Sunday, October 26, 2008
California birding is great, but it just isn't the same as good 'ole Midwestern birding. I've gotten used to looking at Wrentits, Black-vented Shearwaters, and other southern California specialties in eighty degree weather year round (actually, considerably warmer in the summer, and a bit cooler in the winter. I got a good fix of Midwestern birding this weekend in southeastern Minnesota while visiting Bethel University in St. Paul.
My mom and I flew into the Twin Cities on Thursday night. We spent most of Friday snooping around campus, gathering information. I won't bore you with dull, non-birding details about it, but it looks like a very interesting school. While outside walking around, I sneaked peeks at Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, and Black-capped Chickadees, all distinctly eastern birds. It was also a relief to get out of the monotonous dry, hot climate of California; it was quite nippy, at least compared to what I've gotten used to in California. The natives were remarking on the "warmth" of the weather as we stood huddling in our jackets.
Saturday was devoted to birding. We bumbled around the roads in our rental Nissan (good brakes), scattering little tornadoes of leaves that the wind was swirling up. We began by birding in the Minnesota River Valley south of Minneapolis - A Birder's Guide to Minnesota suggested this was a good place to start. This book proved invaluable, since it gave good directions to every set of sewage lagoons in the state. We looked at ducks on ponds, eyes watering and fingers stinging because of the wind. We found American Wigeons, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, and other waterbirds on the river and on several nearby lakes. We even saw two Bald Eagles perched side-by-side on a dead snag overhanging the river.
Once the sun began to peep out from behind the clouds, the temperature rose and birds became more active. We had some good luck at Cliff Fen Park on the south side of Black Dog Lake. A chattering flock of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings was roving around the parking lot, and their activity in turn seemed to attract other birds. Several Eastern Bluebirds - the first I've seen since moving - joined the flock, and I found a bunch of different sparrows in the brushy areas adjacent to the parking lot. In addition to White-crowned and Fox Sparrows, I found a few familiar eastern species that I haven't seen in quite awhile: American Tree Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, and White-throated Sparrow.
Naturally, insectivores were very scare because of the lateness of the season - I wish we could have gone a few weeks earlier so as to get a greater variety. However, I was surprised to find an Orange-crowned Warbler energetically foraging in the weeds among the sparrows. They are abundant in California most of the year, but this is getting a tad late for them in Minnesota (I have, however, seen them in November in Michigan).
We headed east after poking around Black Dog Lake a little more, and birded along the Mississippi River. Cruising around on some back roads in rural areas in the vicinity of Gray Cloud Island produced some other nice finds, including Northern Shrike, Wild Turkey, and even more sparrows. In one field I found Song, White-throated, White-crowned, Fox, Chipping, and American Tree Sparrows, plus Dark-eyed Junco. Some of the White-throats posed nicely for me.
We ran into lots of flocks of birds along these roads. Most were American Robins, but mixed in were Cedar Waxwings, juncos, and a Northern Flicker (good ole Yellow-shafted). I managed to get a few photos of a cooperative hatch-year Cedar Waxwing.
At this point I realized that Wisconsin was nearly a stone's throw away, so we jumped across the Mississippi and tooled around Prescott, Wisconsin, for a few minutes. In the few minutes we drove around Wisconsin, I found eleven species for my state list. Maybe one of these days I'll actually visit Wisconsin properly.
My mom and I had a couple hours to spare in the afternoon, so we drove up north of the twin cities and checked some lakes for waterfowl. We had our best luck at White Bear Lake, a gigantic (2400 acres) lake north of St. Paul. There were thousands of birds there, though most were American Coots. Other species I noted here included Canvasback, Common Loon, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, and even a few lingering Greater Yellowlegs and Wilson's Snipes. We hit Vadnais Lake on the way back to our hotel in Roseville, and found it nearly devoid of waterfowl. A family of Trumpeter Swans were putting on a nice show right by the road. Technically, they aren't fully "wild", since this species has been recently reintroduced in parts of the state, and they ignored me while I photographed them from ten feet away.
That pretty much ended my Minnesota birding. It was wonderful to get a glimpse of all those great eastern birds again - I miss even the most common ones, the Blue Jays, the cardinals, and the chickadees. It was also nice to escape the blistering weather of Orange County for a weekend (it was in the mid nineties when we left last week.) Ironically, someone found the second county record of American Tree Sparrow today at Huntington Central Park, just when I got back from Minnesota where I saw dozens. I was pleased to find fifty-eight species in Minnesota in those couple days. This is a low number for just a morning of birding in California, but for late October in the northern Midwest, it is a decent total. Bethel University looked great, and we'll probably be back next fall to take a closer look. Until then, I'll sweat as I search for birds in southern California!