Birding With Bill

Jo kept a journal of six early morning field expiditions with Bill Tefft, local ornithologist.  There are her experiences.  

April 7, 2010

 We met at 6 AM (!) in the parking lot outside the community college and 8 of us piled into a van with the heater going on high.  It was a brisk 28 degrees.  The sun was just beginning to show on the eastern horizon.  This is the first of a 6 session field-based class on the Ely Area birds.  I was luck to get a spot in the roster. 

Bill Tefft (VCC instructor) started us out at the area right around the Birch Lake Dam on Highway #1 south of Ely about 20 minutes after six.  The water is exceptionally low this year and while the returning ducks are usually all clustered on a small area of open water they have already begun to disperse since the ice was history as of four days ago.  On both the running water side (north I think) and the lake side there was only a small amount of duck and bird activity.

Common Goldeneyes 
Hooded Merganzer
Pied-billed Grebe
Eagle on nest – eggs likely to hatch in a few weeks.
Song Sparrows
Common Raven

Bill pointed out the old dike along the south (lake side) telling us the area is usually good birding.  An old road also on that side leads to the CC Camp which is also good birding. 

Returning toward Ely we turned in at the old Ely airport (sign says Forest Concrete and there is a State sign for the snowmobile trail access; White Street is directly across the Highway.)  Follow the very rutted road circling an old ball field.  Bill says this is reliably a good birding area.

Here we again saw/heard a song sparrow.  Bill says it is the only bird singing so early but out where I live on the lake we have the Red-winged Black Birds and the Evening Grosbeaks all exchanging ‘notes’ about their winter adventures.

Kildeer in the grass of the old ball field.
Northern Flicker on the fence
European Starlings in the grass 

Then we headed through town toward the High School.  Bill said that a Common Raven was trying to nest in the tall lighting platforms that surround the High School football field.  Alas, we were unable to see a nest.  However we did spot a raven carrying a stick right there so they may be undeterred.  More on that potential conflict in future notes I think.  We circled around the school compound to the 4th Avenue side and spotted an long established Raven’s nest in the tall spruces along side that busy area.

Back at the college campus by 7:45 psyched up for our next trip.

Birding with Bill,  Session 2,  April 14, 2010

We met again before the rest of the world was stirring – interesting to note that the sun was already up – what a difference a week makes.  Also not as cold.

Bill took us to Winton to begin the morning.  He reminded us that it is always good birding in Winton.  Between the twistings of the Shagawa River and the meandering shoreline of Fall Lake one can always see something in motion.  But be aware that most of the areas are private land.  Bill set up his marvelous scope at a cleared area along the river right off ‘main street’.  It was posted no-hunting and used to be the railroad right away along the river.  A cluster of Canada Geese honked their good mornings.  There were beautiful Wood Ducks cruising near by as were some Common Golden Eye. Also saw Song Sparrows, a Bald Eagle and the Red-Winged Black Birds.  We learned that all the Red Winged we were hearing were male birds which come first in the migration and claim their territory.  The females will come later and get busy with nesting. 

We then headed West on Co Rd. 990 know locally as the ‘Old Winton Road’, came out on Hgwy. 88 Grant, McMann Blvd, which goes around Shagawa Lake.  A right turn, a short distance and we stopped at Old Koschak Farm Natural Wild Life Area.  It used to host the breeding ponds of a DNR fish farm.  It is now a breeding area for lots of different birds and ticks - and mosquitoes Bill says.  The dykes around the old ponds make for interesting and varied vistas over the several viewing areas.  It was here that I finally got the hang of the very good binoculars Bill loaned me:  don’t put them right up to the eyes.

 We heard - but did not see - a Snipe!  I was sure that it was a hoax – remember your days as a camper and being taken on a midnight Snipe hunt?  Bill showed the drawing in the bird book – sure enough there was a Snipe, a shorebird with the characteristic long legs and long beak; but I’m still not convinced.  

 Also spotted were a lot of wood peckers:  Downy, Hairy, Yellow-Bellied Sap Sucker and a Flicker; lots more Red Winged Black Birds, Song Sparrows and another Bald Eagle.  Ducks included Mallard and Common Golden Eye. 

 We crossed the road and walked thru the (tick-haven) grass to Shagawa Lake shore where we saw a Ring Necked Duck.  This bird one I’ve often seen but since it looks pretty much like generic ‘duck’ I’ve never paid much attention to it.  Bill told us all about the nesting habitats for all the diving ducks: the Pileated Wood Pecker hollows out a cavity in a tree, uses it for a season and next year the ducks move in to raise their young, then the cavity is empty again – short term rental tree condos.  We were graced with another Bald Eagle fly-by and then headed home.       

Birding with Bill – Session 3,  April 21, 2010

The sun was well up when we assembled at 6 AM, but it still was cold and we were all gloved and hatted.  This week we had one focus:  Great Blue Herons.  Bill took us to the rookery on Eagles nest.  I didn’t even know that Ely had a rookery and it turns out there are at least two.

Finding the rookery is not easy.  I’d suggest that anyone not really familiar with the area find a guide.  From the Eagles Nest Road we turned west on to Walsh Rd., then wound along that extensive peninsula with its astonishing number of cottages.  We stopped and parked at a gated access to the Tomahawk snowmobile trail, went left on the trail only a short distance and then struck off right on a very faint footpath. The area is one of extremely tall Red and White Pines.  Our appearance in the area - even though we were at least 200 ft from the nesting area was designed to observe from afar and not disturb the birds.  We could hear a cacophony of sounds and see birds flying over.

We could easily see about 5 occupied nests, the birds must be incubating eggs.  Unlike an eagle’s nest these must be quite shallow as we could easily see the sitting birds.  They were visiting with one another as well – imagine a long legged Heron perched on a swaying branch of a pine tree!  Other birds were to-ing and fro-ing, often with sticks suggesting that some remodeling was in progress.  (I hope some of Dan’s photos of the lumber re-supply flights turn out.)  According to Bill, Heron nests are extremely flimsy-looking collections of sticks, you can even see thru them.  Never-the-less they must be sturdy enough to hold the weight of at least three birds.  Bill told us that they use the same nests year after year.  Gradually the accumulation of guano on the trees and nearby grounds will kill trees and reduce the variety of plants.

 Bill also told us that when he has hiked in after the young are dispersed; he has found as many as 30 nests in this immediate area.  I found it curious that the nests were smack dab in the middle of a forested area.  I expected them to be on the shore of a lake since all the heron’s food comes from the lake.  However they are only a short flight from the numerous bays of the nearby lakes.  Eagles Nest lakes, with their shallow bottoms and lots of shoreline, offers their favorite food crayfish and panfish. And the tall, tall trees give them a seriously long view.   Imagine 60 alarmed herons (each having a 6 foot wing span!) rising up to chase off an intruder!!

When the birds were agitated we heard their hoarse and guttural squawks, hoots and squeaks; atonal sounds that can only be described as primitive conjuring up scenes of Pre Cambrian jungles.  I’ve heard that sound before but not known what it was. 

 The Great Blue Heron generally lays 3 to 4 eggs and incubates them for 28 days.  It takes between eight and a half and eleven weeks before the young fledge.  Shortly after that they disperse. 

The only other birds of much interest were was a Yellow-bellied Sap Sucker busily tattooing a dead tree and the lovely Evening Grossbeak.     

 Birding with Bill, Session 4,   April 28, 2010

 It was a crisp 26’ when I pulled into the parking lot to meet the ‘birding’ van.  The sun had been up for an hour; rising over an hour earlier than at our first session.  We headed out for one of the few open areas in our town – the cemetery.  It is apparently a Mecca for birds.  

We checked four blue bird boxes and found ‘reservations’ in three of them. It seems that Eastern Bluebirds are very careful about the placement of even the earliest pieces of grass for their nests.  Even if there were only a few pieces of grass they were tucked neatly around the edges and curved to create the ‘cup’ that would eventually be its nest.  The male bluebird sang brightly from a power line while the female played peek-a-boo in a nearby tree.  Their melodic song was wonderful to hear.  Bill took us through the old part of the cemetery pointing out newly arrived Chipping Sparrows and Tree Swallows .

  I was distracted looking at the old grave stones.  The oldest date of death I spotted was 1891, Ely had just been founded.  Then over to the newest portion of the cemetery where a large area of native, e.g. undesirable, shrubs had been cleared away last fall and replaced by a lovely landscaped planting of – shrubs.  The old plants had been safe haven for migrating sparrows, pipits and longspurs so much so that Bill had nicknamed them the ‘sparrow shrubs’.  I was distracted by Forsythia in bloom!   In Ely! In April!

Then we drove out to check on a Bald Eagle’s nest on Highway 88 (Grant McMann Blvd.)   It had been reported that an unbroken egg was found at the base of the tree holding the nest. This is such an unexplainable happening that it led to speculation of whether the eagles might abandon the nest.  We watched for several minutes but detected no signs of movement or occupation. 

 Heading out to Winton we experienced an eagle fly by – something I always consider a blessing.  We stopped at the river crossing and observed only male ducks feeding.  Bill speculated that the hens may already be sitting on eggs.  We saw Mallard, Common Golden eye, Bufflehead and Common Merganser drakes. Winding our way thru Winton and along the shore we continued to see only the drakes, hypotheses confirmed.  We were unexpectedly joined by photographer Jim Brandenberg when we stopped to watch for Trumpeter Swans where the Shagawa River crosses County Road 18.  Jim too was watching for these rarities.  But no luck with swan sightings on this day.   They have been reported on Fall Lake and have nested in recent years in the BWCAW.  What a wonderful comeback they have made.   

Birding with Bill, Session 5,  May 5, 2010

The wonderful rain had frozen overnight and all the buds were encased in ice.  That’s spring in Northern Minnesota. 

As we piled into the van (all hatted and gloved again!) Bill told us we were headed out to scratch trees.  Scratch trees?  Well, if you scratch at the base of a tree having cavities in which birds are nesting the birds will pop their heads out.  Our target was Pileated Woodpeckers.  We drove out to the area around the Kawishiwi Campground, (Highway #1, just after the second bridge) parked in the driveway of the Forest Service Research station.  There were lots of tall, aging aspen with multiple cavities along the road (holey trees?).   Bill scratched away.  We all watched intently, placing bets on which hole would house a bird.  Four trees (with about 4 holes apiece) before we finally found a woodpecker at home.  The female poked her head out and looked us over turning her head from one side to the other; they must not have binocular vision.  After we had walked on down the road she flew out; breakfast time I’d guess.

We were scanning for Eastern Phoebes along the river when a Merlin dived at the birds.  The falcon then flew to a phone line and watched us while we watched him – stalemate.  We gave up first.  Live birds rather than eggs or rodents are the preferred food of these falcons.

Over in the campground we thought we saw a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, it was moving around so much that firm identification was difficult – but I’ll trust Bill.  Birdsong filled the air:  Chipping Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Robins, Eastern Phoebes, and an Ovenbird, probably more.  The brisk air was loud with birdsong. 

We scratched more trees and roused only a tousled-headed camper and his beautiful white dog.   More mutual watching.  Since coffee wasn’t being offered we moved on.

 Bill talked about the Kawishiwi area as being uniquely and reliably full of a variety of birds.  He pointed out the trail around the campground that leads through a variety of habitats, should be great for birding when we have more time. 

On the drive home Bill swung by the old ball field that we had visited on our first session.  No much moving there:  a couple of Ring-billed Gulls foraging along the road and some Killdeer inside the playing field.

Next week is out last outing.