Spring bird watching is fun
April has been a good month for avian adventures.
I returned from a late March trip to Illinois where I helped put leg bands on hundreds of lesser scaup on the mighty Mississippi River - where spring was well under way. I was more than ready for Minnesota to catch up. For it was there, where the Mississippi runs wide and deep along the border of Iowa and Illinois, that I got my first taste of springtime.
Not only were there many species of waterfowl up and down the river, but so, too, were the delightful and cheery whistles of singing male northern cardinals and American robins, in addition to gobbling wild turkeys, throughout the wooded uplands along the valley. Trees were beginning to bud and flower, grass was growing and some of the forest's herbaceous plants were poking through the leaf litter with promises of blooms to come.
Several times over these past weeks of April, I have enjoyed many hours of observing the lively antics of dancing male sharp-tailed grouse. I seriously doubt I'll ever grow tired of rising out of bed at 3:30 a.m. to drive more than an hour to sit inside a dark and cold blind awaiting the arrival of these magnificent prairie grouse on their leks.
Normally, a solo pursuit in order to observe and record the relative abundance of dancing birds on their leks, as well as conducting brief searches for other birds and leks in likely habitats nearby, I had the privilege this year of leading several people to their first ever experience of watching dancing sharpies.
Two such people were my wife and daughter. Both, while having seen the birds in the past either from the distance across the expanse of stubble fields or through the windows of a moving vehicle, had never before sat inside a blind in the middle of an active lek. They were not - leastwise by the looks on their faces - disappointed.
I also helped Lake Bemidji State Park Naturalist John Fylpaa lead several birding friends, including his wife, on another trip to the blinds. And though the weather wasn't especially nice, a handful of dancing male sharptails showed up long enough on a few occasions to give us all a good look.
Another first - though admittedly as unlikely a birder as I've ever had the privilege to meet, let alone sit next to inside the confines of a small blind - was Minnesota Twins great Kent Hrbek. I was lucky enough to be asked by Matt Breuer, owner of Northcountry Guide Service in Bemidji and a board member of Minnesota Sharptailed Grouse Society, if I would lead the group of men to an active sharp-tail lek somewhere in the area.
I, of course, readily agreed. So, on a recent April morning, I met Breuer, Hrbek, Hrbek's partner in his show "Kent Hrbek Outdoors," Eric Gislason, and cameraman Brian Pinske, in the parking lot of a Bemidji motel at 4:30 a.m. None of us looked very awake, but all of us were eager to get on the road and up to the blinds.
An hour later, we had both our vehicles parked on the field approach and were busy gathering our gear for the walk across the field to the blinds. I'll have to confess, as comfortable as I felt talking to Hrbek while we walked together - the fellow is not at all unlike any number of my hunting and fishing buddies - I found myself remembering the countless times I cheered when this same fellow stepped up to home plate and jacked one out of the park, not to mention the incredible years of '87 and '91.
Hrbek, Pinske and I sat together in one blind, while Gislason and Breuer sat in the other. However, our entrance into the two tiny blinds wasn't without a little "head scratching" first. When we reached the two blinds I could see by the men's concerned expressions that they were wondering how we would all fit inside.
Granted, I was indisputably the shortest man, but I was confident it would work despite the others' greater heights. In fact, it had to work. As the men began a discussion about who would sit where, I heard two sharptails landing on the lek just a few dozen yards away. No one else noticed. With that observation I casually remarked, "Boys, we better get inside; they're here." And before I knew it, we were all comfortably seated in our respective blinds, cameras at the ready, and waiting for the sharptail show to begin.
It turned out to be the morning I had hoped it would be. Not only did Hrbek and the others thoroughly enjoy the experience of dancing sharpies from mere feet away - 21 birds in all - but the rain held off, plenty of outstanding footage was shot for Hrbek's show, and the sharp-tailed grouse received the recognition it so rightly deserves and needs. Sometime in the coming season of "Kent Hrbek Outdoors," sharptails of northwestern Minnesota will air.
About a week later, still enthused by times in the blind observing dancing sharpies, I set up a blind in front of a known ruffed grouse drumming log to watch Ol' Ruff put on his solo performance. In the woods near my home, I've recently spent several hours watching and filming the stunning display of this year's resident male ruffed grouse.
He struts, puffs out his coal black neck-ruff and body feathers, fans out his mesmerizing banded tail and beats his wings against the air to produce the amazing drumming sound his species is so famous for. Sitting comfortably inside my blind from only 12 feet away, I drink coffee, observe my feathered friend unaware of his human admirer and let time pass by.
Indeed, April is a month teeming with abundant avian adventures for us all as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.