Birding The Deep South of Minnesota

Birding The Deep South of Minnesota

At an early age I was introduced to birding, it was a family adventure.   On the prairies in the deep south of Minnesota I remember the excitement of seeing and identifying my first and only Marbled Godwit with my cousin.  We were the only ones in Rock County to identify this amazing and elusive bird.   This event led to a hobby of paying attention to the natural world, birds, rocks, trees, insects and all of the natural sciences including phenology.

I moved to Worthington in the very early 70’s and was quite interested in having a pet crow.   I surveyed the town for all available crows and their nests.  For many years crows  were unprotected and their numbers were very low.  With careful city wide observation I was able to come up with fewer than five or  six nests, city wide.   They were evenly spread throughout Worthington and most were high out of reach in the tops of rather tall trees.   With the enlisted help of golfers I was able to find a nest at the local country club.   At the appropriate time during nesting season I shimmied up a blue spruce tree next to the club house and came down with a young crow in my gunny sack.   I timed the event to make sure it was a fledgling and not a nestling.   The fledgling has the greatest chance of survival.

I raised the crow in a cage behind my apartment and he was fed a diet of canned dog food.     In the early 70’s this crow could be seen perched on my shoulder while I walked to the local band concert.   I eventually let it go and it could be seen in the neighborhood throughout the summer.

Flash forward a few decades to the 1990’s.   While walking home from work one day a heard a finch call that was not common to this area.  It was not an English Sparrow, chipping sparrow or purple finch.   Doing some searching I found the nest in the metal awning of a business on third street.   It was a sparrow building a nest and fledging its young just a week or so earlier than the English sparrow that we know so well in these parts.  It was a House Finch, beautiful rosy breast and a rather aggressive nester.   It originates in the South West U.S. and back in the 40’s or 50’s it was introduced to the eastern seaboard of the United States.  It has made a slow but sure progress westward, seeming to do just fine feeding at bird feeders along the way.  It is often mistaken for a purple finch by causal birders.    We tracked this bird as it was sighted on the Wisconsin and Minnesota boarder a few years prior.  In a blink it has arrived in Worthington as a new local immigrant.   It has a pleasant song and beautiful color, change is inevitable and it is here to stay for a while.

Recently I hosted a picnic in our back yard, we had friends from India, and Japan.  It was billed as the Asian and Sub-Continent picnic.  Our friends from Japan had a background in ecology and were very interested in the environment around them.    It was early summer and the oak leaves were the size of squirrels ears.  This is important to note because, if you are looking for birds in their spring migrations… you need to be able to see into the treetops.  The picnic was in our backyard and all we needed was a pair of binoculars and the bird book.   As we sat at the picnic table we were able to identify the following;  Yellow Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Rose Breasted Grosbeaks (both male and female) , American RedStarts presented a black and red blaze, house finches, Northern Oriole, morning dove, english sparrow, bronzed grackle,  American Goldfinch, a recent rarity to the area, the Eurasian Collard Dove (goo gootka-in Bulgarian!)  Morning dove and the ever-so-common robin.   My friends from Japan were mightily impressed… all viewed from the backyard picnic table.   In this particular case…..timing was everything.   (late spring migration of confusing spring warblers!)   The Grosbeaks appeared in the very tops of a 40 foot green ash, the all identifying crimson breast beamed like a beacon in the late evening sun.   The American Redstarts were a surprise to me, mid treetops…they stood out like avian traffic signals.

They harkened my spirit and rekindled my interests in my life long hobby.  The Goo Gootka, as called by Bulgarian friends (Eurasian Collared Dove) is a “pole sitter” he is often identified by his distinctive call long before he is seen.   If you look for the nearest street light….he often alights on the top!   Three years ago there was one pair in Wgtn. and to date I’ve identified at least 6 to 8 separate pairs (minimum)  They are approximately 20% larger than a common morning dove and have a white band on their tail feathers.  Their flight lacks the sound that a morning dove makes when taking off.   Checking with the Minnesota Ornithological Union-Kim Eckert, I inquire about this bird.  Since it has appeared in Worthington, I have seen significantly less mourning doves.  Is the Eurasian Collared Dove dominating this new territory?  Dr. Eckert did not have an answer but suggested that it was a good question and that we remain observant.

Two decades ago I recall seeing my first Turkey Vulture in S.W. MN (Rock County).    I was driving down a gravel road to put our canoe into the mighty Rock River at its springtime peak.  The vulture was feasting on a pig that had been recently washed downstream in a spring flood.   Within two years of that time I was seeing 6 to 10 turkey vultures in this southwestern county.

An event occurred shortly after this time made that made me hyper sensitive to these sightings.    An friend of mine had recently died and the day following his funeral I sighted my first turkey vultures in Nobles County, six in all!   They were all roosting in a  tall cottonwood tree that shaded the deceased persons home on the lake.   It was a startling observation that was hard to express to just anybody, especially his family and kin folk.   Vultures  resting above a house in mourning….it was curious and distressing all at the same time.

That event stuck in my mind as a curiosity and made me ponder the relationship nature has in creating folk lore, myths and legends.    The likelihood of spotting these 6 to 8 turkey vultures 30 miles from where I had been observing them was probably not much of an observation.   The fact is they have a very large range and 30 miles is nothing for them, excepting the fact that they had shown up on such an auspicious day.

Over the past 20 years their numbers have grown and they range and roost proximate the Blue Mounds State Park to the shores of Lake Okabena.  Numbers as high as 16 0r 17 have been counted as they use the windward shore of Lake Okabena to soaring delight.   The now roost on the water tower  at the local beach, they roost in the soft maples just west of the water tower and they roost across town on Straight Ave. in tall soft maples.

For many years we had a mature  white pine tree, its top branches were dead and they presented a possible perch for these masters of the wind.  As they soared the windward shores of our lake they would come ever so close to consider landing on these dead branches.  You could readily see them tilt their heads and inspect the branches.   Alas,  these branches were just a little to close to humans for them to consider them as perches.    Still the observations went on, I observing them and I could see that they were observing me.     On rare occasions they will land on the windward shore of Lake Okabena.   Most often they will land when they have a ready avenue of  exit , a brisk wind on which to soar away!   They don’t particularly care for all that wing flapping.

I find myself back in Rock county at the hospice center, finalizing the life of a most kindred friend, patriarchal advisor,  and confidante’.   His time had ended and the time was over,  a generation has passed on and I needed a breath of air to collect my thoughts and be alone for a moment.   I walked out the front door of the hospice.  looking skyward to clear my tear blind eyes and catch my breath…..there above me was a soaring vulture directly above.

These vulture event has happened three times in my life, two of the three times involving relatives and death.   Is this the making of folktales, myth, legends?   I pride myself in being a skeptical observer and a novice student of science, I don’t take lightly to hokum, bunkum and toadstools at midnight.  I have seen vultures thousands of times since.

Some postulate that the color white oft times signifies good and black signifies evil.   White fabric evoked the purity of the bride on her wedding day and  on the battle fields throughout time it was the ravens, crow (family of corvus) and vultures that had the final feast, all were black.

The height at which this bird soars allows it to be  seen by many people at almost any given time, no science is to be made in this type of casual observation.

Yet, The sight of vultures evoke life and death and all in between.

Bill Keitel

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