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12 April 2006
Marsh waterfowl-watching

Birding at the marshB and I took a drive a little way north to the Maple River State Game Area (map) on Sunday afternoon to do a little spring migratory birding and to allow Dylan, our little border collie, a bit of always-needed exercise. We managed about a 4-mile hike and some good birding. We arrived at about 3:00PM to find a single automobile in the parking area - I had expected it to be a more popular place on such a bright spring day. Spring and fall migrations are typically the busiest times for birdwatchers at this marsh. Since we were sharing the area only 2 other nature-lovers just ahead of us, we let Dylan enjoy his time off-leash. He stayed on the paths and didn't get too far ahead. He's been very good about general obedience even though his energy level is enviable. The hiking path back into the marsh follows a dike that borders a large pond with lots of reeds and cattails. Each area of open water we walked past held a goose or two and a couple of coots.

As we hiked along the narrow dikes, I raised my binoculars repeatedly to check out every perched and flying bird form. Almost every time, I discovered another male red-winged blackbird. The population appeared to be super-dense. How many blackbirds can squeeze into one hectare? 10? 50? I didn't see any females - they don't appear to have arrived yet. Perhaps during this pre-female time, the males can, or must, tolerate proximity to each other more.

Maple River MarshThe best birding is often enjoyed at the far end of the managed wetland, on one of the largest (about 1/4 square mile) artificially-flooded ponds. As we approached this pond however, we were initially disappointed to see no huge bands of ducks, geese or other water birds. We found a couple small, scattered and mixed groups of birds paddling around, but none of the large flocks we have learned to expect. We found a level spot to set up the spotting scope and started scanning for identifiable birds. We quickly found a few scaups, some coots, goldeneyes, buffleheads and a few cormorants among a smattering of Canada geese. While we enjoyed the sights, Dylan entertained himself by scouting up and down either side of the dike for mice, voles, snakes and anything else he could find. He occasionally leapt a big graceful antelope leap down the steep bank after some unsuspecting critter. He was careful to never land n the water, though it's not clear to me how he managed that. While we stood at the scope, a mature bald eagle flew low overhead to the east. He returned after a few minutes, heading back west, with some small 'meal-to-go' in his talons, but we couldn't identify his catch. Eagles often nest in the marsh, but I'm not sure where their nest might be if they have one this year. I'd guess it was to our west...

Satisfied we'd seen all birds there were to see from this vantage point, we packed up the scope and hiked all the way around this pool to its eastern side which borders another large, partially-flooded corn field. We had noticed lots of birds flying in the distance from our previous location, and thought we'd head back to take a look. Here, we set up the scope again and spotted more geese and lots of dabbling ducks paddling around among the flooded corn stubble. We spied shovelers, pintails, teals and few more geese. We also must've counted at least a dozen good-sized muskrats in the channels between pools. They are obviously enjoying a supportive environment here.

We eventually made our way back west around the eastern-most pools toward the car. The sun was beginning to set and the air started to feel slightly chillier. Looking into the setting sun makes for difficult birding, but we did manage to find a couple of wrens in among the shrubs and brush, some woodpeckers and a couple of noisy flocks of cowbirds. Here's a complete list of our findings...

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