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The company airplane made a day-trip to Duluth last week. I always enjoy getting to the North Shore and at least briefly, experiencing the hustle and bustle of a port town. Plus the views are of a kind not found here on the Great Plains: steep rocky terrain, an unending fetch of water, thick forested land, and large ships plying the waters of the Great Lakes. For bird nuts there is an added bonus. Duluth has a rich history of numerous and interesting bird sightings; more than any other location that I know of for hundreds of miles in any direction.
"O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on." So wrote William Shakespeare in the third act of Othello. A simpler, more watered-down and easier to understand modern version goes: "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence." It afflicts us all at one time or another I suppose - that feeling of jealousy. Or at least a certain desire for something else; something we don't have. This brings us to the point. Birders are a loose collection of folks from varying backgrounds representing every income level.
Now that we are finally shedding this cloak of winter, waterfowl, raptors and a few songbirds are starting to show up. It's an exciting time for us residents of the northern plains, with thoughts of summer activities already playing around in our heads. Never call us anything if not optimistic. Of the few avian species that have made a showing so far, perhaps none is more surprising to some than the Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialia).
Our elders tell of a simpler time. One closer to the land, closer to each other and closer, even, to what really matters. The days before MySpace, digital photography, and microwave dinners were certainly different. My grandfather told of pulling farm implements with a team of horses. Today, horsepower measured in the hundreds is towing huge multi-row implements around fields measured in the thousands of acres. The great outdoors has felt the onslaught of the technology boom also.
The bait was presented with a near perfect alignment of circumstances. The timing was impeccable. Plus the location was almost too good to be true. This was one I couldn't pass up. Ivory gull (Pagophila eburnea) was one of those species that represented nothing more tangible than a photograph or illustration in a field guide; an almost mystical Arctic creature akin to a unicorn. Most of my cohorts had never seen one and few had realistic thoughts of ever doing so, short of an expensive foray to far northern latitudes.
Peregrine falcons have been getting all the press here in the Fargo area for several years now. It's easy to see why. The bird is one of the prime ambassadors for reintroduction efforts after population declines a few decades ago. We've been blessed with an urban nest site that has been occupied by nesting peregrines for many years running. Plus, it features a web camera. Watching these raptors on the Internet and knowing the birds are right here in town doesn't get old.
Ask any knowledgeable bird person in town about the public accessibility of forested land and you'll likely hear some grumbling. Carefully examined, we have to admit there is very little of it outside of city parks. For outdoors enthusiasts, it's quite limited in fact. A couple years ago I spent several months in the state of Nevada. The federal government controls 86 percent of that state, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 67 percent of it. For those seeking recreation, it means nearly the entire state of Nevada is a playground.
Winter can be a grind on all of us. This recent bout with sub-zero temperatures has had a subtle but noticeable affect on our January existence. Just two weeks ago I was seeing bundled up pedestrians and joggers on a fairly regular basis. The numbers have dwindled. Instead, folks are tucked warmly in their heated homes going about their lives indoors. When they do get out, many leave cars idling in parking lots so as to return to a relatively warm vehicle. This is all good and well, and comes with the idea of living in the northern plains.
For whatever reason, snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) seem a little scarce this winter. I know of only one seen in either Cass or Clay counties just before the new year and it hasn't been relocated. Not that our little corner of the northern prairie is a magnet for these giant owls, but we usually have a few more. There have been some winters in the recent past where a short trip down any direction on the Interstate highway would produce one or two sitting along fence posts. Just what makes these magnificent predators appear common some winters yet scarce to absent in others is a mystery.
The 15th of December marked the 71st time local bird enthusiasts braved the elements to take part in Fargo-Moorhead's version of the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Nationally, this season represents the 108th running of the annual survey which seeks to count all the birds in designated 15-mile diameter rings. Data gleaned from these surveys is used to plot population trends and general movements of birds. I hesitate to give much scientific credence to this effort - there are far too many uncontrollable variables to meet those standards.