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!