Birding Koochiching County In January

Male Varied Thrush
Male Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius), Dave Menke, USFWS

I leave my house at 3:40 A.M., it is a “beautiful” January morning in Minnesota, January 15, 2017 to be exact. I am off on my favorite winter birding adventure in Minnesota, the seeking of a Varied Thrush in a new county, this time in a very special county. Most of my Minnesota birders know me as a compulsive county list keeper, they are correct. I am addicted to finding new county birds in the state which helps me keep track of the distribution of Minnesota birds, another favorite activity of mine.

Now back to my adventure to find a Varied Thrush in a new Minnesota county. As I head north on I-35 the temperature is falling. By the time I reach Cloquet it is well below zero, 9 degrees below to be exact, but the skies are clear and there is little or no wind. Wind is one of the worst things for birding, in my opinion, so I am pleased with a windless day so far. I head north on Highway 53 through Virginia and reach one of my favorite towns in Minnesota, Cook. I get gas and see my first birds of the day a Common Raven and an American Crow looking for food (hand-outs?). I always try and use the full names of birds so people are aware of them. As I continue north on 53 the temperature is on the rise, unusual for this time of year. I reach the Koochiching County line at 8:45 A.M.

Koochiching CountyKoochiching County is special to me, it is Minnesota’s second largest county at 3,173 square miles. It is difficult to build a big bird list in “Kooch”, as many people call it, because the habitat is so uniform, cutover, second growth forests, lack of lakes and much of it inaccessible plus being 300 miles from the Twin Cities. It is my lowest county list-wise at 220 species so any time I might be able to add a species to the list is a special event for me and now to have the possibility of adding a special species, the Varied Thrush, is a county lister’s dream. It is 9:20 A.M. and I arrive, 293 miles later, at the MacDonald’s in International Falls where I am to meet Al Meadows who will take me to the Varied Thrush location. Al is one of Minnesota’s best bird photographers. The temperature is near 20 degrees, just great for the “ice-box” city in Minnesota.

Al seems somewhat upset when he arrives, we exchange greetings and he says he has found out that the man whose house we are going to has a bad case of the flu. My ‘heart” drops to my stomach, all this way and now we can’t go look for the thrush. Al relieves my anxiety when he says “I will take you to the home but I won’t go in because I don‘t want to get the flu, I am going to Panama in a couple of days and I don’t want to get sick”.

We drive through downtown International Falls and to a residential area along the Rainey River. I am prepared to wait for hours if necessary to see the thrush at the bird feeder. We drive in the driveway and I see a man in the window motioning for us to come in, Al says “I will stay in the car”. I go into the house and meet a gentleman who seems very healthy, there is no introduction. All he says is that “the thrush is in the tree”. He leads me to a big window overlooking the river and there in the tree is a beautiful female Varied Thrush. I watch the bird for 5-10 minutes as it feds at the feeder. I thank the gentleman and go back to my car and Al is just leaving, he doesn’t want to get any closer to the flu “bug”.

Curve-billed thrush
Curve-billed thrush (Toxostoma curvirostre), Gary Kramer, USFWS

I decide to head for Grand Rapids to look for a Curve-billed Thrasher that has been coming to a feeder in a residential area of Grand Rapids. It is shortly afternoon when I arrived after a neat ride through wild Koochiching County along Highway 6. I saw Gray Jays and White-winged Crossbills plus 22 Pine Grosbeaks feeding in a crab apple tree in Big Falls. Arriving at the spot in Grand Rapids, I find three of my favorite county listers present looking for the thrasher. Have they seen the bird I ask, “no and we have been here since sunrise”. To make a long story short we all wait another four hours and the bird never puts in an appearance. We had great “bird” conversation but no bird, the trials and tribulations of birding! I finally decide to leave, dejected but happy with the Varied Thrush.

I arrive back home 594 miles later, tired but thankful that the roads were in great condition and that I had no problems. The lack of a Curve-billed Thrasher, there are only four other records for the state, is disappointing but to “bat 500” on a birding trip isn’t all that bad.

Frontenac – Minnesota’s Best Birding

By Bob Janssen, MRVAC President Elect 

It was May 11, 1947, a Saturday morning, and I was on my way to look at birds at Frontenac, the warbler capital of Minnesota. I was 14 years old and I couldn’t drive so my dad said he would take me and a friend on my first birding trip outside the Twin Cities area. We arrived at the old cemetery and it was loaded with birds, Blackburnian Warblers sitting on picnic tables near us. There were Mourning Warblers in the dense undergrowth that surrounded the cemetery. Black-throated Green Warblers were singing their “see-see suzy” song from the tall trees nearby. American Redstarts were everywhere. We spent the whole day watching migrating birds, sparrows, vireos, warblers, thrush’s, flycatchers and wrens pour through the woods at Frontenac. What an experience for a young teenager. I am forever grateful to my father for taking me on this magnificent trip.

A couple of weeks ago I saw the report of a Carolina Wren being seen at the old cemetery in Frontenac. I thought it was time to renew my acquaintance with this area and go and see if I could find the Carolina Wren which would be a new bird for my Goodhue County list. Sunday morning, November 27, 2016, I said to my wife lets go birding and see what the old cemetery at Frontenac looks like after the passage of 60 plus years; I didn’t mention that I wanted see a Carolina Wren. Suzanne is not a birder but she has put up with my birding activities for well over 60 years.

It was a cloudy, dreary day when we got to the cemetery, not a bird in sight, but the area looked just the same as it was many years ago. I decided to play the Carolina Wren song on my tape. No response, after several tries with the taped song. A White-breasted Nuthatch did respond. The best response was from a six foot six human who asked if I had heard the Carolina Wren. I said “No, but I did play the song from my tape”. His name was Ben and he looked disappointed. He said the bird had been seen and heard earlier down the road but he and his group had not seen it. I drove to this area and found five more birders, all of whom I knew. They had heard me play the tape. I suggested we play the mobbing tape and within two minutes the Carolina Wren put on a “show” right in front of us. There were over 25 Black-capped Chickadee’s, numerous Downy Woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches with the wren that had been attracted by the tape. We had beautiful views of the Carolina Wren and it was a life bird for Ben! The Frontenac cemetery once again lived up to its reputation as one of Minnesota’s best birding destinations.

The Genius of Birds

by Jennifer Ackerman. Penguin Press, 2016

Review by Anne Hanley

genius-of-birds-bookIf you enjoyed the David Attenborough Life of Birds episode about the Bower birds’ decorating skills or the Nature show describing research with crows that showed they can recognize faces, you will find this book fascinating.

Ms. Ackerman describes many recent studies showing the amazing skills birds have – navigation, remembering locations and even tool use in some cases. I thought she did a great job of showing the marvelous behaviors and abilities in the avian world. I like birds a lot, but I found my appreciation growing the more chapters I finished.

The book is written for a general audience, so the more technical aspects of the research is not included. If you love statistics, you’ll have to check out the references in the footnotes.