For the Birds Radio Program: Cool Migration: 2004
Lots of amazing birds have been appearing in Duluth lately, so Laura and Photon headed out to see some at Erie Pier.
This has been a great autumn for area birders, with quite a few rarities turning up over the course of migration. At Hawk Ridge, there were three sightings of Mississippi Kites in August and early September. Little Gulls, Sabine’s Gulls, and jaegers have turned up at both Wisconsin Point and Park Point, and two Western Grebes have been hanging around Wisconsin Point for a couple of weeks. Practically every day, I read about new exciting birds on the bird chat list serves. Unfortunately, I’ve been spending most of my time working on my book, and so haven’t had many opportunities to go out and see these cool birds for myself. I’ve at least had a few nice things in my own backyard, including a late hummingbird on October first, and White-crowned and Harris’s Sparrows at my feeders for the past several days. But on Friday, I suddenly just couldn’t stay indoors anymore. On the Minnesota Bird list, several people reported seeing a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and a few Short-eared Owls at Erie Pier, at 40th Avenue West in Duluth, so I finally hopped in my car with my little dog Photon for a birding adventure.
Friday was windy, with occasional brief sprinkles, but one of those fine days when you can somehow feel migration in your bones. And birds were on the move. When we arrived at the ponds, we saw geese and ducks rising up, and a small group of Lapland Longspurs took off from the dusty road. Several hawks passed over, too. But the moment we arrived at the fenced-in area, there was the flycatcher, one of my favorite birds, elegant and graceful, its long, flowing tail one of the aesthetic miracles of avian morphology. The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is the state bird of Oklahoma, and one of the loveliest creatures on the planet. A couple of Minneapolis birders were watching it when I arrived, and after enjoying it for a few minutes, I snapped a couple of photos, but it was apparently camera shy and flew to a further spot on the fence. Suddenly a Merlin flew over. Merlins mean business, and this one could have dispatched the flycatcher in short order, but the lovely bird took a dive into the vegetation and hid out.
At that point, one of my birding friends, Jim, came along. He and I walked along the dike toward where he had seen the Short-eared Owls the night before. We spotted the Merlin again, this time snapping up an insect. Somehow the little mite escaped its grasp and was picked up by a stiff gust of wind, the Merlin in hot pursuit. It caught it once again, but again it slipped out of the Merlin’s grip.
As we turned a corner on the dikes, we came upon the Twin Cities birders, who had already found one of the owls flying over the lake. It flew directly over our heads, making quite a lovely show with its striking wing pattern and floppy, owly flight. Then it headed to a grassy spot to alight. Suddenly, in flew that feisty little Merlin again, dive-bombing the owl over and over as we watched. Although Short-eared Owls aren’t very big, they’re considerably larger than Merlins, so the falcon was clearly not expecting a meal. But something deep in the bones of a falcon urges it to take on anything that flies. And something about the owl was steadfast and stubborn as it patiently evaded every onslaught. Short-eared Owls are very steady birds—the only owls to have found their way to the Hawaiian Islands and established a population entirely on their own, before humans were keeping records. Surely if one of these birds could fly thousands of miles over salt water with nary a place to rest, one could survive a playful attack by a Merlin. Finally the Merlin setoff on other adventures, the owl dropped down to rest, and Jim and I headed out. The flycatcher was still not back on the fence, though he’d appear there again the next day. I spent a few minutes watching Harris’s and White-crowned Sparrows from my car, and then Photon and I headed back to our responsibilities at home, rested and energized by the magical intersection of our paths with those of a lost little flycatcher and a graceful and patient owl.