Monday, October 08, 2007
Inland sea birding, part 2
After we exited the LL Smith (which now I realize I left my insulated Caribou Coffee cup aboard...sigh...), our first objective was to go get lunch somewhere...somewhere WARM. Steve, a birder from the Twin Cities whom I had met on the Pine County Christmas Bird Count last year, joined us for lunch at Grandma's, a Duluth fixture. Lynne and I shamelessly gobbled down cups of wild rice soup...we needed to warm ourselves up!...and then had some excellent sandwiches.
After lunch, we decided to drive down Minnesota Avenue, across the famous Aerial Lift Bridge, to Park Point (aka Minnesota Point). There are many good places to view birds there, both on the harbor side and the lake side.
On the harbor side, we first pulled over when we saw a few birders with spotting scopes. This had to be good. We encountered a flock of 200+ diving ducks, including Greater Scaup, Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, redheads, American Black Ducks, Common Goldeneyes, and a few others. My interest in birding was revived my senior year in college when my Vertebrate Zoology professor took our class on a field trip to a small lake which at that particular time held a great diversity of ducks. It was a magic afternoon, and I felt some of that same excitement as I scanned the flock in the harbor. Both Scoters were lifers for me.
We pulled over a few blocks later when we saw a group of birders with spotting scopes looking at...a couple of specks out in the harbor. Kim Eckert, master birder of the area, said that there was a probable Barrow's Goldeneye they were checking out. That would be a rare species here. I saw it flying, but I can't say as I could tell it from the Common Goldeneye it was flying with, so I won' t claim a lifetime sighting for it today.
We drove on to the end of the point, parked, and walked along the beach on the lake side, where we observed a flock of little shorebirds, which we would find out later were sanderlings and dunlins. Then we relocated our trip leader, Mike Hendrickson, in front of the public beach house (closed for the season) at Park Point, scanning the turbulent water for birds. He had heard reports of a Sabine's gull, a rarity in the area, so he was looking for it.
There was a loose flock of ring billed gulls working the beach, so any one of the flying or walking white feathered things could be the unusual creature. But, after a few minutes of active looking, I had the quintessential novice (who you calling a novice? I Id'd a painted bunting when I was 5!) birder's moment. I, looking with my 8x binoculars, asked, "What's that darker backed, smaller gull out there? On the beach!" For a few perplexed moments, a few birders with spotting scopes tried to figure out what I was talking about. Then the joyous call: "Sabine's Gull!" It was sitting there, oddly enough, in a footprint in the sand. I wonder how long it had been there. You'd think we had struck gold. The Sabine's is a rarity around here, and to see their underwing markings in flight is a precious experience. I had unwittingly pointed out a highlight of the day for more than one birder.
Ah, the wonder of it all. Just when you think you've seen everything, you see the unexpected if you look just a bit closer. That, I think, is why I love watching birds. There is always something new, something unexpected, and something to learn.
I still have a lot to learn, but I thoroughly enjoyed spending the day with another birder, Lynne, who also feels she has a lot to learn. Wouldn't it be boring if we knew everything, could ID every bird at 500 yards, if everything was predictable? The great joy of this trip was, nothing, including the weather, was predictable, it just happened. When the big waves hit, I was scared, but thinking back on it, when was the last time I was at the mercy of Nature? I have a hard time describing how this made me feel; excited, to say the least. Alive. More alive than in a long time.