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Gifts of Bark Point

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

After a brief Chet Baker interlude, we're still riding on the incredible birding Wisconsin offered. Hope you don't mind a little time-space de-continuum. I just have to show you Wisconsin, even if I break the real time barrier--boom!

You never know what you'll find. Especially when you're alone, on a pilgrimage just to see what you can see. I was in an utterly Zen state of mind, once I figured out that the absolute best birding in rotten cold weather, with a gale coming off the lake from the northeast, would doubtless be on the peninsulas that project out into Lake Superior. I looked at the map and targeted two peninsulae for my afternoon's birding.

The anticipation is even more delicious when you're birding in an unfamiliar biome. I had asked around a little about a few birds I really wanted to see, but a number of them still took me by surprise. A small, finely striped sparrow spooked around in a boggy patch near the northern end of Bark Point. I recognized it from the numerous fall records at our place: a classic northern nesting sparrow, the Lincoln's sparrow. It's like a delicate song sparrow, finely penciled, beautifully shaded. If I had to guess, I'd say this bird had just bathed, which would account for the ragged look.

Serendipity was with me this evening. Four big birds, thrasher sized but heavier, flopped across the road right in front of my car. The general impression was of silt-gray birds with big white heads. I lowered the electric window and threw a handful of roasted corn snacks out onto the road even before rolling to a stop. GRAY JAYS!! Hello babies!! Every birder I'd spoken to had warned me that gray jays, the tame, confiding "whiskey jacks" who haunt campsites, stealing everything that isn't tied down, were hard to come by in this part of the state. I'd have to drive 30 minutes south to the thick stands of spruce to find them. And I had driven down to the Clam Lake area, but not knowing where to go, had found none. I did have a really, really bad cheeseburger at a diner, where I got a dose of local color (including a loud, scary woman wearing a sweatshirt saying, "Save a Tree. Eat a Beaver. PETA Trapper's Association). Being a writer, I considered it a break-even proposition...bad cheeseburger, fabulous material.

Ryan Brady, state biologist and birder/photographer extraordinaire, said, "Don't get your hopes up. It'd be really unusual to see them around here." And so I didn't, but I was ready for them, hurling GladCorn (my favorite birding snack) when grace sent them my way.

Ryan thought that perhaps these jays were the remnant of a mini-gray jay invasion of northern Wisconsin that happened last year. Making their way back to Canada, perhaps, and stalled on Bark Point just like all the warblers and sparrows.

Gray jays have lived around people for so long that they have learned to look for them, going to investigate each curl of smoke or report of a gun, hoping it'll mean a meal. Perhaps these birds sought me out. I was mighty glad to see them, too. They swooped in without hesitation, five of them, grabbing corn off the blacktop, so close I couldn't focus. One stored his corn bits in some Usnea moss, then sat for his portrait. Oh, I love gray jays, and I love birding, and Wisconsin.


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