For the Birds Radio Program: Birdathon!

Original Air Date: May 21, 1999 (estimated date)

Laura is preparing for Duluth Audubon’s Birdathon. [no-longer-in-use phone number]

Audio missing


Tomorrow is Duluth Audubon’s annual Birdathon, the day when teams of birders scour St. Louis County in search of as many species as they can find in support of Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve. We’ re competitive: the winning team gets prizes, plus everyone wants to amass the greatest total possible because the money people pledge is based on the number of species we see. There will be birders at every good spot in the county tomorrow, all scanning and scoping and pishing–that is, saying “psh psh psh” into the trees, in hopes of unearthing the rarest birds of the day.

This year something like 20 teams will be competing. There are all levels of birders on teams, with names such as the Weasels and the Tall Boys. My team, made up of four women, named ourselves after the one bird on the planet that has separate names for males and females–we’ re the Reeves. Males of the same shorebird species are called Ruffs. The best team name of all belong to Terry Wien’s group. They bird all day on bikes, and call themselves the Pedal Pishers.

My team didn’t go last year, because all of us had scheduling problems, but this year we’ re pretty much back to our old routine. We’ ll actually start this evening, when we drive to Meadowlands to stay with some dear friends of mine, Chuck and Gail Prudhomme. They put us up in a lovely cabin which we never get to enjoy for as long as we’d like, because we set our alarm clocks for 2:30 am and go right to sleep.

It’s very dark when we get up, but less quiet than you might think. Above the peepings and scrapings of frogs we usually hear the first birds of the day before we’re even out of the woods. Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and Veeries often sing in their sleep, and we listen hard as we sneak away, trying not to wake up Chuck and Gail.

The reason we start so early is not to hear those first woodland birds, but to hear birds of the night. We listen and hoot for owls as we drive toward Stone Lake Road in the Sax-Zim Bog. That is one of the most reliable places in the country for hearing Yellow Rails, and we’ve managed to discover these elusive marsh birds a couple of times over the years. We can also usually hear Le Conte’s Sparrows and bitterns in the marsh, along with birds we could hear later in the day, like yellowthroats and Swamp Sparrows.

Then we proceed to Stone Lake itself, at the end of the road, where we eat our breakfast at a little picnic grove. One year a beautiful male Scarlet Tanager flew in and sang for us while we ate. Each year we seem to chance upon our first warbler wave in this lovely spot.

We bird throughout the bog, searching for Great Gray Owls and Connecticut Warblers and other cool species as we wend our way toward Duluth. We take the scenic route, stopping at the Floodwood Sewage Ponds, the Canosia Road gravel pit where Trumpeter Swans now spend their summers, and other out-of the way spots where good birds might be.

In Duluth, we have several places to hit, from Magney Snively Park where the hardwood trees may harbor Black-throated Blue Warblers and tanagers, the diked ponds at 40th Avenue West for shorebirds and where a couple of years ago all the groups saw a Burrowing Owl, Park Point, and up the shore to Stoney Point. By day’s end we’ll be exhausted, but with luck and hard work we just may have achieved our goal of 150 or more species. It’s a lot of work, but the pleasures of each bird as we see it and the satisfaction our list will give at day’s end are well worth it. If you want to make a pledge to support Hawk Ridge, give me a call at [218-525-4729 no longer in use]. But not today-I’ll be out scouting.