Column: Bird researcher gets early morning showIt’s 4:45 a.m. on June 1, and after parking along the Portage River in northern St. Louis County, I am trudging through a small bog on my way to a show.
By: Edmund Zlonis, For the Budgeteer News
It’s 4:45 a.m. on June 1, and after parking along the Portage River in northern St. Louis County, I am trudging through a small bog on my way to a show.
Not one of Broadway or even that of Bull Moose (although he’s here, too), but one of birdsong. After avoiding the moose, which remains ambivalent to my apparent clumsiness in the bog, I arrive at a tree previously marked with a small pink flag.
I open my ears and begin to count: a Northern Parula warbler singing just above me in a birch tree; two Swamp Sparrows competing in song along the river to the east; a Pileated Woodpecker echoing a pterodactyl-esque (I’d like to think) call and subsequently drilling its beak against a hollow aspen in a deep resonance that can travel for more than a mile on a morning such as this.
After 10 minutes, I have counted 22 birds and 14 different species. Not a bad show at all, but I need to keep moving.
I am counting birds as part of a master’s thesis project through the University of Minnesota Duluth. Timing is everything with birdsong and
I need to do 11 more counts before 9:30 a.m. rolls around. Hazel branches whip against my body as I continue on my way.
Several hours later, I am headed to the 12th and final count of the morning. I weave in and out of the low, sharp branches of jack pines. Whenever a characteristic rock-outcrop presents itself, I go out of my way to walk on the clear path.
I have made good time this morning, so when I spot the first pink ladyslipper of the year, I bend down to inspect. The moss-mat floor is comfortable and when I look around there are perhaps 30 of the flowers spread between the jack pines.
Amidst the ubiquitous songs of Nashville Warblers and White-throated sparrows, a distant, almost eerie song rips me from my morning reverie. I have heard Connecticut Warblers only on recordings. The deep, slow warble is impressive beyond its novelty.
The bird sounds like it is near my next count location, so I scramble through the remaining jack pines towards a spruce bog. The bog is rimmed with dense alders and cedar, but when I emerge on the other side, the forest opens and the walking is easy.
I am only 400 yards from my starting point, but the birch-fir forest where I started feels quite distant, having traversed a loop of variable boreal habitat about three miles long.
Throughout the last count, the Connecticut Warbler sings incessantly from the top of a black spruce. I can’t help but root for it, although I know that its persistence speaks nothing of the species’ rarity.
At the end of the day, I head to Lake Jeanette Campground off the Echo Trail. After beer brats over an open fire,
I settle in by the shore for a dusky attempt at a pike. Before I can make a cast, a flock of Cedar Waxwings descends into the surrounding trees. They stay low in the alders, peeking out over the lake, occasionally flitting skyward to grab a beakful of mayfly.
I hook the daredevil back onto the rod, knowing the pike was a longshot, and ponder the 20 new reasons to not watch the sunset.
Although many songbirds have already found their way south of Duluth, the raptor migration is in full swing atop Hawk Ridge. Naturalists and volunteers are on site daily Sept. 1-Oct. 31, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. — please join the fun!
For more information about wildlife, visit Wildwoods at www.wildwoodsrehab.org.
Edmund Zlonis is an assistant scientist at UMD’s Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth. He currently works on an avian-monitoring program in the Chippewa and Superior National Forests as well as the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas. His research interests range from describing breeding bird assemblages in areas burned by the Pagami Creek Fire to better understanding the effects of forestry techniques on bird communities. He graduated from UMD in 2013 with a master’s degree in integrated biosciences.