Scientists love numbers. They often have what can only be called a sentimental preference for cleanliness over truth.
I like numbers, too. It's an easy means of gauging the relative success of an enterprise. For example, last year we saw 115 bird species on our spring birding trip, while this year we saw 128.
Does that make it a better trip? Not really. But it's a useful shorthand. Only a few sightings stand out from any venture: the scarlet tanager in the trees at the top of the bluff south of Winona; the immature red-tailed hawk fiercely consuming a songbird before our eyes, bones and all; the flock of sharp-tailed grouse we flushed inadvertently at Namekagon Barrens.
Hilary and I were hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail in Gooseberry State Park the other day, a mile upstream from the Fifth Falls. We came across an elegant Canada warbler up there (see above) which is a rare treat. (It put my annual warbler count at 19—a good year for me.) I also saw a merlin.
The trail follows the river, and from time to time we'd stop, sit down on a rocky shelf at the riverbank, take off our boots, cool our feet in the water rushing by, and look for ticks.
On our way back down the hill, we took a two-mile detour across an upland circle loop. I saw my first black-throated blue warbler along that trail many years ago. I have only seen two or three since.
Our best sighting on this visit was a flock of grouse. The babies flew up from the tall grass one after another and hurried across the broad trail to position themselves in the shadowy branches of the pines growing on the other side of the path. They looked to me like supermarket capons, not only due to their small size but also because they didn't have many feathers.
The father started making a commotion in the woods nearby, fanning his tail and ruffing out the black collar that gives him his name: ruffed grouse. It was an explosive event, and it lasted quite a while, because the babies didn't flush all at once, but individually and unexpectedly, like a sputtering, misdirected roman candle. I think there may have been eight chicks in all.
That trail eventually took us back to the river, and we were eager to sit on the bank again and inventory the harvest of ticks we'd collected as we plodded through the tall grass. By the time I was through examining my socks, legs, and pants, my count had risen to 21.
We mentioned to the ranger at the visitor's center that we'd flushed a family of grouse. She smiled and nodded but I could tell she wasn't impressed, or even much interested. She probably hears such stories every day.
Returning to camp, we ate some smoked fish sandwiches we'd bought in Duluth and then took an evening walk across the huge rocky slab that extends out into Lake Superior—one of my favorite places. The frogs were chorusing from the pools that collect on the rocks, and the stiff grass that fringes the pools caught the low rays of evening light, creating a sublime effect. Two loons were drifting aimlessly out on the lake.
Far more strange was the yellow-headed blackbird poking around in the pools on the rock shelf. This is a bird I associate with cattails and marshes in southern Minnesota, though I seldom see one. But with nature, you never know. Perhaps it had developed a taste for frogs?
Back at our campsite, I made a fire and we listened to fifteen minutes of rock-and-roll hits from the 70s that were booming from a site at least 200 yards away, in a different loop. Then quiet returned, or at any rate the pleasant sounds of children shrieking, laughing, and shouting as they chased their siblings and cousins around, blithely unaware that the mysteries of twilight were entering deep into their souls. I came across two more ticks during that time, plodding up my leg. Ticks often appear out of nowhere, but they're never in a hurry.
We hit the hay before the first stars came out. Slept well. No owls, whippoorwills, or coyotes.
I got up once to answer the call of nature. I wouldn't have mentioned it, except that it serves to explain how, when I got out of my sleeping bag the next morning, I had five more ticks on my legs.
Let's hope it wasn't 29.
Let's hope it wasn't 29.