Thursday, May 31, 2007

Birding Mille Lacs

Mille Lacs (pronounced muh-LAX), lying near the geographic center of the state, is Minnesota's second largest lake, with an area of 132,000 acres, or about 200 square miles. It is probably the best-known fishing destination in Minnesota, and could probably earn the title of "Walleye Capital of the World". Walleyes are king here in MN.

To get to my meetings yesterday and today, I could not help but drive around the shores of this lake that touches the horizon. And, when my meeting was over at noon today, I wasn't in a great hurry to get back to the office. So I grabbed a chicken caesar wrap and unsweetened iced tea from a convenience store, and headed for the lake. I was not after walleyes; my lunch hour was dedicated to birds. I found the perfect wayside rest, where I could park under a tree next to the lake and watch gulls on the dock pictured above.

The gulls looked all the same to me at first, typical ring billed gulls, but after a while I began to notice other mostly white birds among the flock. There were the Forster's terns, hanging out on the end of the dock in their own group. Then there was this guy.

I don't know, I think it's an immature Bonaparte's gull, which would be likely around here, but frankly, my shorebird expertise is quite limited due to lack of experience. It's a smallish gull, with gray patches behind its eyes, and some grayish and even brownish feathers on the wings and rump. Legs were light, I think pinkish, but I'm not sure. I didn't have my good binoculars.

What the picture does not show, however, is that this particular gull had a green fishing jig stuck in its bill. I often wonder just how much lost fishing tackle is out there, and what effect it has on water birds. I heard of one case last fall where loons died of lead poisoning on one lake, from ingesting lead shot and/or fishing lures. Fishing tackle manufacturers, and anglers, seem reluctant to try non-lead alternatives, but I think this is a problem that needs much more attention. This gull seemed healthy, and I hope the problem will resolve itself.

Then my attention was captured by shorebirds. My lack of expertise at gull identification is second only to my lack of expertise at shorebirds. However, this one was distinctive enough for me to positively ID it as a ruddy turnstone. A lifer for me!!! There were a few other little brown peeps among the turnstones, which I have no clue about, other than they were not spotted sandpipers.

I finally reluctantly ended my lunch break. I had two choices in my route to the office: I could go around the south and west sides of the lake, past the condos and casino with all its traffic, or I could go around the north end, with its quaint cabins and older resorts, a slightly longer route. Guess which one I chose.

I stopped at a little beach, which is a publicly-owned Aquatic Management Area. I couldn't help myself. Even though I had exceeded my allotted half hour lunch break, there were more birds to be found. Like Caspian terns, the largest, most flamboyant terns, and the flock of long billed birds pictured above. Yes, like all of my bird pictures taken at 14x digital zoom, it's not too good. It actually looks better at less than full size.

I looked and debated for a full twenty minutes between long billed and short billed dowitchers and marbled godwits, before I finally looked at the legs (dark), size (fairly large), and general gut feeling. Marbled godwits. Ding-ding, another lifer!

I'm so glad I took the time to look at shorebirds instead of speeding by to get back to the office and sit indoors. Nobody was even there to miss me.


Floridacracker said...

I hope you're feeling better.

Ruddy Turnstones are so common here, it's funny to think of them as a special sighting. Sounds like you had a good time shore birding and wowsers, that's a big lake!

I agree on the lead tackle issue and I am an avid fisherman. There has to be an alternative. We made the switch from lead shot for waterfowling, seems like we could make the switch from lead in sinkers and lures.

Deb said...

FC- Thanks, I think I am. Spring colds are the worst.

It is a big lake indeed, and it attracts many shorebirds that I would not normally see on the lakes I work on. And, I haven't spent a lot of time before today identifying shorebirds, so perhaps they are pretty common around Mille Lacs. I don't know.

There is actually a study, based on questions asked in a creel survey on Mille Lacs, estimating the amount of fishing tackle on the bottom of the lake. It's quite huge. I can't imagine that this lead does not find its way back to the food chain. I support the Precautionary Principle. If it has the potential to harm, don't use it.

Lynne said...

WOW! Good for you on the id's! You're way ahead of me in that skill. I nearly emailed you last night to see if you could get away for a day trip to Duluth to track down tha snowy plover and check out the warbler fall-out but I couldn't clear my schedule so, oh well...(dang the orthodontist!)

RuthieJ said...

Hi Deb,
I'm glad you were feeling well enough to share the photo tour around Mille Lacs with us. I always thought it was MN's largest lake and my neighbor told me a couple weeks ago that Upper Red Lake was bigger!
You're fortunate to live "up north"....Mille Lacs is a beautiful area. Definitely beats the "sea of corn" down here in SE MN!

Larry said...

You surprise me-Suddenly you just explode on to the birding seen.-I thought you were a backyard birder only when I first read your blog.

Deb said...

Lynne- dang orthodontist indeed! Park Point is only an hour's drive from here. If I didn't have so much garden stuff left to plant, I would make a trip up there tomorrow.

RuthieJ- I had to do a Google search to check where it ranked in size. I was surprised too.

Larry- I think I've finally stepped into the ranks of full fledged birder. It's been a long time coming, ever since I was six and saw my first painted bunting. Maybe it's getting to be forty and finally realizing, "I don't care what people think as they drive by and see this crazy lady with binoculars looking at a dock full of damn gulls!" :) It is rewarding.

Harry said...

The shorebird in the lower right hand corner of your lower picture is a Whimbrel most likely, beak curve and shortness a true field mark

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