My first robin, 2008

9:53 a.m. today, my apple tree, my backyard, West Duluth (after looking everywhere else for robins over the past two weeks).
It was grooming itself obsessively, as if it had just arrived from a long flight.
I hear talk of 2 to 4 inches of snow and wind today.
Doesn’t matter.
I’ve seen a robin.
The Twins start their season tonight.
It’s spring.

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Birding on the Gunflint Trail

Think of the Gunflint Trail as the gateway to northern adventures. Think of it as a rustic vacation getaway. Think of it as a place for canoeing and fishing.
Think of it for birding.
That’s what the folks at the Gunflint Trail Association would like you to think. In a lengthy news release, they make a case for the wide variety of birds you’ll be able see along the 57-mile trail as spring makes its long, slow march toward summer.
The release waxes enthusiastic about more kinds of birds than I can cover in a decent-length blog. But here are a couple of samples:

  • Owls. For some owls, the nesting season already is well under way, but the chance to hear owls calling lasts into May. Barred owls, great horned owls and northern saw-whet owls are frequently heard after dark. And the Gunflint Trail is one of the few places in the Midwest where there’s a chance to hear boreal owls.
  • Boreal species: American three-toed woodpecker, black-backed woodpecker, Philadelphia vireo, boreal chickadee, white-winged crossbills, evening grosbeaks. (Boreal means northern. The area we call the Northland is in the southern fringe of the boreal forest.)

Naturally, there’s a related festival coming up, the Spring Boreal Birding Festival, June 5-8. Naturally, it has a Web site: Naturally, I’ve included a link with the rest of the sites on the right side of this blog.

Embarrassing disclosure: I haven’t been on the Gunflint. Maybe I’ll make up for that omission this year.

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They’re called hummingbirds because they don’t know the words

Hummingbirds are such cool birds they have their own Web site.
Lisa writes that those of us who are eagerly awaiting the return of migrating birds can track the progress of ruby-throated hummingbirds as they make their way northward.
The site is called; I’ve attached a link along with the others on the right side of this blog. Once you get there, click on migration map. It shows the first sightings of ruby-throated hummingbirds as they make their cross-continent journey. This will give you a good idea when to hang your hummingbird feeders, the Web site promises.
There’s no hurry in the Northland. The closest a ruby-throated hummingbird has been seen so far appears to be in about Springfield, Mo., on March 26. You can click on maps from past years to get an idea of when to expect the hummers. Last year, the first report in Duluth, or maybe just up the shore from Duluth, was May 5.

Speaking of spring arrivals, Sam Cook tells me he saw a robin during his expedition to the Brule River this morning. And yes, including Sam Cook’s name in my blog is a shameless piece of name-dropping on my part.

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Arrivals and Departures

If you’re impatiently waiting for certain birds to finally show up, the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union has a helpful tool.
First, go to their Web site. It’s among those listed in the Web site links on the right side of this blog. On the search menu along the left side of the site, go to Review Reported Birds. Another search menu will pop up. Go to Migration Dates.
You get a chart of arrivals and departures, somewhat akin to those computerized charts at airports that tell you the flight you were planning to take has been delayed by three hours.
This chart lists arrivals and departures for an enormous variety of migrating birds to northern and southern Minnesota, for spring and fall.
Northern and southern Minnesota are broad areas, but this at least provides an indication of when you might see the first red-winged blackbird or common loon.
But not the first robin. Strangely, although American robin is listed on the chart, the arrival and departure dates are blank.
Not so for red-winged blackbird, listed as March 12 for northern Minnesota; common loon, April 1 (no fooling); and great blue heron, March 20. I don’t know if anyone has seen a great blue heron around here so far this year, but there have been recent reports in southern and central Minnesota.
Just above Migration Dates on the pop-up menu, you can go to Migration Information. This offers bar graphs for a variety of birds showing the number of times they were reported and on what dates in 2007 and, where available, 2008.
For American robin, the graph shows more than 100 reports of American robins in southern Minnesota already, but apparently just a handful in northern Minnesota. Robin reports in both the north and south are running behind last year. That appears to be true for the majority of migrating birds. It’s not surprising; this was a colder winter.
It’s an interesting and helpful tool for an impatient amateur bird-watcher. I’m grateful to the folks at the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union for providing it.

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I see a robin (a long time ago)

I’ve become obsessive in my search for robins.
I know they’re out there. My colleague Dave Nevanen reported seeing one in his backyard within the past week. Folks in other parts of Minnesota have been seeing them for a couple of weeks.
I was convinced I’d see a robin today. It just seemed like the sort of early-spring day in which one starts seeing robins.
No luck.
So I went all nostalgic and dredged up this photo that I took long ago during my student days, while I was living in Columbia, Mo.
My recollection is that I was just getting over a bout with food poisoning. I had decided I needed some fresh air, and I took my camera along. I came across this scene in a light fixture in one of the dormitories. If you look closely, you can see the young robins watching as the mother (or father?) flies away.
I don’t think I would start a home in the light fixture of a college dormitory, but it seemed to work for them.
I used to think I’d make a poster out of this photo, and attach a Scripture, such as "Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you," from Isaiah 49:15.
But I never did it.

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My Florida vacation

A pair of snowy egrets fight over a bait fish tossed by King Fisher Fleet
fishing captain Robin Leach Monday, March 24, 2007 at Fishermen’s Village resort
and marina in Punta Gorda, Fla. Egrets, pelicans, gulls, herons, and even snook
congregate on or near the village docks when the fishing boats come in from
Charlotte Harbor in the late afternoon, for leftover bait or a piece of cleaned
fish carcass. (AP Photo/Charlotte Sun, Sarah Coward) ** SARASOTA OUT **

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George Clooney

This is George Clooney, the bachelor cardinal who has been hanging around my backyard.
If he seems particularly pleased, it’s because this morning he was hanging around in close proximity to a female cardinal. Her name is Renee Zellweger. I tried to get them both in the same frame, but couldn’t manage it. I did get a picture of her, but it’s far worse than the picture of George — it’s a bright orange beak with fuzzy, unfocused feathers behind it.
Compared to most of my bird pictures, the one above is pretty good. I like how George appears to be posing for me — although in reality, he probably was keeping  a wary eye on me. And I suspect he was telling me off.
But so much for cardinals … has anyone seen a robin?

I’d love to see your bird pictures and learn about the birds you’ve seen, or would like to see. E-mail me at

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Red plan

A male cardinal seems to have chosen my backyard as a principal part of its domain, which pleases me no end.
Its favorite spot is the apple tree, where it perches, surveying its realm, advocating the red plan.
Cardinals are notoriously nervous creatures. You’d be nervous, too, if you were bright red. Female cardinals are nervous because they’re being pursued by something that’s bright red.
The cardinal is aware of me, and wary about me. Still, it hops gingerly to the edge of the birdbath and takes a few dainty sips. (Gross!) Then it comes closer, to the platform feeder, about 15 feet away from where I’m watching from my dining room table.
The secret is safflower. Cardinals love it; starlings hate it. Enough said.
The old adage "Birds of a feather flock together" clashes with "two’s company, three’s a crowd" when it comes to cardinals. Two male cardinals are one too many, at least when they’re thinking about mating. I’ve heard of a cardinal battling its own reflection in the shiny chrome of an RV’s wheel hub.
But this fellow is tolerant of other birds that aren’t cardinals, suffering a much smaller bird (a house finch, I think), to share its safflower supper.
As far as I can tell, "my" cardinal is a bachelor — so far. But I’ve seen a female in the vicinity. I hope they settle down and start a family.

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March gladness

It’s spring, the calendar says, so I took a walk on part of the Western Waterfront Trail today.
I like this trail, because the place where I park, behind the Willard Munger Inn on Grand Avenue/Minnesota Highway 23, is a five-minute drive from my house. I can get in a good nature walk and still have plenty of day left for other things (even my job, if absolutely necessary).
Much later in the spring, the area along the trail will be the site of a warbler convention, and then it’s a great spot for birdwatching. You have to get there after the warblers arrive and before the trees leaf out. This seems to last about 20 minutes.
It’s much too early for warblers, but I thought I might see some signs of spring: an overeager red-winged blackbird, perhaps, and certainly some waterfowl.
I saw no waterfowl, because there is no open water yet. Waterfowl are fussy that way; they insist on water.
But the walk had an unexpected pleasure. About 20 minutes into it, I heard a drumming sound across a small bay. I was pretty sure it was a pileated woodpecker because the drumming was so loud. Then I heard the unmistakable laughing call of the pileated. I’m horrible at bird calls, but once you’ve heard that call, you don’t forget it.
Still, I wanted to see it, and as I walked to the other side of the bay I was starting to fear that wouldn’t happen. I was scanning the trees, hoping at least to get a picture of the bird’s handiwork.
Suddenly, there it was, the pileated itself, in the tree that was closest to me, about 30 feet away.
If you’re not familiar with the pileated, the easiest way to picture it is as the model for the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker. It’s much bigger than any other woodpecker you’ll see, and it’s graced with a fabulous red crest.
I see pileateds in my backyard sometimes, feeding on my suet. But it had been months since I had seen one, so this was worth the trip.
I think I made it uncomfortable, because it flew to a tree farther away. Then my attention was caught by another woodpecker. At first, I thought it might be a black-backed woodpecker or a three-toed woodpecker. I finally decided it was a hairy, which wasn’t as exciting. But any woodpecker is cool; I love to watch them at work.
Because I had my GPS with me, I can tell you exactly where I was when I saw these birds:
N 46.43.124, W  092.11.213.
Otherwise, I saw crows and chickadees, one of which was singing in a way I didn’t know chickadees sing. (I told you I’m horrible at bird calls.) At first, it sounded like this: Weedledee-Dop. Weedledee-Dop. Then I decided it really was saying: Vil-la-no-va. Vil-la-no-va.
You can’t take that for what it’s worth; I don’t think chickadees know any more about college basketball than I do.
Clearly, I was rushing the season. But the trail was lovely, and I felt peaceful and contemplative while I was on it. I only saw one other person (twice). Otherwise I had this beautiful waterside trail to myself. Not bad for a five-minute drive from home.

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