For the Birds Radio Program: Rarities

Original Air Date: Feb. 13, 2001 (estimated date)

There may not be many birds in the northwoods this time of year, but the ones that are here are splendid.

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While I was spending the month in January in Costa Rica, just to see new birds, people from throughout the US were gathering in the northland just so they could see new birds. This has been an extraordinary winter for birding up here–as I write this, a Gray-crowned Rosy Finch from the northern Rocky Mountains spent several weeks tucked in by the Cargill grain elevators in Duluth, a Barrow’s Goldeneye, again from the western mountains, has been swimming with Common Goldeneyes near the Duluth lift-bridge, a Gyrfalcon from the far north is hanging out in the harbor along with a Peregrine Falcon, and a dozen or so Snowy Owls are perched on grain elevators, box cars, piles of lumber and taconite, and other strange perches in the Duluth-Superior harbor. A couple of Townsend’s Solitaires—another western species—have turned up near Knife River and in Two Harbors. Great Gray Owls and Northern Hawk Owls have descended upon the Sax-Zim Bog and Aitkin County in large numbers, and dozens of Boreal and Saw-whet Owls have made appearances in many backyards. Those two little owls are the only ones at this point that seem to be having serious problems. Many of them have been found dead or starving. The other birds seem to be in fine fettle, which makes seeing them more pleasurable than in the winters when so many of the birds up here seem to be dying.

These rarities aren’t the only birds that out-of-towners are flocking to see. Just about any time of year you can see Black-billed Magpies, Boreal Chickadees, White-winged Crossbills and Sharp­ tailed Grouse in the Sax-Zim Bog near Meadowlands, but it always feels like a red-letter day when one actually appears. Last summer at least two broods of baby magpies hatched out there, and this winter I’ve been seeing groups of as many as six. Magpies are abundant in the western states, but this little group is a thrilling sight to many easterners. Seeing one, its black and white plumage twinkling in flight, its long tail streaming behind, is a lovely vision. I’ve normally had a terrible time finding Sharp-tailed Grouse at the bog, but this winter I’ve found them twice­ once I had two perched in a bare tree, basking in the mid-day sun, and another time I saw one skulking on the ground in a tamarack woods, acting for all the world like a Ruffed Grouse.

Boreal Chickadees have been elusive for me this year, but I saw one on Spruce Road, which comes off Highway l on the way to Ely. Boreal Chickadees look totally different from Black­ caps. Not only is their cap dark brown, but so is their back, giving them a much darker, more somber appearance than Black-capped Chickadees.

In Costa Rica I saw more than a hundred species just about every day. Here in winter it’s a great day when we hit 25. But you can’t see northern owls or Gyrfalcons in the tropics—heck, for all its list of 850 birds, Costa Rica doesn’t have a single record of a chickadee or a Blue Jay! I’m already thinking about another trip there, but there will always be plenty of birds right here to entice me home again.