Like a Box of Chocolates
With birding, you never know what you're going to get, but it's certain to be sweet.
(Listen to the radio version here.)
My grandson Walter is gone for a week, and I have a LOT of things to catch up on, but Sunday was my first day off and I wanted to start the week with a few hours birding. BirdCast predicted a major migration over Duluth Saturday night, so I went to our best migrant trap, Park Point.
As Forrest Gump didn’t quite say, “Birding is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get, but it’s certain to be sweet.” I missed the Red-headed Woodpecker that other birders have been seeing there for a while, including that very day. And I didn’t come upon any shorebird or warbler flocks. Indeed, I saw only 25 species and not that many individuals, but numbers never tell the full story. I got some of the best photos I’ve ever taken of three species on a lovely, regenerating walk.
The moment I pulled into the big parking lot at the recreation center, I saw my first birds—Eastern Kingbirds. Over the years when I was rehabbing, I took care of a few baby kingbirds, and I always brought them to Park Point for release because one or two pairs always seem to be nesting somewhere near the big ballfields. This year there are three different pairs. The first, closest to the parking lot, was also most tolerant of paparazzi, giving me some very fine photo ops.
The third pair, closer to the road, were hyperactive—I think they might have been newcomers still working out the property line between their territory and the first pair’s. I didn’t get as close to them but did see them opening their wings and tail in agitated territorial displays.
I take Eastern Kingbird photos whenever I can, hoping against hope that I will finally catch a male revealing his yellow, orange, or red crown feathers, something I’ve seen only twice in 48 years of birding, neither time with a camera.
I was surprised how quiet Park Point was on both the avian and human fronts on such a beautiful day. There were a few dogs on the beach—all leashed or under control, but the presence of any dogs at all does tend to send shorebirds away. Sure enough, I didn’t see any sandpipers or plovers there, but that could also have been because their migration is reaching an end this season.
I heard a Gray Catbird in full song near one of the boardwalks while a small sightseeing airplane was coming down and landing too close for me to make a recording of the song, and the catbird was too backlit to photograph. A Brown Thrasher flew past too quickly for a photo, and a singing Yellow-rumped Warbler near another boardwalk didn’t give me a glimpse, much less a photo.
I have trouble distinguishing the songs between the Philadelphia Vireo and some Red-eyed Vireos. One vireo’s song could have gone either way to my ears, so I turned on Cornell’s Merlin app, and it listed Philadelphia Vireo even as my eyes and my camera focused on a Red-eyed Vireo.
Merlin does an amazingly accurate job of identifying bird songs in the field, but many scientists believe the Philadelphia Vireo’s song is designed to trick Red-eyed Vireos, so no wonder it tricks us and our algorithms.
I worked my way to the beach at Sky Harbor Airport. I didn’t see a single shorebird, but the only duck of the day was swimming not far from shore—a female Red-breasted Merganser who let me take a lot of photos.
Then I worked my way back toward the parking lot, this time along the bayside. When I stepped out to a bit of beach near a parking pullout, I got my final wonderful treat of the morning, a Dunlin, who seemed pretty tolerant of a photographer clicking away.
The first known written record of the word Dunlin (well, dunling) is from 1531 in England, referring to the very dull plumage these birds of the New and Old World wear in fall and winter. This being the end of May, the bird was wonderfully photogenic in his or her breeding plumage with the rich rufous back and black belly.
So my box of birding chocolates Sunday morning may have been smaller than I expected, but it made up for size in quality and sweetness.