Saturday, May 17, 2008

ICF Bird-a-thon: Team Twin Cities

Team: (from left) John Ley, Mike Dixon, Cathy Ley, Scott Loss, S, Chih-Ming Hung, G, and Brandon Breen.

Date: May 10, 2008; 515 am to 500 pm.

Places visited:
Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge (MVWR): Old Cedar Avenue Bridge and Bass Ponds
Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve
Eloise Butler Wild flower garden and bird sanctuary

Each year, friends and members of the International Crane Foundation (ICF) across the United States form teams, plan routes, and participate in the Annual ICF Bird-a-thon. Each teams aims to see as many species of birds as possible in a 24-hour period. Before the actual birding, teams reach out to potential supporters, and request people to pledge support for their team with amounts starting from as small as $0.25 per bird species seen. Total amounts raised go toward ICF’s activities. The fund raising event is great fun, helps birders meet other birders, and teams enjoy a full day of birding in the locations of their choice, and to help ICF.

Being very close to ICF, we knew of the Annual Bird-a-thon but opportunities to participate had been lacking due to our living in New Delhi. As yet, ICF’s bird-a-thon does not occur outside of the border of the United States. But this year was different. After nearly 1.5 years of residence in the US, we had picked up some basic skills in identifying the fantastic birds here, and more importantly had been fortunate to be-friend some students with incredible birding skills. Also, Cathy & John Ley – our indomitable unofficial guardians from Hudson, Wisconsin – organized bird-a-thons each year. So, it was quite natural to begin talking about getting a Team St. Paul together, which Cathy would “lead”. In February 2008, we began planning. Emails, phone discussions and personal meetings began as we started to line up sponsors for the bird-a-thon. And a fantastic team formed (see Team Photo above). Mike, Scott, Brandon and Chih-Ming are students at the Conservation Biology Program at the University of Minnesota with G and are aggressive outdoors people. Scott and Brandon are PhD students working on birds in the US and the Falkland Islands respectively, while Mike studies bats, and Chih-Ming is studying to be an evolutionary biologist. United with the common mission of enjoying birds when we could, Team St. Paul decided on May 10 as our bird-a-thon day, come rain, snow, sleet or exams.

On May 10, at 430 am we assembled outside our student quarters, and started off the day with hot chocolate, muffins and doughnuts that Cathy provided. Loud calls of American Robins, White-throated Sparrows, and Chipping Sparrows greeted us as we sipped the beverage starting us off on our bird list.

American Robin

MVWR is an extensive reserve that is conveniently close to the Twin Cities, and spreads for nearly 20 miles along the mighty Mississippi. We headed for the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge which was surrounded by a Typha Marsh and faced the Mississippi River. Another couple had beaten us to it – they were conducting the bird-a-thon for the Minnesota chapter of the Audubon Society! As we stood on the wooden board-walk, calls of many species filled the air as birds began the dawn chorus. Marsh Wrens called from inside the reeds, and as the morning light increased, we caught great views of several individuals as they jumped around the vegetation. Scott – our birder extraordinaire – started to list the birds he was picking up the calls for. One particularly good one was the Virginia Rail that called a few times. The Sora started to call, and to our delight, one bird came out of the vegetation to forage in a shallow patch giving excellent views in the early morning light.

Sunrise at Old Cedar Avenue Bridge (MVWR)

Board walk at MVWR

Woodpeckers, Warblers, Flycatchers, and Finches quickly added to the list. S picked out a Common Yellowthroat – the only one for the day! A lone Green Heron was ardently focused on getting breakfast in a pool formed by a beaver that swam about as we watched. Brandon picked up a couple of Pine Siskins, as G photographed the heron getting a fish. Then the whole group was delighted by a gorgeous Scarlet Tanager who decided that the people were harmless, and came out of the canopy sitting out in the open on a bare tree. Stunning! The sunrise began as a spectacular sight, but quickly the clouds took over dampening the light. The list however was already over 30 species: not a bad start for a cloudy morning!

Green Heron
Our next stop was the Bass Ponds, also part of the immense MVWR. G spotted a raptor in the trees, and as he took off, the tail bands helped Scott to identify it as a Broad-winged Hawk. Several new warblers later, we reached the ponds.

The trail at Bass Ponds, MVWR

On the path, two thrushes foraged, each clearly different. Excellent views to 8 people through binoculars and scopes convinced us that they were one individual each of the Grey-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrush. These birds are usually skulkers in woodlands and hard to get good looks of. But these two birds were enjoying the creepy-crawlies on the path and afforded us with several minutes of excellent views, and walked up ahead of us for a while as we traversed the path.
Swainson's Thrush

Our next stop was the Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve – an excellent area with woodlands, lakes and glorious, extensive grasslands. It was past noon, raindrops were beginning to fall, and the woods did not yield many species though Brandon did manage a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Scott got a couple of additional birds, and we were off to the lake and the grasslands. The grasslands had been recently burnt, but there were large patches still unburnt.

Grasslands at Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve

As we stood and listened, Scott pointed out the insect-like chirp of the Henslow’s Sparrow and we saw a couple of individuals as they dove into the grass. A Field Sparrow called out, and we walked along the grasslands to get to a wetland where our friends had marked out as the location for Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Clouds of bugs greeted us as we walked across the burnt grasslands, and swallows and swifts flew about joyously with their mouths open literally catching mouthfuls of bugs. A small tree beside the grass suddenly burst with warblers and we got excellent views of the Blackpoll and Chestnut-sided Warblers among a large flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers. The Yellow-headed Blackbird was present where it was supposed to be – absolutely gorgeous! Ring-necked and Lesser Scaup ducks foraged in the pond with American Coots, and Pied-billed Grebes called out as they swam about near the shore.

American Coot

Scott decided to scan the hordes of swallows, and we quickly added Cliff, Bank, and the Barn Swallow with the Chimney Swift to our list. Large flocks of Brown-headed Cowbirds and the Red-winged Blackbirds foraged in the burnt grasslands, and Scott picked out a female Yellow-headed Blackbird among the lot. Mike found a White-crowned Sparrow – the only one for the day, and we saw several Field Sparrows as we walked toward a lake where a nesting pair of Common Loons awaited us. Once again, Scott spotted the loon as it incubated eggs on the nest, and the mate emerged out of the water in front of the camouflaged nest. More field sparrows greeted as we walked back to the cars. Suddenly Scott and I heard hoots – unmistakable (to Scott that is) calls of a Barred Owlet! Then the rain started in earnest, and we decided to head out to locations where Brandon had seen large numbers and species of warblers during the fall migration.

As the rain came down, we started birding at the Eloise Butler Wild flower garden and bird sanctuary where a group of children and their instructors yelled out names of birds that they had cut out and hung on the trees. We on the other hand, went down the path to get glorious views of the Magnolia Warbler among other birds. A tree full of Cedar Waxwings, another bunch of passerines, and the downpour began signaling the end of our day. In all, considering the dismal weather the 103 species was not a bad haul at all!

Thanks to the donors for their pledges, and to the great team that resulted in a fantastic day of birding!

Photo credits: Chih-Ming Hung, G & S.


Naeem said...

I'll be bird watching in the Minneapolis area next week, and was hoping track down a helsow sparrow- can you post or email me some additional information about where to find them? Thanks-


bathmate said...

I liked it.