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Flight Lines: Bird festival reignites author's fervor

Ruddy turnstones near Devils Lake were a source of source of excitement for out-of-state bird watchers who attended the Potholes & Prairies Birding Festival in Carrington last week. Keith Corliss / West Fargo Pioneer

It took spending a day with other birders to regain a perspective I may have let wane.

Spend enough time with any given endeavor and a person can become somewhat inured to the process. As weeks turn to years, those things which used to excite us no longer carry the same spark it once did. The thing that got us springing out of bed every morning now has us drearily reaching for that second cup of coffee. Careers can become mindless droning activities for some. Even hobbies can begin to lose their appeal.

So it was with birding. I confess to a certain level of burnout. Birds that used to stir me had begun to become 'just another yellow warbler.' It's a dangerous place to be, that place where a person starts to question the value of their time, where other things you could be doing start to look more enticing.

Late last week the Potholes & Prairie Birding Festival was held in Carrington. The celebration has been running for several years and has reached a level of renown among the country's bird fans. Folks from all over the country make the trek to Carrington (yes, Carrington) for a few days every June to immerse themselves in the bird life found in central North Dakota. I'd been asked to participate as a field trip guide but was always able to conjure up excuses not to. This year I didn't have one.

Last Thursday I scouted my route alone in hopes of finding "good" birds to showcase for the field trippers who would join me the following day. Despite locating about 100 species, I didn't feel any of them were exceptional. They were, after all, the same ones I'd seen many times even in Cass County.

I met my charges early the next morning at breakfast. After perfunctory introductions we loaded onto a large van and soon were on our way. It was a nice mix of out-of-staters - one guy was from Salt Lake City, another couple called Tucson their home. As their guide, I was supposed to find the birds for them.

Miles later, in a small piece of grassland, I heard the familiar song of sedge wrens, frustratingly difficult birds to see. Many minutes passed until a singing male popped out into the open giving everyone picture perfect views. The folks were ecstatic.

That's when it started I suppose. The rebirth, the reenergizing, the renewal of my interest. Their excitement was contagious. I couldn't help but feel it too. Here was a common summer bird of North Dakota and they were absolutely giddy. What had I been missing?

A short time later I heard blue jays calling while we passed a shelterbelt of cottonwood trees. Paul (Salt Lake City) announced he had never seen one. I never imagined backing up and getting out of the van in order to find blue jays but that's what we did. Five minutes later Paul had close looks at, what was for him, a new life bird. Again the exhilaration.

Down the road we encountered moist grassland with a few Wilson's phalaropes fluttering about; yet another common nesting bird in North Dakota. The woman from Tucson cheerfully remarked, "I've never seen phalaropes acting like that before, I've only seen them swimming in water. Amazing."

Then it was another shorebird and a similar stunned observation from multiple observers. "I've never seen ruddy turnstones in breeding plumage before, how beautiful."

Sometimes it takes an outside observer to point out what you are missing; the old 'can't see the forest for the trees' thing. In my case it was bird watchers from elsewhere, those not connected to North Dakota in any other way other than a passionate interest in bird life.

I get it now, or rather, again. Blue jays are pretty cool birds after all, so are sedge wrens. Even house finches possess qualities worthy of time and observation. Maybe that's what it takes to keep my head in the game, an annual exposure to the child-like fascination with newness, with wonder.

I think I'll help out with next year's festival too, for the benefit of paying customers certainly, but also to sustain my own level of gratification.