Birders and Birding

The older I get the more I like birders, the younger ones especially. Yes, we older birders are OK, even with our faults and some of us, who are really old, with our ignorance of the digital age. I would like to ask your indulgence while I do my best to relate a story of a recent bird trip made up of young birders and one old guy.

In early September I was leading a bird class for North House Folk School at the end of the Gunflint Trail. Josh Watson of Grand Marais was my very able and experienced “young” assistant. Josh did a great job in finding birds like a Golden-crowned Kinglet which I can no longer hear because of their high pitched song. A few weeks after the class my phone rang and it was Josh saying “let’s plan an October trip to Cass County to get your list for the county up to 225”, I replied “That would be just great”. The phone call ended with Josh saying, “I will get the guys (John and Chris Hockema, and Shawn Conrad) together and we will go to Cass County at the end of October and get you three species”. I didn’t have a single scoter species for Cass County so they would be the target birds for our trip. Our plans were to go to Cass County on October 26, 27 and 28.

October 26 came and it was snowing but that did not stop our heading north. I picked up Josh at his grand-mothers house in Ham Lake and we headed for our motel In Pine River, Cass County and the meeting with Shawn Conrad. The three of us headed for Walker and the sewage ponds to look for the reported Harlequin Duck, a really “choice” bird for Cass County. It didn’t take long for us to find the Harlequin Duck, # 223 for Cass County. A Harlequin Duck, a good dinner in Walker and a sound night’s sleep in Pine River really were a good start for the trip.

Early the next morning we were joined by John and Chris Hockema and to my surprise we were joined by Becca Engdahl and her friend, Alex Burchard, two young, up-and-coming and enthusiastic Minnesota birders. Our first stop was the Walker Sewage Ponds to look for the Harlequin Duck which Chris needed for his list. A long search proved futile, we could not find the bird, our first disappointment.

To make a long story short, we spent the rest of the morning touring Leech Lake, Cass Lake, and the Cass Lake Sewage Ponds in hopes of finding any species of Scoter, no luck. Shawn knew of some bogs in the area where we might find a Boreal Chickadee. Beautiful Pine Grosbeaks and Gray Jays were present but no Boreal Chickadees. The day wore on and my list stayed at 223. We were all concerned that our target species, scoters, had all but disappeared or were just not here as we had hoped. Shawn said “let’s try Lake Winnibigoshish, I know some good spots where there should be scoters”. On the way to “Winnie” we traveled through some beautiful wooded evergreen areas, all of us were thinking Black-backed Woodpecker. Mile after mile no luck, all of a sudden Shawn said “STOP”. I wondered why, I hadn’t seen or heard a thing. We stopped and we were all quiet when we heard the tap of a Black-backed Woodpecker stripping bark from a tree. We had difficulty pin-pointing the sound but finally we saw the bird on a downed log, # 224 for Cass County. It was a life-bird for Becca and she crept within 15 feet of the bird, and took wonderful photos and she said it was one of the most rewarding birding experiences she had ever had. Her experience with the woodpecker was a real treat for all of us.

Then Shawn said once again “Let’s go to Winnie, there have to be ducks on there”. We searched the bays and shoreline for over an hour without finding a single duck. Finally our luck changed and we found a bay full of water birds, grebes, both Red-necked and Horned plus a few Pied-billed Grebes and a few Long-tailed Ducks and Lesser Scaup. All of a sudden Josh hollered “there is a scoter”, all scopes went to that spot and there was a White-winged Scoter, #225 for Cass County. This turned out to be the only scoter we saw on the trip but it was a “big” one.

The light was fading but we still had time to check further on “Winnie” but to no avail. There just were not any more waterfowl to be found. We had a great meal together in Walker that evening, a few bottles of beer, lots of bird talk and then a great night’s sleep in spite of Chris’s snoring which shook the whole motel at times.

The next morning we tried the Walker Sewage Ponds again but the Harlequin had disappeared. Birding strategy was discussed and it was decided that we would go over to Lake Superior and look for the reported Red Phalarope in Lake County and the Pacific Loon in Cook County. We failed on the Red Phalarope and then we decided to split up, the young birders would go north for the Pacific Loon and I would head south for home. They got the Pacific Loon and I stopped in Two Harbors where I spotted a small group of birders looking through scopes. They were looking at a Mountain Bluebird which was a new Lake County bird for me. I drove back home a very happy birder, 225 for Cass County and a new county bird for Lake County!

Driving home from Two Harbors I was thinking about how fortunate I was to have young birding friends who were great companions and most helpful with their enthusiasm about finding and enjoying birding, it was a good ride home!

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