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Hawk convention shows Duluth is for the birders

SOMEWHERE IN THE SAX ZIM BOG -- So this Robin wanders into a hawk convention and -- Sorry for that, but I can't help being a bit self-conscious when introduced to a group of serious birders at 6 a.m. on a Saturday. Members of the Hawk Migration A...

Birders
Members of the Hawk Migration Association of North America use scopes to catch rare views of a great gray owl, a hawk owl and other birds in the Sax Zim Bog area Saturday. Birders (from front) are Clem Klaphake of Bellevue, Neb.; Chris Chinni and John Weeks, both of Granby, Conn.; Paul Roberts of Medford, Mass.; and Bette Klaphake of Bellevue, Neb. (Robin Washington / rwashington@duluthnews.com)

SOMEWHERE IN THE SAX ZIM BOG -- So this Robin wanders into a hawk convention and --

Sorry for that, but I can't help being a bit self-conscious when introduced to a group of serious birders at 6 a.m. on a Saturday.

Members of the Hawk Migration Association of North America, they're here for their annual conference, hosted by the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory.

The meetings are in Duluth at the Radisson. The birding is up here, and I'm driving the, um, bird-dog vehicle with guide Ben Yokel of Cotton.

Hmm. You could say he's the local --

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OK, no more puns. But by any name, Yokel's obviously very good because we're barely 500 feet down the road when he says "Stop the car."

He thinks he sees a great gray owl. We pull over and he confirms it, radioing the van behind us.

"Well, that just made all of their days," he says. "A great gray owl is one of the most sought-after birds in North America. You could hear their hearts going thump-thump."

Didn't I say he knew his stuff? Either that or Yokel has this bird under contract, with a clause about staying put for a 20-minute photo shoot.

"It's pretty amazing. A great gray is a new bird for me," says Alex Lamoreaux, a wildlife biology major at Penn State University. "Hopefully, I get to do this for the rest of my life."

Raptor counter Craig Houston and his wife, Isabelle, of Carlisle, Pa., have been doing this for a good part of Lamoreaux's life, and it's still the first great gray they've seen.

"I had a magnificent look," Houston says after the viewing. "I really didn't expect to see anything that quickly and not that close to the road."

Word must have gotten out among the local raptors because a few minutes later off another road, a hawk owl hams for us, with a whoop-whooping sandhill crane joining the fun. Yokel and fellow guide David Alexander of the U.S. Forest Service and Hawk Ridge are two-for-two, though the exact location of this find is best kept vague, Alexander says.

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"You could say we're in the Sax Zim Bog. This happens to be a major [nesting site]," he says, implying it wouldn't be if there's an overflow of gawkers.

"This year, there've been about 100 or so in Minnesota," he says. "The expectation is probably six or 10 pairs that'll probably nest. If they raise their young, some of them might stick around."

If not, he says, you can find them in Churchhill, Manitoba. Have a nice trip.

Not everyone makes this trip. Back at the Radisson, there are scientific presentations going on that have attracted attendees from Quebec, Mexico and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"We have a national mangrove park along the Atlantic Ocean that attracts many different species," Fidele Bandele Egalanizibo of Congo's Commission on Migratory Species says -- in French, translated by Hawk Ridge volunteer Jeanne Filiatrault Laine.

"When we collect banded birds, we don't know how to interpret the information on the bands to know where they're from. The government sent us here to get the scientific information," continues Egalanizibo, whose banded species of concern also include sea turtles.

He didn't go birding but did take in Duluth.

"Duluth is very beautiful. I love the countryside. There is very good environmental planning. It's constructed with respect for the environment," he says.

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It's a wonderful compliment and why many of us live here. And all are memories for our birding visitors, who are excited to hear something about their conference will be in the next day's paper.

Maybe I'll come back and hawk a few copies.

I know. I said no more puns.

Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at rwashington@duluthnews.com .

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