Monday, April 26, 2010

Duluth HMANA Conference Field Trip

I’ve been to most HMANA conferences over the past 30 years. Sometimes I debate myself over the time and financial costs, and afterwards, I am always very glad I went. I first birded in Texas in 1992 as part of the Corpus Christi conference. I had such a great time – I’ll never forget my first Caracara, my first Great Kiskadee, and my first White-tailed Hawk – that I have made at least 18 subsequent birding trips to Texas. I first visited Utah on a fantastic conference at Snowbird. I got a lot of life birds, but was so impressed by Utah’s beauty I have been back a dozen times. And of course, the presentations were fantastic at the conferences at well. With the great presentations at the Duluth conference, I learned a lot because most of the material was as yet unpublished.

One of the highlights of the Duluth conference was the Friday morning field trip to Sax-Zim bog, about a half hour’s drive from Duluth, famous for its boreal species highlighted by occasional spectacular winter invasions of Great Gray Owls and Hawk Owls.

Starting out at dawn in a very comfortable small bus, we all had high hopes but realistic expectations. The trip the day before had seen relatively little in very strong, gusty winds. We were shocked when about 30 seconds off the highway, we suddenly stopped, backed up, and found ourselves looking at a Great Gray Owl perched at eye level on the edge of the dirt road, as though it were sitting next to us on the bus. We were able to back up further and get out without disturbing the owl. The trip was already a fantastic success, because no one, including our superb guides, expected Great Gray this late.

We continued on. Our second special bird was a Northern Hawk Owl, perched on a sign along the road. It dropped down to hunt several times and carried prey back to what we assumed to be its nest while Sandhill Cranes called loudly and flew around the clearing in the woods. It was barely 7 a.m and we already had a fantastic trip, with lifer birds for many of the 12 people on the bus. Shortly thereafter we had a second hawk Owl, even closer, and which flew right over us, low.

There were other birds as well, about a half dozen Black-billed Magpies, Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying on a lek, about a half dozen male Northern Harriers, winnowing Wilson’s Snipe displaying overhead, lots of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and at least a half dozen Bald Eagles close, and a number of ducks. We stopped at two sets of feeders isolated in the bog, but known to produce Boreal Chickadee on occasion. We had to be satisfied with Red-breasted Nuthatches, a Pine Siskin, and a gorgeous male Purple Finch. We had 50 species in an unforgettable field trip and conference.

(Photographs by David Brandes)

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