It Was About Quality, Not Quantity

I met up with my buddy Rick and we carpooled up to Frank Taylor's hawk banding station near Duluth, MN last weekend. The plan was to have a great weekend of hawk banding, timed right during the big broad-winged hawk. I thought we were off to a bang when one of the first birds in was an early morning red-tailed hawk. This immature bird (because it's lacking a red tail) came in not long after the nets were set up. I didn't take that many photos of it, I figured more birds would come.

But not many birds were moving that day, my friend, and we spent a good deal of time scanning empty skies and chatting (still a great time). The clouds came in, the winds were not in our favor and started blowing so hard they billowed the nets, making them easy to see to a keen eyed raptor. Eventually, the clouds cleared, but by that point, the few hawks that were moving through were way too high to even consider coming into our nets.

Warblers, especially yellow-rumped warblers (like the one above) were swarming around some nearby bushes, hawking insects and sipping juice from the red berries off this bush. If anyone recognizes the berry bush in the warbler photos, please feel free to drop a note in the comments. We were thinking they were honeysuckle, but were not sure. Whatever they were, the berries were a bird magnet--we even saw a Swainson's thrush lurking among the leaves to partake of the fruit.

However, it is indeed a slow banding day if I can tear myself from the blind to go out and do a bit of digiscoping--and warbler digiscoping at that (not easy to get those little dudes to stay still), but manage I did. However, it is indeed a slow banding day if I can tear myself from the blind to go out and do a bit of digiscoping--and warbler digiscoping at that (not easy to get those little dudes to stay still), but manage I did. We closed up the blind a little early and headed over to the Lighthouse for dinner. After sitting in a blind with cold winds blowing on your face, a hot meal was in order--I ate a lovely pork chop with sour kraut and mashed potatoes (insert Homer Simpson donut noise here). It's amazing to me that I can be a good two and a half hours north of the Twin Cities freezing my tail off and the Twin Cities themselves will be close to eighty degrees. That night, I curled up in my sleeping bag in Frank's van. Again, I would like to say how grateful that despite my girliness, I can still spend the night in a van.

The more I join the guys at Frank's station in the fall, the more I can relate to deer hunters. You may not always get all the birds you hoped for, but you enjoy just being with your friends and staring at birds. There were other things to keep us amused: friend's of Frank popped in for visits (and cookies), an elder hostile showed up and Frank gave them a tour, listening for trains...

And Rick Dupont--who is the master of pulling the bait pigeon made a special friend. A Richardson's ground squirrel is living under the blind and the entry and exit hole is on Rick's side of the blind. Rick is generally a quiet guy anyhow, I wondered if he was forming a special bond with the squirrel...was it telling him things like how to pull the pigeon on the harness or that Free Masons rule the country? If you have been to Hawk Ridge, you might have seen Richardson's ground squirrels near the counting area, under the sign.

We set up the next morning and Rick hoped we would do better than the day before. I was hopeful and said that we only needed two birds and our numbers would have been twice as good as the day before. Frank has a second blind set up on his property that is run by his friend Todd. We can sometimes see birds pop up and head towards the second blind--we'll even radio over potential birds. We watched this immature sharp-shinned hawk pop up and then dive down towards Todd. Frank, Rick, and I wondered if Todd got. Ten seconds later, Todd radioed that he had a shin. There were a couple of times we watched merlins bombing across the field and then they would disappear. Just as we would wonder where the merlin went, Todd would radio a few seconds later that a merlin passed his net twice and moved on. Those tiny falcons make speed look so effortless.

As the morning wore on, the chances of getting any birds looked bleak. While watching a shin that was totally ignoring us, a harrier made a sneak attack from behind the blind and dove down on the pigeon. Fortunately, Rick is always ready to pounce was able to prevent the harrier from getting the pigeon. He harrier had no intent of going into the net, it was very much trying to get the pigeon inside this strange fence. It just didn't realize humans were that close. We debated about what time to close the blind--noon? I said we should stay until 12:30pm, something good was going to come. Well, we noticed some snipe moving through (that's something). One landed fairly close to the blind, so Frank and I thought we would head over to get a shot. We were wandered for about twenty minutes. Rick came out to join us. We looked up and a merlin flew low right above us. We were all too far from the blind and totally missed it. Doh! We walked back to the blind and debated if it was time to close shop. When we were about ten feet from the blind, Frank shouted, "Peregrine!"

I set my scope behind the blind and darted in. Rick just made it to the pigeon line and pulled, Frank whispered to freeze. I saw the large, dark bird approach from the north, it was set and made a beeline for the pigeon. The peregrine made the decent from a low angle and then dropped it's feet like a red-tail would--we call this lowering the landing gear. Usually peregrines do not do this, so it was interesting to see. Two seconds later the bird hit the nets and Rick exploded out of the blind (a peregrine got away from him the weekend before, he wasn't letting this one go).

There she is--and it's another tundrius peregrine falcon, like Peregrine 568. You can tell by this young bird having a light blond head. Other young peregrines like anatums will have a dark head. She was unbanded and tundrius peregrines come from way up north on the tundra, she could be from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (you know that place where Michele Bachmann said there's no trees and wildlife).

So, I wasn't just talking out of my butt when I told Frank and Rick that we should stay until 12:30pm because something good was coming. All told, for two days of waiting, we got in only 3 birds. But they were quality birds. A red-tailed hawk and a peregrine falcon are great birds to watch fly in. As a matter of fact, I've never watched a peregrine fly in. I've seen them after they were trapped--usually at Todd's net but never got to watch the full flight in. It was pretty awesome. I'm looking forward to making another trip. I'm hoping October will be a busier month than September, but not all years can be epic days of bird after bird flying in.

And just one more photo because she's so beautiful!