by Clay Christensen
My son, Andrew (Drew) passed away in early February of this year.
He’d been suffering for a year or two with temporal frontal degradation.
It took him at the age of 57.
I didn’t realize that he’d become my birding buddy until we’d done several surveys and trips together.
We began at Afton State Park on a May day in 2000, looking for a white-tailed kite. One had been reported there a few days earlier. The white-tailed kite is a bird of the California coast, southern Texas and southern Florida. So, it’s a very rare visitor to Minnesota.
I liked Afton and thought I’d head out there and wondered if Drew would be interested in going with me. He was just getting into birdwatching, so I called him.
Drew was interested, so we went out to the state park. We didn’t find the kite but had a good afternoon hiking the trails, listening to Henslow’s sparrows, pretty rare in most of Minnesota.
One of the longer times we spent together was at the annual warbler weekend at the Villa Maria, in Frontenac. The St. Paul Audubon Society rented the entire Villa for Friday night through Sunday morning on Mother’s Day weekend.
Drew and I shared a room the first year, in 2005, but one of us snored a great deal, so we had separate rooms after that. Drew found 38 lifers the first year he came along with me. Villa Maria was a former girls school overlooking the Mississippi River at Lake Pepin. It was a great birding trip. Over the years, Drew helped me with the technology of playing owl calls when I led the owl walk there at sunset.
Drew and I did an annual owl survey west of the Twin Cities around Howard Lake in early April from 2008 to 2018. We were assigned a 10-mile route, an old frog survey route. (!) We’d stop every half mile, get out of the car, wait for the car noises to subside, then listen intently for five minutes for an owl to call.
We heard an occasional great horned owl or barred owl over the years, but not every year. We also heard coyotes yipping, sandhill cranes in flight and snow geese honking on migration. I’ll always remember the sight of the snow geese flying through the night sky with the faint light from below reflected up on their bellies.
One year, as we stopped at the second-to-last survey point on the route, a couple of farm dogs came barking down to the road. Drew was concerned about getting out of the car.
I told Drew that a farmer friend of mine told me that what you do is open the door just a crack and put your hand out under the bottom of the door, let the dogs sniff your fingers, then you’ll be just fine.
Drew suggested that I do that on my side! I told him that the dogs were on his side. He tried sticking out his fingers from the bottom of the car door, and it worked! We got out, the dogs rubbed up against us, allowed us to pet them. I was kind of surprised!
Drew and I did a Breeding Bird Survey for several years. That’s a survey to see what birds are using an area for breeding. Look for nest building, pair bonding, gathering nesting materials and the like.
Our route was out by Litchfield, about 50 miles west of the Twin Cities. We had to be out there before sunrise. It was interesting to listen to bird songs as the day was just dawning.
Some birds were already in full song. Others were just getting the rust out of their pipes, tuning up. We got to know what birds to expect at certain spots. We were assigned a 25-mile route, stopping every half mile and looking and listening for any and all birds.
Drew and I once went down to Kearney, Nebraska, to see the sandhill cranes on migration. It was March, very cold! Drew had brought foot warmers for his boots, but somehow had put them into his boots incorrectly.
On the hike out to the blind his feet began to get really hot. He had to stop and take the foot warmers out of his boots just so he could walk. The blind was right next to the Platte River. We reached it in the dark and could just barely see hundreds of sandhill cranes standing in the water, still sleeping with head tucked under a wing, as chunks of ice drifted by.
As the sun rose, the cranes began to stir. Finally, small groups would take to the air. Then they all lifted off, calling to one another. It was an awesome experience.
I miss my birding buddy, my son. I always will. It was great while it lasted.
Clay Christensen, a longtime birder, lives and writes in Lauderdale.