My parents first took an interest in wild birds 20 or 25 years ago, before it was fashionable and long before it was one of the top outdoor activities in the country.
My sister and I thought they had gone off the deep end -- peering through binoculars at trees and homemade bird feeders while they thumbed through their field guide trying to identify each feathery visitor.
One of the toughest identifications at that time was of the enormous, slow moving and almost prehistoric-looking bird we frequently saw -- crane or heron? There was much talk about flight posture; was the neck s-shaped or straight? Eventually we determined that what we were seeing on the shores of Cross Lake were great blue herons.
Spotting white-tailed deer and raccoons in the wild has always been a thrill for me. And now that I'm a grownup and own my own home, my parents' fascination with the delicate beauty of outdoor birds has consumed me as well. I recognize all the regulars in my own back yard -- black-capped chickadee, red-breasted nuthatch, dark-eyed junco and the rest. And, no matter how often it happens, my heart stops each time a majestic bald eagle crosses my path.
So I was excited and intrigued when I spotted something new this fall. Three statuesque birds wandered about in a field of corn near Pine River. The blue-gray color and tall, slender stature immediately said "heron" to me. But in a corn field?
"Stop the truck and back up!" I told my husband Tom. He's accustomed to the cry, and once we were in position, we both grabbed cameras. Through the zoom lenses we could see the red caps. These weren't herons at all; they were sandhill cranes.
After 12 years in Minnesota and quite a few more summers on Cross Lake, I'd never seen them in the wild. I'd only seen them on TV, migrating in great numbers through Nebraska, I believe. Perhaps I'd discovered something relatively new, or had finally noticed something thousands of others in our area had already seen.
One call to Pam Perry, DNR non-game wildlife specialist in Brainerd, and I got the low down on cranes in the area. Sandhill cranes have appeared in the area in increasing numbers within the last 10 to 15 years. They are seen -- and their rattling call heard -- near Brainerd and north into Cass County in wet meadows and open fields.
In fact, there are two populations nesting in this area. The birds in central Minnesota migrate south and east toward Illinois, and those in northwest Minnesota head through the Dakotas and south to Texas.
Why had I never seen them before? The Cross Lake home I'd spent so much time at was on the lake. And my own home is located in a mostly wooded area very near more lakes. The sandhills are found in the open country of fields and meadows.
The three sandhills have been added to my life list. And now that I know they are here and that their populations are increasing and expanding, the chances that I'll spot them again are very good.
Each individual bird sighting is enjoyable, no matter what the species. Watching the familiar birds flit from feeder to feeder, tug at the suet and splash in the bath is a daily pleasure.
But the thrill of seeing that first individual of a species and identifying it from a field guide must feel much like the "Aha!" of the scientist who discovered it in the first place. Whether I was the first or thousands of others had "discovered" it before me, my first sandhill crane sighting will be one I'll remember for the rest of my life.
(Diane McCormack is a correspondent for The Brainerd Dispatch and a freelance writer living in north central Minnesota. Send comments or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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