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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Where All the Women are Strong and All the Men are Good Looking

It was our first full day in the Minneapolis and St Paul, home to more than more than 2 million souls, the Minnesota Twins, the Mall of America (largest mall in the US), & Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio show. Eager to enjoy what the Twin Cities had to offer we had a tough decision to make. Where to spend our short time while in Minneapolis? We perused a list of possibilities and finally we made up our minds; we were going birding.
The Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge sits atop a ridge overlooking a wide spreading valley. A birdfeeder at the visitor center had a nice hodgepodge of birds; Goldfinches, Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles were everywhere. Red-bellied, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers flew in back forth between the feeders and several stately old trees. Some beautiful, copper tinted Tom Turkeys marched out of the woods and made pigs of themselves at a platform feeder.

We hiked down to the lake with hopes of picking up some warblers. It was a treacherous trail downhill and I almost plummeted to my death when an unleashed toddler, at least 2-years-old, sped past me.
Don was putting his bird song identification skills to work and he had correctly pegged a slowly sung ‘deee-deee-deee as the song of Black-capped Chickadees. I could hear in the distance a different song that was oddly familiar but I was unable to place it exactly. Then we both spotted the singer at the same time; a White-throated Sparrow.

I pondered a long standing mystery; the song of the White-throat begins with two clear notes followed by triplets - ‘Old Sam Pea-bo-dy, Pea-bo-dy, Pea-bo-dy’. However, the amazing fact is that north of the Canadian Border, the same White-throats sing, a similar song - ‘Oh sweet Can-a-da, Can-a-da, Can-a-da!’

A great mystery remains - just how do the birds know which side of the border they are on?

White-throated Sparrow

Northern Cardinals

Following the hike, I got the first of many Minnesota National Wildlife Refuge stamps for my Blue Goose Passport Book. Don asked after other hiking trails in the refuge. A refuge docent suggested a trail that started more or less from where we had just returned.

‘You coming?’ Don asked. He was eager to get out and put additional mileage on his hiking boots.

‘Naw,' said I. There were three weeks of vacation ahead of me. I wanted to pace myself.

>Don went on his hike, I settled myself by the big picture window to watch the parade of animals around the feeders, this time from the inside of the center. I saw my first Blue Jay for the trip and my favorite of all song-birds for both looks and for song – the Northern Cardinal. The last cardinal I saw had been on a Christmas card and I really missed them. Aside from the birds, there was a tiny Red Squirrel munching seed at the base of the feeder and a 13-lined Ground Squirrel. These ground squirrels are chipmunk-sized and dapper with their pretty stripes. So it rather surprised me that they gave me the willies the way they crept around; like fuzzy, streaked cockroaches.

Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel, known to
Minnesotans as a 'gopher' and to me as 'creepy'

When Don returned I was elated – he hadn’t spotted any migrating flocks of Prothonotary or Cerulean Warblers. I was more pleased about that than I let on. Ok, sometimes I'm a less than a perfect friend.

Don has relatives in Minneapolis and we went to visit Don’s father’s Minnesota<> cousins, Marianne Seekamp and her brother Pat Lyon. We drove to the Seekamp’s house in a cute little neighborhood with the typical beautiful old multi storied Midwestern houses. I admired the beautiful scarlet and yellow tulips that bloomed by the Seekamp’s front door. I can never coax tulips to bloom in SacramentoAs we walked through the front door, Marianne’s husband Dick, smiled down at me with a mischievous grin.

‘What’s that on your shoulder?’I froze. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a polka-dot sashaying around on the shoulder of my orange camp shirt.

Don plucked the mobile dot and said calmly, ‘It’s just a tick.’


All in all , I must say having a tick on me was some sort of great ice-breaker;the afternoon was a delight. The Seekamps took us on a car tour of Minneapolis which included Lakewood Cemetery. That was not a strange thing for Don, who was researching his family’s roots. Nor was that unusual for me, who used spent many a memorial day in my youth, on family picnics in Farmingdale where my paternal grandparents were buried. Don saw first hand where several of his father’s aunts and other relatives were buried.

(L to R) Maryanne, Don, Dick and Pat

Following the cemetery tour we were treated to a delish Midwestern backyard barbeque and then it was back to the Nan’s B&B and not a jot too soon because I was dead tired.

The following morning, under the capable direction of the GIS system’s persona,
Chachalaca, we drove two hours north and arrived at an eensie little village called Geise, which rhymes with wheezy. We would stay at the Geise Bed & Breakfast for a few days. The B&B was a three story affair with the owner’s living quarters in the lowermost level, an antique shop in the mid-level and generous guest quarters in the top floor.

The guest area had two comfy living rooms, each with their own fireplaces, televisions and opposing bedrooms. I thought the rooms and their folky decor were lifted straight out of Country Living Magazine. We were told we could have any of the rooms and I went for the one with lavender quit and cute birdhouses over my queen sized bed. Just outside my room’s French doors a wooden balcony/walkway had a view of the beautiful Minnesota Woodlands.

Her Majesty's Quarters

Some balcony type scenery

Once we were settled into our rooms we decided we would visit the Department of Natural Resources where birding blinds can be reserved to catch the early morning Grouse show – more on that later. But first we had to find the DNR offices and for the first time, poor Chachalaca for all her high tech satellite wizardry, was clueless.

Take a right hand turn in 50 yards,’ Chacha cooed as if she knew what the hell she was saying. She dinged twice to let us know we ought to make a turn, but there was no road to turn on to! But Chacha did not seem to appreciate that we did not turn on her recommendation. She sounded as if she was in a bit of a snit, as she insisted, ‘make a U-turn when it is safe to do so’. I suspected she was trying to run us into a ditch and on the spot I decided Chachalaca was not really an appropriate name. If we were going to be directed into the thick of unnamed woods, perhaps Chupacabara, ‘Chup’ was a more appropriate name. The name stuck; Chup (Choop) she was from then on.

The skies were overcast when we made it to the refuge headquarters and a light rain had begun to fall. While Don got helpful information and signed us up for the Grouse lek, I perused the cool free pamphlets. Then it was back to the B&B for a short rest. Later we decided to go out for dinner. We headed out in the car and on it was still raining I decided to not take my camera. And as nothing brings wildlife out of the woodwork like not having a camera on hand, it was no surprise to me that before long, Don asked, ‘What is that way up there on the road?’

I squinted. There was a porcupine, methodically lumbered along the side of the road. Adventure! Once, when I was in my 20’s I had wrangled with a porcupine. I had run it down, tossing my jacket over it to nab some quills as a victory souvenir. History was about to repeat itself!

I got out of the car and raced after the porcupine in an incredibly fast run... ok, maybe it was more like an incredibly fast lumber actually. The prickly critter stopped in its tracks and looked back at me. Suddenly its quills flared - just like that little dinosaur in Jurassic Park. The thick milk white quills that edged Porky's tail rattled like a saber at a Civil War reenactment. Then the critter put on a burst of speed, disappearing into the scenery. I stood, coughing on the porcupine's dust.

Damn. In 30 years porcupines have really picked up some speed haven't they?

The following day we returned to Rice Lake, known as such because the Dakota Indians used to harvest wild rice there.

We drove along the refuge's Wildlife Auto Tour, stopping occasionally to watch birds, such as the numerous Wood Duck, Ring-billed Duck, and Blue-winged Teal in numerous ponds just off the road. We also stopped to walk around and look for the ever evasive warblers. One thing that caught my attention was all the ponds seemed to be unusually reflective, probably due to the water’s clarity.

Blue-winged teal, drake and hen

We also found a Solitary Sandpiper and some Sharp-tailed Grouse we flushed while driving past a large field. Later in the afternoon as we drove around the county we found a Eastern Broad-winged Hawk and even an adult Bald Eagle that was sat by the highway as if waiting for a bus.

Broad-winged Hawk

Not to be outdone, that evening I picked up a lifer myself - a Deer Tick! I shrieked when I found the nasty thing and gave the creepy thing and his travel partners, 3 Wood Ticks, free diving lessons in the toilet. I was horrified - the ticks were not in the least upset by the dunking – they just crawled around in the bottom of the toilet, like eensie deep sea divers. Ugh!

It's the eensie Deer Tick that carries Lyme Disease
and they have to be attached for a
couple of days to spread the disease.

Late in the day we drove along the wooded roads headed back to the B&B. I was in heaven, in the heartland, listening to a Prairie Home Companion on its home turf.

Don's lifer Solitary Sandpiper

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