Some great birds and one gracious lady with a spotting scope made a big difference in a young girl’s life.

Cynthia, the gracious lady with the scope, is a friend of mine, an annual friend, I’d say. My son Drew and I see her nearly every year at St. Paul Audubon’s Warbler Weekend. That’s held on Mother’s Day weekend at the Villa Maria Retreat and Conference Center near Frontenac, Minn. St. Paul Audubon rents the whole villa.

And then we go out looking for birds, especially migrating warblers, from sunrise to sunset. Besides the grounds of the villa itself, there are some “birdy” venues not far from there, including the Old Frontenac Cemetery, Sand Point, Frontenac State Park and Hok-Si-La Park, north of Lake City.

Drew and I had good luck at Hok-Si-La Park on Saturday morning of this year’s event, and we decided to try it again in the afternoon. We didn’t even get into the park proper before we found folks standing along the entrance road, looking off into the flooded forest. We parked along the side and walked up to them.

“Whatcha seeing?” I asked Cynthia. She was there with two or three friends who we knew. There was also a family of five, who we didn’t know.

“Lots of northern waterthrushes, common yellowthroats and yellow warblers,” Cynthia said.

There was a flurry of bird activity. This spring was so delayed with snow and ice covering the landscape for so long that the trees hadn’t leafed out yet and there weren’t many insects for the birds. Especially lacking were the usual caterpillars, the inchworms that warblers love to feast on as they fuel up on their northward migration. So the birds were down among the fallen trees, floating logs and sodden stumps, looking for anything they could eat.

I noticed that the mom and dad of the family had binoculars, but not the kids. There were two boys, perhaps 7 and 4, and an older girl of about 11. The boys were very active, only occasionally interested in looking at the birds, but the girl had a small notepad and was writing down the name of every bird that anyone called out—writing more than looking—and appearing to enjoy it immensely.

Cynthia helped the family identify the common yellowthroat. The birds were so close, you could see the detail with the naked eye. The older boy seemed impressed by the yellowthroat’s black mask.

The family was from the Twin Cities and was here on a birding trip as a Mother’s Day treat for Mom; she liked looking at birds, Dad said. The girl’s name was Emma Anne. Cynthia helped her with the names of the birds and their spelling. Emma Anne’s notes included all the wildlife they’d seen, not just birds, but also a muskrat.

We moved the car to the parking lot and then Drew and I hiked to the edge of a marshy backwater. There was a solitary sandpiper walking along the edge, probing the mud, and a spotted sandpiper not far away. There were also more northern waterthrushes, yellow warblers and common yellowthroats.

Soon Cynthia came along and set up her spotting scope to get a better look at the sandpipers. The family of five was right behind, and Cynthia asked if they’d like to see the birds through the scope. The parents went first and were impressed with the view. Then Cynthia lowered the scope for Emma Anne.

She was awed by the close-up look at the long-legged, long-billed, graceful sandpipers. She stayed looking, enthralled, while Cynthia put a yellow warbler and then a northern waterthrush in the scope’s sights.

Her brothers dared each other to see who could get closest to the edge of the water without stepping in the mud. Emma Anne went back to her folks and Cynthia raised the scope up to her own eye level. Then she found a common yellowthroat, the one with that dramatic black mask. She called Emma Anne back and asked if she could lift her up to the eyepiece. Emma Anne nodded vigorously. Cynthia hoisted her up to the scope and let her see the gorgeous yellowthroat. Emma Anne was visibly excited, seeing the bird in such detail.

Her father was appreciative of Cynthia’s time with his daughter and asked if he could take a photo of Emma Anne with Cynthia and the scope. And so they posed together.

The family started to leave, but Emma Anne stopped, ran back to Cynthia and thanked her enthusiastically for showing her the birds. There’s one young girl who has been turned on to birds, the love of nature and, I hope, a lifelong concern for the environment that nurtures both us and the birds.

Clay Christensen watches and writes about birds at his home in Lauderdale and blogs on his website at

1 Response

  1. Cynthia Reuss

    Clay, thank you for your part in this experience for Emma Anne & I & thank you for sharing it with others through your gift of storytelling! Cheers!!

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