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Birders flock to Bluff Country


Mon, May 8th, 2000
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The first annual Root River Birding FestivalBy Nancy Overcott

May 8, 2000

Friday evening, April 28: Cornucopia Art Center in Lanesboro is filled with visitors who have come to see paintings of area birds. A guitar plays in the background. People line up at the refreshment table for wine and hors d'oeuvres. This event marks the opening of "The Illustrated Bird: New Watercolors," by Dana Gardner, one of the world's foremost illustrators of birds. The exhibition is Gardner's first show in his hometown and features portrayals of the birds he grew up studying.

Originally from Lanesboro, now living in California, Gardner has illustrated numerous field guides, natural history books and eighteen books by the renowned naturalist Alexander Skutch. The artist says he and Skutch, now ninety-six, are planning at least one more book together.

Gardner says he owes his career to chance, that he was in the right place at the right time; he was a soldier in the Panama Canal Zone when he chanced to meet Skutch and authors of other books on birds who were looking for illustrators. The skill, patient observations and love of birds that went into creating these works of art make it clear that chance played only a small part in advancing this artist's career.

Michael-jon Pease, executive director of Cornucopia, introduces Gardner and his work. He also presents and dedicates as community treasures the wooden sculptures of area birds by Lanesboro artist Bob Gosselin. Following Gosselin's death, friends and family members loaned his sculptures to Cornucopia for permanent display. They join the Red-tailed Hawk sculpture by Carl John Thompson commissioned in 1997.

This event also marks the beginning of the First Annual Root River Birding Festival sponsored by Root River Trail Towns; Southeastern Minnesota Historic Bluff Country; and the Department of Natural Resources. Coordinator of the festival is Leslie Tannahill, Root River Trails Manager.

At dusk, participants gather at John and Connie Levell's Museum of Living History, not to learn about birds, but about frogs. Through pictures and calls, John Levell, writer and enthusiastic herpetologist (student of reptiles and amphibians) introduces the frogs of Southeast
Minnesota. He says Spring Peepers, Chorus Frogs and Leopard Frogs are calling now.

The group arrives at a marshy pond south of Lanesboro to the din of hundreds, perhaps thousands of calling "bite-sized" Spring Peepers. A few Chorus frogs join the cacophony, but no Leopard Frogs are calling tonight.

A fine day for birding


Saturday morning, April 29, Root River Trail near Preston Trailhead: In a chilly overcast dawn, forty-five people in three groups are searching for birds. John Hockema of Rochester leads this group. Dave Palmquist, Whitewater State Park Naturalist and Karla Kinstler, Houston Nature Center Naturalist lead the other groups.

A loud rattling sound moves up the Root River and two Belted Kingfishers fly into the air, come together for a moment, then perch on a branch in front of the birdwatchers. Red-winged Blackbirds sing. A Great Blue Heron flies overhead. Fifteen people point binoculars into the treetops to focus on flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers. A high-pitched melodious song comes from the underbrush and binoculars point down to find the singing White-throated Sparrow. A flock of Purple Martins flies overhead and three species of swallow's line up on a power line. Downy Woodpeckers drum and an Eastern Phoebe sings her name.

At 8:00 a.m., the birdwatchers enter the United Methodist Church of Preston to warm up over a pancake breakfast served by the Preston Lions. Someone begins to compile a list of sightings for the day-forty species so far.

The next stop is Christ Lutheran Church in Preston where Dave Palmquist, Whitewater State Park Naturalist, talks about "This Special Place; The Blufflands." According to Palmquist, the blufflands of Southeast Minnesota cover only three percent of the state and contain forty-three of Minnesota's rare plants and birds. It is the most biologically diverse area in Minnesota, containing thirty distinct habitat types. Untouched by glaciers during the last ice age, the streams and rivers here continued their age-old cutting through limestone rock resulting in thousands of bluffs, valleys and caves.

Seven species of bats make use of area caves. The Pickerel Frog lives here and nowhere else. The Louisiana Waterthrush, declining in North America, nests here as does the Red-shouldered Hawk, a threatened species. Algific Talus Slopes, found only in Southeast Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin and Iowa, provide cool moist micro-habitats for rare plants and snails. Palmquist says that past and present land use has threatened some of these species, but increased citizen concern helps to ensure their survival.

Following Palmquist's talk, participants attend workshops about bird identification; the dollars and cents of birding; attracting bluebirds; birding equipment; backyard bird feeding; hummingbirds/butterfly gardens; and building bluebird houses.

Saturday evening at the Harmony Visitor Center, Al Batt, Hartland, Minnesota storyteller and humorist, talks about "Birding from a Bicycle Seat." Batt's style, as rambling and funny as Garrison Keillor's, soon has the crowd in stitches. Batt says birds connect us to nature; we love them because they can fly, because the first music the human ear ever heard was birdsong and because birds are beautiful.

Birds of the wetlands


Sunday morning dawns sunnier and warmer than Saturday. Birders gather at the Houston Trail parking lot and Nature Center. Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows are singing. A Common Snipe calls as it flies over the nearby wetlands. Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal float on a pond. Sandpipers poke in the mud. Tree Swallows pick insects out of the air. As the group slowly walks around the wetlands, Swamp Sparrows fly out of the brush. Two hours pass too fast and it's time for breakfast at the Houston High School. The species list grows to sixty-five.

Following breakfast, Greg Munson, Quarry Hill Nature Center Naturalist, talks about bird banding. Through banding and recovery efforts, ornithologists gain understanding of migration routes, the timing of migration, the longevity of birds, and site fidelity to breeding and wintering areas. Every band carries a unique serial number and the address of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in Laural, Maryland. A person recovering a banded bird should remove the band and send it along with other pertinent information to the FWS.

To capture birds for banding, Munson has placed two fine mesh nets behind the Houston High School. The nets capture an American Robin, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle and House Finch. Munson bands these birds, then teaches group members how to hold the birds and release them.

Karla Kinstler, Houston Nature Center Naturalist, and her Great-horned Owl, Alice are next on the agenda. Alice became a teaching bird when someone shot her mother and Alice fell out of the nest damaging a wing. She can still fly, but only short distances. She is also imprinted on humans, which means she thinks she is human. Alice lives with Kinstler and her husband Ken in their house.

As Kinstler takes the owl out of her carrying box, Alice hoots and spreads her great wings. She blinks her huge yellow eyes and swivels her head on her flexible neck. She carries the name of Great-horned Owl because of two tufts of feathers, which look like ears, but aren't; her ears are imbedded on each side of her head. Alice seems curious, but unafraid. Her feathers are soft, allowing for silent flight. She hoots again when returned to her box.

The First Annual Root River Birding Festival is officially ove

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