Monday, May 18, 2009

Spring Birding

Many people in our neck of the woods associate the middle of May with Mother’s Day or the fishing opener. Though we love our mothers, and also love to eat fish, for us, mid-May is also the time when the warblers pass through the region on their way to their summer homes in the north woods. For quite a few years we’ve made a weekend trip down to Forestville, an exquisite state park in the hilly upper reaches of Root River Valley near the Iowa border. From there we invariably make our way downstream to the Mississippi and then north to Hok-Si-La campground on the shores of Lake Pepin, where the warblers often pass through the trees in thick waves. It’s the only time of the year when we keep track of our sightings—perhaps because it’s the only excursion on which we see quite a few different species. The tally usually falls somewhere between 75 and 95, which doesn’t seem too bad to me, considering that all but a few of the ducks are gone and we don’t spend much time hunting down sparrows.

But though the pattern has become familiar, the details change year by year, and 2009 was no exception. We hadn’t been on the road more that fifteen minutes when I missed an exit to a detour heading east from Highway 100 onto interstate 494. Rather than backtrack, we decided to cross the Minnesota River on Highway 169 and cut back through Savage to the freeway. But on the spur of the moment, we turned south on Highway 13 to New Prague and continued on across the beautiful rolling farm country to Waseca. We returned to the freeway at Owatonna, and before long we were in Albert Lea!

A nice town, situated on a hill between two large lakes. A nice state park to the east, where, along with the pelicans and coots, we began to spot redstarts in large numbers.

By the time we reached Austin it had begun to drizzle. We decided to leave the SPAM museum for another time, hoping to settle in at our campsite at Forestville before the precipitation grew serious. Which we did. A few trout fishermen were spread out along the banks of the river below our site. Virginia bluebells everywhere. But the birds were largely undercover.

Chips for dinner under the tarp. Twenty minutes of serious rain, and then things grew quiet again. I had brought along some fire-starters and a big box of kindling, and the campfire won its battle with the elements.

The morning was cold (40 degrees) and clear. During our hike up the valley of the Root, we began to spot a few of our feathered friends—gold-winged warblers, a Wilson’s warbler, common yellowthroats, a rufus-sided towhee. (Often these birds are in the same field or bush where we spotted them last year.)

A surprise this year was a scarlet tanager who leapt out of the underbrush onto a dead log a few feet in front of us. We watched him for ten minutes. Spectacular bird. But there were no blue-winged warblers in the trees where we’d spotted them in former years.

Down near the old town of Forestville (now a ghost town) orioles were dashing here and there in the sunlight. We spotted a magnolia warbler, a few palm warblers, a Nashville, and a blue-gray gnatcatcher. And Hilary found four morels on the fringe of the woods that we stuffed into a plastic bag for future use.

Later, as we motored down the Root Valley, we stopped at the farmer’s market in Lanesboro and a farm auction in Fountain. We spent a few minutes in a used bookstore in Winona, took a leisurely drive through the dunes north of Weaver, and arrived at Hok-Si-La to find that a wedding reception was taking place there.

But though the parking lot was full, the park itself was mostly empty—everyone was inside the pavilion eating chicken breasts and pesto. The highlight of that afternoon ramble was the bay breasted warbler, a perfect sighting with his rich brown feathers glistening in the light.

We were fairly exhausted by this point, and the evening low was forecast at 32 degrees, so we made the 90-minute drive to Motel Golden Valley (i.e. our house) and got a good night’s sleep. The next morning we were back at Frontenac State Park by 9:30. We passed a woman on the road going in and I asked her what she’d been seeing. Henslow’s sparrows, she said (never heard of them) and sedge wrens (ditto). But when she mentioned orchard orioles I perked up a little. I knew they existed but I’d never seen one.

“They seem to like the apple tree at the first visitor parking slot in the campground,” she said. “Or maybe if you wander toward the group camp.”

We parked directly under the apple tree at the first visitor parking slot in the campground. No orchard oriole. We wandered the beautiful trails, picking up the blackburnian (one of my favorites) , the Cape May, and the blackpoll. A red-eyed vireo.

We helped an elderly woman who had never seen a Baltimore oriole, though they were singing non-stop from every corner of the campground, to finally see one—and undoubtedly made her day.

Finally, we cut through the woods back to the road and began to trudge back to our car parked beneath the apple tree. And at that point a dark sleek bird flew in front of us and alighted on a sumac stalk that had not yet developed a single leaf. The bird was largely black, but parts of it were a deep brownish red. It sat motionless, facing us, ten feet away, and we knew that it was an orchard oriole. We drew our binoculars to our eyes and scrutinized it at length. There it was.

There is a big difference between seeing a picture of something in a book and seeing it “in the flesh.” It’s not only a matter of detail or luster or vividness. It’s the difference between representation and reality. Yes, orchard orioles exist. We can read that in a book. But has anyone seen one lately? Or are people merely reiterating things they’ve read in other books, ashamed to admit that they’ve never seen one personally? And if these birds do exist, why is it that I’ve never seen one?

And then suddenly you do see one, and your universe expands. The rumors are true. Orchard orioles do exist!

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