Saturday, October 06, 2007

getting my feet wet in Duluth harbor birding...part 1


Today was the long awaited day in which I would meet my blogging friend Lynne, board a Lake Superior research vessel, and look for pelagic bird species off the coast of Duluth, MN. The trip is planned to coincide with the migration of various loons, jaegers, gulls, ducks, and shorebirds on Lake Superior. I had never been on a boat in Lake Superior, which I thought might be fun, and I had never seen many of the species we were looking for, which sounded fun, and there were a bunch of good (way better than me) birders signed up, which sounded really fun.

However, when I called up the weather report at 5:30 AM, it looked gloomy. 25 mph winds from the east, fog, and potential thunderstorms. My spirits sank, but I still had the prospect of meeting Lynne and all the other birders and doing some birding from shore, if we did not go out.

We all met at 7:30 AM with our leader, Mike Hendrickson, and the boat captain offered three options: 1) we could do a limited trip out on the lake, and get seasick; 2) we could do a longer trip in the protected waters of Duluth/Superior Harbor; or 3) we could give up on the prospect of a boat trip and try birding from land, no charge. We reached a consensus on #2.

So we boarded the LL Smith, and we headed out on waters I have seen only from land and bridges, the harbor protected by Minnesota Point and Wisconsin Point. We saw several Great Lakes ships and some "salties", ships that would venture beyond the St. Lawrence Seaway into the Atlantic Ocean. It has been a good year for salties; the grain harvest in many parts of the world has not been good, so they are shipping lots of grain from the Midwest.

Part of the birding strategy involved "chumming" seagulls with popcorn. We were all required to bring at least a bag of popcorn; Lynne scored more than a few bags from a Wal Mart. One couple brought this huge bag of cheese corn, which looked more like orange paintballs when it was tossed out.

We hadn't seen many birds in the harbor, and the whole trip was kind of improvised, so the captain and Mike decided to run out as far as we could into the little channel that separates Minnesota Point from Wisconsin Point, heading out into the open lake. That's when things got interesting.

The closer we got to the lake, the larger the waves got. Which was okay, when we were headed into them, sort of. We were seeing lots of herring and ring billed gulls, and even a bald eagle. But sooner or later we had to turn around...

One good 6 foot wave eased me uneasily into a sitting position on the picnic table on the stern of the boat. I clung to the table while we turned around. Okay, I thought, as long as I hang on, this is okay. We headed towards the lake once again, and once again the waves grew. This was a big enough boat, but I started having visions of plunging into a trough and being swamped by the biggest wave ever. Seriously, these were the biggest waves I'd ever seen, anywhere.

While we were turning around once more, suddenly I glanced to starboard and saw some huge rollers coming our way, and we were at an angle to them. We were tossed up, then down, then up, down, and suddenly water came rushing over the stern. All of us in that part of the boat were instantly soaked over our knees.

I don't think anyone, including our leader, envisioned anything like this. Everyone was okay, but lots of us were very wet. Add that to the strong wind, and temperature of about 50 degrees, and suddenly I had the strong urge to be sitting in front of the wood stove at home. However, I am somewhat used to working in boats, in smaller waters but similar weather conditions. I was a bit chilly but within my comfort zone, and as we approached the calmer waters of the harbor I enjoyed the trip more and more.

We didn't see most of the birds we were hoping to see; a close up view of a Caspian tern was about the highlight of the trip. The most commonly seen species was the cormorant. However, I don't think anyone was really disappointed; after all, we got out on the water, and had a chance to get to meet others with the common interest of birding. One birder on the trip had been the leader of my Christmas Bird Count group; we recalled tramping through pine woods to be rewarded by seeing a Gray Jay, unusual for the area. It was good to connect faces to the names I see on the Minnesota Ornithologist's Union listserv.

But the day was not over...plenty of birding opportunities existed on Park Point...stay tuned!


barefoot gardener said...

WooHoo! Sounds like a lot of fun...and the excitement of a near-death experience on top of it all!

Glad to hear you had a good time, even though you didn't see what you hoped to see.

RuthieJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pablo said...

I remember reading a book of a retired man who canoed across the Great Lakes!

RuthieJ said...

Gosh, Deb, I'm such a landlubber. Reading your story gave me goosebumps! I would have been hiding somewhere inside the cabin trying not to look out a window till the boat was 20 feet from docking at the shore.

Deb said...

Barefoot Gardener- I'm not normally a thrill seeker, but something about surviving those big waves has me feeling...exhilarated. Like I hadn't taken enough chances lately, but this made up for it.

Pablo- that must have been one big canoe. This boat was forty feet; anything less would have been no match for those waves!

RuthieJ- I was surprised I had to get my sea legs when I boarded the boat. It takes some getting used to.

I am having major problems with my keyboard and wireless mouse. It must be a problem with the transmitter or receiver, since both keyboard and mouse have gone haywire. Sometimes a key just sticks. Aarrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

LauraHinNJ said...

Glad you didn't get seasick!

Anything pelagic makes me nervous!

denise said...

My only "Big Water" experience has been the ferry from Bayfield to Madeline Island in the Apostle Islands. However, the Indians who settled Madeline got there by canoe (how else?). They were far more intrepid than I! Beautiful black water, isn't it?

Lynne said...

That's a boat ride I'll NEVER forget! But even cold and wet, I had a blast spending the day with you Deb.

Anonymous said...

Can't remember how I stumbled upon your blog, but now I visit every day (every work day, that is - only have internet access at work right now). Anyway, I grew up in Superior, and one of my very favorite places in the world has to be on the shores of Lake Superior, in all kinds of weather. It's what I miss the most. I've stood many a time on the pier on the Wisconsin side of the channels you wrote about, and watched those big rollers coming through, thinking about how deep that water is... Now I think about how brave you are!!
(and I hear Gordon Lightfoot singing in the background: "The legend lives on from the ChHippewa on down...")
Anyway - thanks for letting me visit the Great Northland through your blog!
Carla in Idaho

Deb said...

LauraHinNJ- I was relying on my experience in smaller boats. I generally don't get seasick, and I'm glad that was the case on this trip!

Denise- They probably made their crossings on calmer days than this! But yes, Lake Superior water is dark, not crystal clear like a Caribbean beach, and it is beautiful.

Lynne- Likewise. I think we make great birding partners. And, you're just more extroverted enough than I am to talk to all the other birders, and get more good information. I thoroughly enjoyed the day!

Carla- Hi, and thanks for commenting! I just love Lake Superior...somehow this day with all its wind energy and waves on the shore just left me exhilarated. Funny how you mention Gordon Lightfoot; Mike Hendrickson, the leader of the trip, had a hilarious post on his blog about our experience, and he spoke of meeting Gordon Lightfoot face to face that day!