Minnesotans fortunate to have four major biomes
I remember the first time I spent a few days in the beautiful bluff country of southeast Minnesota. It was about nine years ago. I was able to take a little time from business and explore some of the grandeur of this lovely part of the state by driving the countryside and visiting Forestville State Park and the area around Mystery Cave.
My visit served to remind me how lucky we are to live in Minnesota. Our state is unique in that four major biomes – or ecological regions – make up the landscape: the prairie grassland, tallgrass aspen parkland, deciduous forest, and coniferous forest regions and the associated transitional zones where habitat-types change from one to the other. And throughout all of Minnesota are endless opportunities to view wildlife, especially birds.
For example, during my stay in southeastern Minnesota near Preston all those years ago, I heard the loud and clear song of the northern cardinal – another first for me. While not accustomed to hearing this song in the Northland, the song was nonetheless familiar to me from listening to the songs and calls of birds on my bird tapes.
Walking over to the thicket where the bird was singing from, I was surprised I wasn’t able to locate its red plumage in all that green. So, as any birder will tell you, try “pishing,” which I immediately did. Taken from my “birding bag of tricks” the well-known ploy did the trick: “Pssshhh, pssshhh, pssshhh!” pished I.
Abruptly, the bird ceased singing and for a moment I thought it had flown away. But I was delighted when he suddenly appeared only a couple dozen feet from where I stood, completely in the open, for me to observe and enjoy. He was even more striking than I had imagined – all red, against all the greenery … the bird looked magnificent.
I may have missed seeing the bird had I not made the sound with my mouth. The little trick worked well. And though hearing the bird’s song was impressive, seeing him was doubly so. As birders, there are so many ways we can increase our chances of catching sight of our favorite and sought-after birds.
Birds can see color. If they couldn’t, there would be no need for brightly colored plumage or body parts. So it stands to reason that if one wants to get close to wild birds, I mean real close, then wearing clothing that blends into the environment may make for increasing the odds in your favor.
For example, I have learned that I am able to get much closer to birds and other wildlife when I wear camouflaged clothing that matches the habitat-type I am surrounded by. Camouflage apparel of many styles is available from hunting retailers. Army surplus outlets are other fine places to find inexpensive “birding” apparel.
Of course, there is no substitute for remaining still and not moving when viewing birds up close. Moving, if done at all, should be slow and deliberate. Blinds can be just the ticket if you want to remain hidden from birds you are observing, yet have the freedom to move. Almost anything will do: blankets, netting, or a constructed shelter or tent. Many professional photographers employ blinds to photograph wildlife from, and so birders can do the same when viewing birds.
I have spent many hours sitting in makeshift and store-bought blinds observing dancing prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse, as well as watching the drumming activities of male ruffed grouse. In all instances, these birds became accustomed to these artificial structures and allowed me to film and observe their courtship behaviors. As an example of how quickly a bird can overcome their fear of the unknown, a few years ago while searching a woodland near my home for an active drumming log to set up my blind to do some filming, I soon located a suitable site. As I approached the log where the grouse was drumming and displaying from, the bird quickly abandoned its log and disappeared.
In a few minutes I had my portable hunting blind set up about twelve feet from the log. I ducked inside, zipped the door shut, unfolded my stool and sat down for the show. About ten to fifteen minutes later I saw the resident grouse reappear from the dense aspen thicket and approach his log. Stopping momentarily to survey the area, he then hopped on top of his log and soon after began his routine of fanning his tail feathers, erecting the black feathers on his neck-ruff, and commenced beating his wings to make the telltale “drumming” sound.
The choice of binoculars is important too. Most birders choose waterproof binoculars that are light, yet possess adequate magnification. Seven or eight-power binoculars with average size objective lenses (35 or 40 mm) are popular choices. Furthermore, no birder would be without a good field guide no matter what the particular birder’s expertise is. So many field guides are available. Choose a field guide that includes birds of Minnesota, which most generally are guides of the eastern United States. The Peterson, Golden, Audubon, and Sibley’s are all excellent field guidebooks.
Indeed, the wonder of wildlife is all about us. Not long ago while delighting in the antics of a ruby-throated hummingbird feeding from my sugar-water feeder, I slowly approached the feeder as the bird sat perched and drinking. Reaching out, I touched his little tail. The hummer flew, hovered a moment looking at me, then zipped away. I was thrilled.
Though birding doesn’t often include such close encounters, just seeing them is what it’s all about as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.