The veteran birders said it was a slow morning, but after less than 90 minutes of walking around Park Point in Duluth, we had seen more than two dozen species of birds.
"I think that was number 24 or 25,'' said Shannon Robertson as she checked off a ruby throated-kinglet, bufflehead ducks and red-breasted mergansers on her bird list. Usually, the experts said, it would be at least 40 or 50 species in any given morning.
"But, considering how few warblers we saw, it's still a good morning,'' Robertson said. "I love group birding. You see more birds when you have more sets of eyes and ears... And it's a social thing. It's fun to experience this with other people."
On a warm, sunny morning last week, Robertson was part of our group of 18 birders - some newbies, some veterans - to take part in the so-called Audubon "warbler walks." The walk, which started at the Park Point Beach House (and another like it each Thursday in western Duluth) is aimed at seeing the great northward migration of warblers, tiny passerines or songbirds that fly thousands of miles from tropical climates, many to nest in Northland forests.
As the little birds avoid flying over Lake Superior, they fly over land in Duluth. They move mostly at night. During the day they set-down in trees and shrubs to rest and feed. If the weather is very nice at night they will stop less and keep flying. But if the weather is at all foggy or rainy, they will set down and wait it out.
"That's really when the best days are when you see the most warblers - when it's kind of dreary out and not good flying weather," said Kim Eckert, a renowned Duluth birder and author of "A Birder's Guide to Minnesota."
He said the unusually turbulent spring weather, with blasts of snow and cold, also has altered the migration this year.
Eckert was a substitute guide for this Audubon warbler walk. Each Tuesday and Thursday walk offers at least one birding expert and usually more. It's those experts that can spot what appears to be a distant brown or black spot and, using flight characteristics and what time of year it is, declare it a shorebird. In one such case last week closer blobs became sanderlings, by Eckert's declaration, a type of shorebird that was flying north in groups of a dozen or so, hugging the flat calm surface of Lake Superior just off the sand beach.
Eckert took a report of a distant duck on the bay side, focused his Swarovski 60-power spotting scope, and declared it a rare (for Duluth anyhow) white-winged scoter, a big sea duck that nests in the Arctic,
"We don't get many of those here,'' Eckert said, before turning his attention to a flock of greater scaup resting on the bay. As people took turns using Eckert's spotting scope to see the deep greens and purples of the drake scaup's head feathers, a large flock of black-and-white gulls flew by, just above the waves on the harbor.
"Bonaparte gulls!" Eckert bellowed. "They're close everybody, right in front of us."
Bonaparte gulls are smaller, tern-shaped gulls that pass through the Twin Ports but don't nest here. They are another spring fling species that help make field trips special at migration time.
At one point, along the harbor side of Park Point, Eckert trained his spotting scope on a tree swallow as the sun was shining on its iridescent top feathers and highlighting it's snow-white lower half. The bird seemed to be posing for us, perched on the tip-top branch of a lone tree. It wasn't rare. It wasn't a warbler. It wasn't even migrating; it lives here. But it was still special.
"It's a nice looking bird,'' Eckert said.
Marcia Kyle, a retired biologist, was soaking it all in on the warbler walk. A Texas native who now lives in Norway, said she never knew the Northland was such a hot-spot for birding. A retired biologist, Kyle said she has been a recreational birder since she was a small child.
"I feel so lucky to have ended up here. We've seen so many things here. It's really an amazing place to see birds,'' said Kyle, who tagged along for the six months in Duluth while her husband was on sabbatical here. "We've done the Hawk Ridge (spring) migration and the Sax-Zim Bog. You are so lucky to have all this here."
Local Audubon revival?
Josh Bailly, who leads the Thursday warbler walks and who serves as president of the Duluth Audubon chapter, said the group is trying to revive its ranks and its mission. They want more people not just to enjoy birding and nature but also help preserve and protect birds and their habitats in the Northland.
Eckert said the Duluth chapter has been struggling to draw new members in recent years.
Bailly said the chapter's goals toward revival are threefold. The first is to perform more on-the-ground conservation, like a post-2012 flood project Bailly headed to restore 20 acres of forest along Kingsbury Creek uphill from the Duluth Zoo. The project transformed a tract of stunted aspen and birch and planted maple, white pine, red pine, cedar and oak. Now, Bailly is waiting for more birds to call it home.
Second, Bailly wants Audubon to have a higher profile in Duluth.
"Many people know that Audubon means birds. But they probably don't know what we do for birds,'' he said, noting the group is trying to expand its warbler walks into Superior but has been unable to find Superior birder who is able and willing to lead them.
Lastly, Duluth Audubon is looking for a new, younger flight of members, even if they get involved only for a specific project or single issue. Bring your issue with you and join in, Bailly said.
"We know there are people in this area who are interested in issues and ideas that relate to habitat and birds and conservation. We just need to wrangle them in,'' he said. "If you have an idea, and if it matches our mission, let's put Audubon's name on it and get it done."
Free guided bird walks in May
The Duluth Audubon Society hosts morning "warbler walks" each week through May in Duluth, open to the public and free of charge. No birding experience necessary. For those new to the hobby, birding with others can help sharpen identification skills and build confidence. There is no registration, just show up. Binoculars and bird guides are available for folks who don't have any equipment.
• On Tuesday, May 21 and May 28 meet at 7 a.m. near the Park Point Beach House to look for warblers, shorebirds, waterfowl and other birds as they squirt their migration route around Lake Superior.
• On Thursday, May 23 and May 30 meet at 7 a.m. at the Western Waterfront Trail parking lot, 7011 Pulaski St., behind the Munger Inn motel off Grand Avenue in western Duluth. The tour walks around the Indian Point Campground and is a good chance to see warblers and marsh birds.
• The Friends of Sax-Zim Bog offers summer bird tours - including at 6 a.m. Wednesday May 22 and May 29. Meet at the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center, 8793 Owl Ave., Toivola, Minn. about 12 miles southwest of Cotton. Field trips are free for "Friends" members. If you are not a member, the $25 field trip fee includes membership and 12-months of free field trips. To RSVP (required) or for more information, email head naturalist Clinton Nienhaus at email@example.com.
Who was John Audubon?
John James Audubon (1785-1851) was an American ornithologist, naturalist and painter. He was notable for his extensive studies documenting many American birds and for his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His classic "Birds of America," a collection of 435 life-size prints, is still a standard for naturalists and bird artists.
Audubon had no role in the organization that bears his name. But there is a connection: George Bird Grinnell, a founder of the early Audubon Society in the late 1800s, was tutored by Lucy Audubon, John's widow. Knowing Audubon's reputation, Grinnell chose the name as the inspiration for the organization's earliest work to protect birds and their habitats.
The National Audubon Society is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to conservation. Located in the United States and incorporated in 1905. Audubon is one of the oldest conservation groups.
Even before the national group formed, early members, outraged over the slaughter of millions of waterbirds, particularly egrets and other waders, for the fashion hat industry lead to a successful call to ban bird killing for feathers. By 1898 state-level Audubon Societies had been established.
The Duluth chapter of the Audubon Society formed in 1972 to "celebrate enjoying birds, educate the public and protect habitat in our region." Their mission is to "promote education, conservation, and research focused on birds and to preserve and enhance the ecological diversity of the greater Duluth area." The group meets monthly from September through May, excluding December. For more information go to duluthaudubon.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.