Bog Birding Bust

I have heard about the Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota for years, decades even. During winter, it’s a birding mecca – home to many rare owls and other species that visit from the arctic when food and weather conditions get too dicey up there. Birding is good during summer, too. The bog is a place where birds can nest in their natural habitat, relatively undisturbed.

Russ and I had a chance to visit the bog over Labor Day weekend. I’m getting back into birding and was excited to finally be seeing this place I had heard so much about. It’s even mentioned twice in “The Big Year,” a 2011 movie that stars Rosamund Pike, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin. However, no filming was done on-site, so viewers never get to see the bog. The closest is when Owen Wilson’s character spends Christmas at a Chinese restaurant in Duluth, which is about fifty miles away. I suspect even the restaurant was fictional because it didn’t look like any I’ve ever seen in my hometown.

The Welcome Center

Anyway, so I was psyched to visit the bog. I thought since migration season had started, we might have a good opportunity to see birds moving through the area. We pulled up to the visitor center (which is closed now, opens mid-December through mid-March) and hiked the trails that go out from it. There’s a loop trail that starts at the parking lot and a Gray Jay Way that begins at the visitor center.

After all these years of anticipation, maybe I was expecting too much. We only saw a thrush (probably a Swainson’s), blue jays, and the chickadees and nuthatches found everywhere in the north. I was disappointed.

But it was neat getting a close look at a bog and learning the history of the area from the interpretive signs near the welcome center. For instance, I never knew that Jeno Paulucci, famed creator of Pizza Rolls and Chung King foods had a celery farm near the bog.

Gray Jay Way ends with a viewing platform where visitors can see the remnants of ditches that were dug in the early 1900s to drain the bog land for farming. Russ and I pushed through the undergrowth for a better look at the ditch junction. The dark bog water lay acidic and still on the landscape, lending an eerie air to the place.

On our way home, we stopped at one of three boardwalks in the bog: The Warren Woessner walk. We marveled at all the work that must have gone into its construction. We had a pleasant walk but didn’t see any more birds.

When I got home, I asked the executive director of the Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog what was up with the lack of birds. Was this just a bad time to look? Sparky Stensaas said this is the worst time of the year for birding in the bog. Just my luck!

Sparky and I go way back to when we used to be on the board of the local Audubon Society chapter. He took over editing the chapter newsletter from me a loooong time ago. Or did I take over from him?

Sparky also said that the visitor center is only open during the winter because that’s when 90% of the visitors come, but that they probably won’t be open this winter due to COVID. Guess I’ll have to content myself with watching the videos Sparky made this spring and summer, which show there really ARE birds in the bog.

So, don’t be like me. Don’t go birding at the Sax-Zim Bog in September.

Book Review: Hawks on High

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Phil Fitzpatrick talks about his book “Hawks on High” recently at Zenith Bookstore in Duluth, Minn.

It’s about time someone wrote a book of poems about Hawk Ridge in Duluth. And it took a newcomer to do it. Author Phil Fitzpatrick (Hawks on High: Everyday Miracles in a Hawk Ridge Season) has only been coming to the popular bird migration counting station on the ridge for two years. However, with his “new eyes,” that was long enough for him to amass enough poems for this book. His poems are combined with pen and ink drawings by artist Penny Perry.

My favorite poem is “Pringles Prize.” It describes how the hawk ridge workers use Pringles potato chip cans to contain the hawks they catch in mist nets on the ridge. Once the hawks are slipped into the cans, their legs can be easily banded for later identification. Before a hawk is released, the birder eases it “from its cardboard confines” for a short show-and-tell to the gathered bird-watchers. Then it “lifts above wide-eyed kids who now love hawks even more than Pringles.”

Love the wonder and subtle humor of that ending! I gave “Hawks on High” five out of five stars on Goodreads.

Attack of the Killer Turkeys

Today I meandered over to a gathering at the home of some friends who live in the woods outside of town. I had been to their house before, but this time was different. Instead of my friends meeting me once I got out of my car, I was met by some wild turkeys. Two toms and a hen walked up to my driver’s door before I could get out. The toms were both displaying in an aggressive manner and the hen pecked the ground a few feet away.

It unnerved me that the turkeys knew which car door I would exit. “This can’t be good,” I thought. After futilely waiting a few minutes for them to budge, I decided on an alternate exit strategy. I clambered over the stick shift console and went out the passenger door.

20170507_104836The turkeys immediately spotted me and followed. I walked faster. They walked faster. Soon I was running for my life to the house door. Just in time, my friend opened the door. She deterred the turkeys with a big stick and ushered me quickly into the house. I swear the turkeys would have followed me right inside, had it not been for that stick.

She apologized for the turkeys, saying they “just showed up” about a month ago. Although the turkeys live in the woods, they are obviously imprinted on people for food.

Despite trying several methods, the only way my friends have found to deal with them is to carry sticks whenever they go out. My friends say the turkeys also stand at their sliding glass doors and watch them while they watch television. Creepy!

As others arrived for the gathering, our main source of entertainment was watching their various reactions to the attack turkeys. Most people got off easier than I did because my friends made it out there sooner with their sticks.

Once I eventually left, the turkeys chased my car the whole way down the long driveway, as if getting back at me for my earlier escape. They kept at it until I was able to leave them in a cloud of dust on the main road.

Wild turkeys have been in the news lately because they are becoming more common in northern Minnesota. People are wondering if the department of natural resources (DNR) has stocked them or something. Nope, says the department.

In my travels between the southern and northern parts of Minnesota over the years, I have noticed turkeys along the highway. Every year, they are farther north. (Opossums are coming, too. Yuk!) I guess it was just a matter of time before they reached my friends’ yard.

The DNR calls the turkeys’ range expansion “one of Minnesota’s greatest conservation success stories.” Last year, the DNR expanded the turkey hunt to include all of northeastern Minnesota. The spring season is open from now until May 31.

Turkey hunters, if you are having trouble finding your prey, I know where a couple are. Just ask. 🙂

Stalking the Wild Puffin, and Seals on a Conveyor Belt: Adventures in Scotland, Part 4

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Puffins at the Bullars of Buchan.

One of the reasons my friend and I went to Scotland in June was for the chance to see puffins before they left their breeding grounds. My friend studied these seabirds when she was in graduate school, and she wanted to see them again. Me too. As you may already know, I have a thing for birds.

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Troup Head gannets.

Our first try involved a short trip from our cottage at Crovie Village to Troup Head, a nature reserve less than a mile away. The reserve is home to a gannet colony, but puffins are sometimes sighted there, too. I had only seen one gannet in my life (in Newfoundland, sort of by accident). I was thrilled by that, so you can imagine how overwhelming it was to see so many gannets on Troup Head, they were impossible to count. And the view from the cliffs is stunning!

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The view from Troup Head.

But, no puffins. The next day, we ended up visiting the director and staff at the Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit (who I will write more about next) in Gardenstown, the town next door to Crovie, and mentioned our plight. They recommended we try the Bullars of Buchan, a former fishing village on the coast on the way to Aberdeen. We also wanted to see seals, and they recommended the estuary of the River Ythan in the town of Newburgh, not far from the puffins.

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The Bullars of Buchan.

So off we went. OMG, the scenery at the bullars was as spectacular as the scenery at Troup Head. The village is set atop a headland that features a collapsed sea cave that forms a “pot” about 100 feet deep. The seabird colony was home mainly for gulls but my sharp-eyed friend did find some puffins. And a few were close enough to photograph with our low-tech cameras. Score!

Next to find the seals. You’d think they’d be in a nature preserve, too, but they’re not. To find them, drive through the town of Newburgh and follow the Beach Road. You can park right near the estuary. A short walk through the dunes finds you at the river mouth. We were expecting to see a seal colony on land, but what we got was more like a watery conveyor belt of seals.

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Grey seals in the River Ythan.

The tide was flowing upriver. The seals were floating, somewhat evenly spaced, from the sea into the river. Their black heads bobbed past those of us watching from shore with clockwork regularity. Seal head dots everywhere – weird but amazing. Sometimes one would dive, no doubt after a fish, and then resurface farther up river. I suppose when the tide reverses, the seals just float back out into the ocean. We watched for a long time, mesmerized.

Other natural wonders we saw were of a more geologic kind. We hiked a good ways. One trip found us along the coast on the way from the town of Cullen to Portknockie, home of the famous, craggy and triangular Bow Fiddle Rock (see image at the end of this post). I can’t help but think it would make a great scene for an album cover. Too bad I’m not a musician!

001Another hike found us on the Great Glen Way above Loch Ness, making our way through primeval forests and gorse hedges with mountains in the background for accompaniment. I never got to see Loch Ness on my ill-fated European trip when I was ten, so I was especially glad to make it there.

Every place where I travel that has an aquarium, I try to visit. I “collect” aquarium visits like some people collect refrigerator magnets from their travels. In planning our trip, I was excited to discover that Macduff, a town not far away from Crovie, had a small aquarium focused on marine fish. The children in Scotland were still in school, and I was heartened to see several busloads of them gaining a greater appreciation for the sea while we were there. Although the Macduff Aquarium is small, they do a great job on interpretation.

The next day, we got a greater appreciation for marine mammals and the local people who are trying to protect them when we visited with the Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit – to come in the next installment!

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Marie at Bow Fiddle Rock.

Hiking and Emoting for the Climate

ClimateWalkThis past weekend I joined about 175 other people in an event to raise awareness about climate change. If you’ve read my novel, “Plover Landing,” you know that climate disruption (as some are now calling it) is a topic addressed in it, and it’s a cause near and dear to me.

The event was held in a church near Duluth’s Lakewalk – a boardwalk that follows the shore of Lake Superior. Several speakers kicked things off inside the church, and it was interesting to see who the players are, and which politicians are devoted to this issue. It was also fun being with other people who have similar concerns. I’m not sure whether our message will reach from Duluth to the climate summit in Paris, but perhaps this blog will help!

After the talks, we hiked on the Lakewalk, along Lake Superior – one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, but also one that is showing marked effects of climate change.

During the talks, which were heartfelt and inspiring, I found myself impatient with the lack of factual information in them. Speakers mentioned their observations of changes in behavior in animals and weather but admitted they didn’t know if it was directly due to climate change or not. They admitted knowing scientists they could ask about these things, but apparently, none of them did.

No one mentioned the impacts of climate change on the lake, facts which are readily available from local organizations, and I assume, was the reason the event was held on its shores.

I realized that listening to talks filled with too much emotion and few facts was as frustrating as the last climate event I attended — a talk by the state climatologist (see It’s Climate Change, Stupid!) where there were too many facts and not enough emotion.

Somewhere, there’s got to be a happy medium, but I haven’t heard a local speaker yet who is able to mix climate change facts and emotion in a compelling way. That needs to be done for this issue to reach the widest range of people, and to have an effect. And don’t you start looking at me (Smirk). Seriously, I’m a better writer than talker, and my way of contributing to the issue is through my novel (and this blog).

One of the best heart-twisting climate change stories I heard was from a bird biologist and author. She said that in her talks, she doesn’t even mention the term climate change, but she describes how winter thaws, which are becoming more frequent, can kill baby birds.

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Image of a gray jay by Zachaysan (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The species in question is the gray jay. These curious birds are a cousin of the blue jay, but don’t have the pointy head or the bright plumage. I’ve often seen them deep in the woods, where, with whisper-quiet wings, they like to follow hikers and campers. The biologist said that the birds hide small pieces of meat or berries under the bark of trees in winter as food caches for their babies, which hatch in late winter.

If there’s a mid-winter thaw, the food spoils. The parents can’t tell if it’s spoiled though, and when their babies hatch, they feed them the rotten food and the chicks die. The biologist teared up as she described it, and I almost stated bawling right during her talk, too. But then, I’m a bird person. Although we humans may rejoice in a winter thaw, such unusual events can mess up other species.

Not to dismiss the efforts and emotions of the people at my local climate event, but I came away from it thinking that we need more stories like the one about the gray jays – stories from people who know their facts but aren’t afraid to add emotions to them.

We Only Shoot the Things We Love

A male wood duck. Image credit: “Brautente 2008-03-21 065” by BS Thurner Hof – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

Dating horror stories – so miserable at the time but so fun to reminisce about after the dust has settled. And so fun to read. Here’s my contribution.

I met a man and, after a few weeks, visited his house for the first time. His place as well-cared for and impressive – until I got to the den. The walls were covered with taxidermied ducks. Now, I’m okay with hunting. I realize that meat needs to come from somewhere, and that hunting is sort of a dying art. But I soon discovered my date was hunting for a whole ‘nother reason.

His reason came to light when I couldn’t help but comment on the wood duck he had among his collection. Now, male wood ducks are like the Mr. Universe of the duck world. As you can see from the photo, they’re beautiful. They’re also rather rare in these parts. They nest in large holes in trees on the water. They don’t hurt anybody. And as faithful readers of my blog know, I have a thing for birds.

I made some sort of comment like – “Oh, and you’ve got a wood duck. They’re so beautiful….”

“That’s why I shot it,” he said.

Immediately, an irrational part of my woman dater’s brain thought: If this is what he does to things he finds beautiful, what will he do to things he loves? Heat-seeking missiles, maybe bombs? It reminded me of a quote from the poem by Oscar Wilde (“The Ballad of Reading Gaol”), “For each man kills the thing he loves…”

Of course, I know that there’s a big difference between killing a duck and killing a human, but try telling that to my primitive brain.

That relationship didn’t go very far.

My Good Deed for the Day/Week/Month

The ring-necked pheasant I transported last week. Photo courtesy of Wildwoods Rehabilitation Center.

The ring-necked pheasant I transported last week. Photo courtesy of Wildwoods Rehabilitation Center.


When I was growing up, my mom used to encourage us to look for helpful things to do for others or the community. Sometimes it was picking up trash along a roadside, sometimes it was giving directions to lost tourists. Opportunities to help are all around, and she wanted us to be aware and take action when we could.

Last week my opportunity came when a local wildlife rehabilitation center was looking for someone to transport a female ring-necked pheasant to its “forever home” a couple of hours away. I just happened to be going that direction, so I volunteered to have an avian passenger along for the ride.

The pheasant was found by someone’s dog. She had wounds on her side and her foot was clenched into a ball and not usable. The center fixed her up with two weeks of wound care and an orthotic to open up her foot. They suspect she was being used to train a retrieving dog. Pheasants are an introduced species and are not commonly found in this area.

A farm sanctuary that specializes in domesticated birds and deer offered to take her, so that’s where I came in. I picked her up in a carrier from the center and put her in the back seat. She must have liked listening to my book on CD because I didn’t hear even one literal peep from her the whole trip. I met the farm people at a highway exit gas station and we made the transfer.

Yay – good deed done. My mom would be proud. Sometimes opportunities for these deeds are few and far between, but keep your eyes open and you might be surprised by how many come to your attention.

Nantucket Sleigh Ride Via Loon

Loons dancing in the morning mist on Tuscarora Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Photo taken by me in the mid-1980s.)

Loons dancing in the morning mist on Tuscarora Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Photo taken by me in the mid-1980s.)

Strange things happen sometimes in the Northwoods – this land where humans and animals live so near each other. When I was young (8? 9?) my family went fishing on a lake north of Duluth. While casting our lines, we noticed a loon swimming nearby, calling in an unusual manner. As outdoorsy types, we had heard many loons before, but this one sounded more plaintive than normal, like it was in distress.

The loon kept circling — swimming near us, which was also odd for this rather stand-offish species. My dad said something like, “I think that loon needs help,” so we canoed toward it. Soon we saw the problem. A homemade fishing pole crafted from a large branch trailed about fifteen feet behind the bird. My dad grabbed the pole, thinking he could just pull the loon toward us and find where the fishing hook was lodged in it.

Ha! He underestimated the power of the loon. Upon feeling the tug of the line, the loon took off and dove underwater. My dad kept his grip on the pole, and the loon proceeded to pull our canoe (and the three or four of us in it) through the water at a good clip.

Now, a Nantucket sleigh ride is what used to happen to whalers after they harpooned a whale. The whale would take off, towing the whaling boat and its occupants through the sea until the whale tired and surfaced. That’s what was happening to us, only our whale was a loon.

Soon the loon tired and my dad was able to pull it close enough to capture in his gloved hands. This in itself was a feat of daring. Adult loons are about the size of a goose, and their bills are long and sharp.

After my dad wrestled it onto his lap, we discovered the hook embedded in the bird’s neck. Imagine — all that force from our lake sleigh ride concentrated on such a fragile body part. But that hadn’t stopped the loon.

My brother handed my dad the pliers and he was able to remove the hook. We released the loon back into its watery home. As the loon departed, its call was different. Happier.

Was it saying thank you? I’d like to think so.

Jersey Shore Sojourn

Did you know that the United States has a national historic elephant landmark? It's in New Jersey, and her name is Lucy.

Did you know that the United States has a national historic elephant landmark? It’s in New Jersey, and her name is Lucy.

My impression of New Jersey turned inside out last week when I traveled there. Before that, my main experience with the state was gained through several extended stays in the Newark Airport (one overnight on a hard plastic chair) and from brief, accidental, distasteful viewings of the “Jersey Shore” TV show.

What I learned:

Hydrangeas are my new favorite flower. Two varieties are pictured here.

Hydrangeas are my new favorite flower. Two varieties are pictured here.

  • New Jersey is not an industry-strewn state. Nature abounds in the pine barrens, designated natural areas, wildlife sanctuaries, and even in the tangle of forest along the highway.
  • Hydrangeas are obviously New Jersey residents’ favorite flowers.
  • It can get hot there! My Minnesota blood was thinned by the 80- to 90-degree days. There’s even a native cactus.
  • Drivers are not allowed to pump their own gas at service stations according to state law.
  • Liquor is sold as “packaged goods” (which provides easy fodder for jokes among the dirty-minded).
  • The state is home to Lucy, a human-made, six-story elephant that serves as a national historic landmark.
  • Palm trees can grow in New Jersey. Although they are not native, certain species can survive, providing the last word in tropical ambiance for its beach-going residents.
  • Beach culture is alive and well on the Jersey Shore. Several times I had to shake myself and remember I wasn’t in California.
  • Although people can be crass by Minnesota standards, at least one person in New Jersey was pretty darn nice (ahem).

A clutch of four piping plover eggs seen through the fence that protects the nest.

A clutch of four piping plover eggs seen through the fence that protects the nest.

The highlight of the trip for a piping plover novelist like myself, was seeing plover nests, chicks, and adults. While my home of northern Minnesota hardly has any, the beaches of New Jersey are home to about 100 pairs of breeding plovers. These endangered shorebirds (reminiscent in looks to a killdeer, but much cuter) are monitored and protected by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and conservation groups like Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

I also saw frolicking dolphins, horseshoe crabs, diamondback terrapin turtles returning to the sea from laying eggs, and bunches of other birds unusual to me.

If you ever get a chance to visit the Jersey Shore, don’t be scared off by its television-show namesake!

Why did the terrapin cross the road? To lay its eggs, of course! Here's one on her way back to sea.

Why did the terrapin cross the road? To lay its eggs, of course! Here’s one on her way back to sea.

Saving a Skyrat – Part 2

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When my co-worker and I were debating whether to save the listless gull that appeared outside our office last week, she said something like, “Usually, I like to let nature take its course . . .” and I interjected, “But it’s often not nature that causes things like this, it’s humans.” I was remembering a gull I rescued many years ago that had been hit by a car.

As it turns out, although the gull at our office was put in distress by a natural process, the cause probably was us. As you may recall, when I brought the gull to the wildlife rehabilitation group, they said they thought the cause was a Vitamin B deficiency. (To be exact, a Vitamin B1 or thiamine deficiency.) They weren’t sure what was causing it, but suspected it had something to do with the gulls eating dead fish.

Back at the office, that got us thinking, especially after we learned the Wildwoods group had received three other gulls with the same problem that week, and after learning that two other co-workers had seen other gulls exhibiting the same symptoms: wing droop, loss of the ability to fly, and loss of the ability to “speak.”

Being of a scientific bent, we started researching the problem and came up with a paper published in 2009 about herring gulls and other birds in Europe that were dying of a thiamine deficiency. The researchers named the affliction “thiamine deficiency syndrome.”

In the paper, the researchers described the exact symptoms we were seeing: “The general course of this disease in full-grown individuals is difficulty in keeping the wings folded along the side of the body, inability to fly, inability to walk, and death. Other symptoms are tremor and seizures.” They said that the length of time between when a gull loses its ability to fly and death is 10-20 days. Turns out, this was the same paper that the Wildwoods people had discovered last year in an attempt to help more than a dozen gulls with the syndrome.

The researchers attributed the syndrome to “a causative agent(s) acting directly on the affected individual, and/or by insufficient transfer of thiamine between the trophic levels in the food web.” They cited an urgent need for investigation into the cause since bird populations in Europe were declining rapidly.

Putting together what we knew got us thinking: what kind of fish-related problem could cause a thiamine deficiency in gulls? I recalled Minnesota Sea Grant research from years ago about Great Lakes fish being low in Vitamin B1 due to a diet of smelt and alewives. Almost at the same time, my co-worker discovered similar research. Both smelt and alewives contain an enzyme that breaks down thiamine in the fish that eat them, which has caused documented problems in the lake trout, steelhead trout, brown trout, and salmon populations in the Great Lakes.

It makes sense that birds eating fish low in thiamine would become low in thiamine themselves. We didn’t find any research describing this problem in birds the U.S., but we didn’t do an exhaustive search. However, it sure seems like an interesting research project for some enterprising biologist.

It’s ironic that although the gulls are eating what they are supposed to (fish) versus an unhealthy diet of French fries, they are suffering. Remember the debate in the first paragraph about whether the cause is natural vs. human-made? Alewives and smelt are both non-native species introduced by humans into the Great Lakes. So the problem most likely is us, I hate to say.

A local reporter even did a story about the issue, which appeared on the front page of the Sunday Duluth News Tribune. (This story will be available for a week to non-subscribers.)

How is our office gull doing? The wildlife rehab folks report that it perked up after a thiamine shot. It had recovered enough for release the very next day. I am amazed that the solution was so simple, and amazed by what we learned in the process of saving what most folks around here consider as sky vermin.