CROSBY -- Perhaps you awakened one morning this week to a familiar yet forgotten song not heard since last summer. You thought for a minute before it hit you -- the purple finch has returned!
With warmer weather pushing north, birds that vacated Minnesota last fall are beginning to return. In anticipation of the coming spring migration, Unlimited Learning in Crosby hosted "Minnesota Birds," a program for people interested in birds and bird watching. Hosted by longtime area birders Jo and Steve Blanich, along with DNR Non-game Wildlife Specialist Pam Perry, the program drew nearly 50 people to the Hallett Community Center for a slide show and information on this popular pastime.
How popular? Wildlife watching is the top-ranked outdoors activity among all Americans, and many of those wildlife watchers are watching birds. Minnesota is a great place to do it. Seven of the 10 most sought after species in North America are found in Minnesota, including the great gray owl, northern hawk owl, boreal owl, yellow rail and red-necked grebe. More than 200 different species can be found in Crow Wing County alone. Need evidence? Jo Blanich, the county's top birder, has 260 species to her credit.
Combined, Jo and Steve have 40 years of birding experience. Steve is an accomplished bird photographer, as the photos on this page testify. Jo has learned specific bird calls and can whistle the songs of several species with uncanny accuracy. The Blanich yard is littered with bird seed, the result of year-round feeding.
Leaves on a tree? Look again. Those are bohemian waxwings. (Photos by Steve Blanich)
Jo's and Steve's slide presentation March 18 revealed some interesting facts about Minnesota birds, including:
* The horned grebe's plumage changes from summer to fall. Grebes carry their young on their backs, just like loons. Grebes and loons are the only birds that do this.
* In spring, the male pelican sprouts a strange-looking bump on its bill as a means of attracting females. The bump falls off after the mating season.
* Nighthawks are declining because of the proliferation of ring-billed gulls. "We do have a problem with gulls," Perry said. "In Brainerd we never used to have ring-billed gulls. Now you see them hanging around McDonald's. Gulls are very aggressive predators. They eat everything. Nighthawks like to nest in the open, on rooftops, where they're exposed. The gulls might be getting their eggs and young."
The significance and importance of a bird's plumage is well illustrated by this great gray owl, whose feathers blend almost perfectly with the bark of the tree.
* Purple martins also are declining. "We're not totally sure why," Perry said. "But since they're insect feeders we think there might be a link to pesticide use. Plus, they're long distance migrators. The entire North American population winters in Brazil. Other birds fan out over a large area. Martins go farther south than most."
Area bird clubs are hosting several field trips later this spring. Anyone interested in birds is invited to take part.
The first trip is scheduled for April 26. Participants should meet at 9 a.m. at the Roadside Cafe in Aitkin. The focus of the trip will be waterfowl. In May, during the height of the spring migration, International Migratory Bird Day on May 10, will be celebrated with a trip to Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Meet at 7 a.m. at the refuge headquarters on Highway 65. On May 18 the Northland Arboretum will host the Brainerd Audubon Club and Bee-Nay-She Bird Club. Participants will be divided into teams, which will compete to see the most birds.
"The best way to learn about birds is to go out with other people," Perry said. "You can only learn so much from books."
The birds are coming back, a springtime phenomenon that ranks with Minnesota's most glorious outdoor traditions.
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