Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Bit of Cold Weather Birding

From The Big Year, this is Al Levantin's (Steve Martin in the movie) experience in 1998 at the same location Robert and I went to this past weekend for my birthday.

He kept telling Ethel [his wife], there are a few birds that usually live in the Arctic, but drop into northern Minnesota in January.  Duluth for these birds was like a Caribbean cruise for people -- a midwinter change of scenery with decidedly warmer weather.  Big Year birders who didn't score these species in Minnesota would have to bushwhack for them in northern Canada sometime in summer.  Chasing them now meant you didn't have to battle the mosquitos.

He flew to Minneapolis -- finally, a birding hot spot with a direct flight from Aspen -- and drove north.  He hardly had the heart to tell his wife that he wasn't really aiming for Duluth.  That was just a city most people had heard of.  His true destination was another forty-five miles northwest of Duluth.  Officially, this place had no name; even the roads had only numbers.  But by driving Highway 53 to County Road 232 and then looping up 7, 28, 788, and 213, Levantin would be on cherished ground -- the place birders called Sax-Zim Bog....

By the end of his time in Sax-Zim, he had accumulated whole shot glasses full of stories.  He lucked into the Arctic's two toughest dainty birds, the sparrowlike common and hoary redpolls, gorging themselves at feeders in someone's backyard by a frozen lake.  He found a snowy owl camouflaged on the jammed ice and drifted snow of Duluth harbor.  Mostly unlikely of all, though, was the way he scored his great gray owl.  The elusive flat-faced nemesis of so many accomplished birders, the great gray owl stared at Levantin with brilliant yellow eyes atop an electric pole in the frozen bog flanking the road from Sax (a wide spot in the road discovered by Rand McNally's mapmakers) and Zim (no McNally).

So how did our trip compare?

Standing in the 11 degree cold, checking out the first bird feeder, we immediately saw the common redpoll (which was the bird we had been looking for in our last local outing, when we saw the crossbills instead).  So within minutes of hitting Sax-Zim, I got my ABA Life Bird #500.  

The tough-ass common redpoll (image from National Geographic)

Robert got #500 when a big, head-less, sort of mountain-shaped lump detached itself from a tree and sprouted massive wings.  Not just long, like a bald eagle, but but deep, too -- giant wings.  Thus were we spared the fate of "so many accomplished birders" who do not get the great gray owl... including, ironically, Sandy Komito (Owen Wilson in the movie) during his 1998 Big Year.

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through Duluth, not a creature was stirring -- except for Sandy Komito.  He was wrapped in frustration.  From an hour before dawn to an hour after sunset, he had driven every road and glassed every tree in the Sax-Zim Bog, but he still couldn't find his great gray owl.  It was the only breeding bird of North America that still eluded him.  Wile E. Coyote and the roadrunner had nothing on Komito and his great gray owl.  He had chased it on nine different trips this year -- Minnesota in March, June, November, and two tries in December....

(Though Komito apparently is now convinced, after seeing more flying great grays, that he did see a flying great gray owl on that trip, but he still does not officially count it on his list for his Big Year.)

At a later feeder, we saw a couple of hoary redpolls mixed in with the common redpolls (and they were easier to differentiate than we expected, with brighter white chests and unstreaked white rumps) as well as the boreal chickadee, bringing my list to 503 by the end of the day.  (We also saw some birds that we had previously only seen in the Rocky Mountains, such as pine grosbeaks and gray jays; it's always a pleasure to see birds in a new location.)

So as Robert put it, Happy Bird-day to me!  Annoyingly, however, the two bird species chosen by the ABA for the 500 pins are birds I have not seen -- the northern jacana and the swallow-tailed kite.  Hmm.

Am I already thinking about 600?  You bet.

Note: I almost forgot to say, Yes, unlike Al Levantin, we did not see a snowy owl.  The snowy owl remains our nemesis!

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