I was “workforce reduced” in May 2000 after 34 years with a company that shall remain nameless. I decided to go birding the next day and invited my son, Drew, to join me. He had the day off and was very interested. We had never gone birding together before.
We headed for Afton State Park on report of a swallow-tailed kite far north of its usual Floridian range.
After a couple of hours of hiking, we hadn’t seen a swallow-tailed kite, but we had established ourselves as a team of two that began doing a variety of bird surveys.
Fast-forward some 16 years. This past July, Drew was “workforce reduced” after nearly 23 years at that same company, which shall still remain nameless. I suggested that we go birding after his last day. We finally got to it in early August.
His 16-year old daughter, Emily, had been asking to go along with us on the surveys in the past, but we never took her along. It wouldn’t really be bird-watching. It was more citizen science, and we thought she’d be bored. But we both decided that we should include her on this celebratory trip.
There had been reports of purple martins roosting along Vadnais Lake in the north metro, so we thought we’d start there. Purple martins are dark, medium-sized birds in the swallow family with notched tails, great at scooping insects (think mosquitoes!) out of the air.
We got to Vadnais a little after 8 a.m. We saw a couple of loons, several double-crested cormorants, and a gorgeous trumpeter swan out on the lake, but no purple martins flying overhead. We decided to try a more promising habitat at Sucker Lake, just north of Vadnais.
And, just as we were getting out of the car in the Sucker Lake parking lot, two purple martins flew over! How obliging of them.
Sucker Lake has a nice paved trail that borders the lake. From the parking lot, the trail follows a ditch with some standing water in it. We often spot red-winged blackbirds, song sparrows, and other birds along this stretch, and because they’re usually right next to the trail, they get up close and personal for some nice looks. So we slowed down and listened for chips and songs, looking closely for any signs of motion among the cattails and marsh vegetation.
Drew and I heard a strange, almost mechanical “clack” sound. It was slowly moving along the wetland in the same direction that we were headed. “I think that’s a rail,” I said. We both scanned the vegetation and Drew found the bird just on the other side of the ditch, sitting in a sunny spot, grooming. “Looks like it’s digesting its breakfast,” I said.
A marsh bird with a long bill, a rail is about the size and shape of a football. I checked the bird app on my cellphone and looked at the pictures of rails. I decided it looked like a clapper rail—until I checked the range map for the clapper. It was unlikely we’d see one in Minnesota.
In the meantime, Drew checked his own cell phone app and showed me the range for the Virginia rail: It covers the northern and western United States in the summer. The photo of the juvenile Virginia rail looked much like the bird he’d spotted, dark with some tan patches and a white chin. What a find. I hadn’t seen a Virginia rail since 1989. The rail sat there in the sun for quite a long time. It looked like it was settling in for the morning. Emily got good looks at it, too.
We continued up the trail and headed off toward the footbridge that crosses Sucker Creek. As we approached a thicket of shrubbery, I saw a bird hopping through the branches, slowly, deliberately. I got my binoculars on it and despaired: It was a nondescript beige bird, smaller than a robin, but without any discernable identifying marks. There was a good deal of chipping going on from it or another bird nearby.
So I watched it, trying to find something that would point toward an ID. And then a parent came in to bring a juicy morsel to this apparent youngster. It was a gorgeous male common yellowthroat. The adult sports a striking black mask, outlined above in white, and (of course) a bright yellow throat plus yellow undertail feathers. Emily and Drew both got to see these birds as well.
We saw or heard 27 species that morning, a good outing for August. Sighting the martins, the rail and the yellowthroats in the company of my son and granddaughter made it one of the most memorable birding hikes I’ve been on in some 30 years.
Clay Christensen lives and writes in Lauderdale. His book, The Birdman of Lauderdale, is available in local bird stores, bookstores and online at www.BirdmanBook.com.