at off-road habitat. I will walk in long grass or bird in brushy places, with precautions. I remember the tick teed-up in that cranberry bog and the needle in my arm in Shell Lake.

Learn about Lyme's disease, the signs and symptoms. See a doctor if a rash is the epilogue to a birding trip. Check for ticks whenever you leave appropriate habitat.

You just never know.

Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at