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June 15, 2019

Jacob friede/lakeland times

Trees for Tomorrow environmental educator Danielle Christensen gives a talk on Wisconsin’s raptors with red-tailed hawk Apollo. Christensen and Apollo’s appearance was part the 15th annual North Lakeland Discovery Center Bird Festival.
Jacob friede/lakeland times

Trees for Tomorrow environmental educator Danielle Christensen gives a talk on Wisconsin’s raptors with red-tailed hawk Apollo. Christensen and Apollo’s appearance was part the 15th annual North Lakeland Discovery Center Bird Festival.
6/8/2019 7:30:00 AM
Natural Reaction
Winging it at the North Lakeland Discovery Center Bird Festival
Jacob Friede
Of The Lakeland Times

A few days ago I was leaving the laundromat when, on the way to my car, a songbird darted out from a nearby bog and landed next to my feet. Ordinarily I would have taken notice of how close it got and then went on my way. But I had just attended the 15th annual Northwoods Birding Festival hosted by the North Lakeland Discovery Center in Manitowish Waters, and no longer was a simple bird sighting a simple bird sighting. I promptly began registering the plumage and song and size of the bird and spent the next five minutes scanning the bog for more species before racing home to classify the bird as a song sparrow.

"That's the cool thing about birding," said Heather Gerth, one of the festival's guides and speakers. "You look at the world a different way."

She was right. Through the lens of birding, the world is full of epiphany perched upon the branches and you're always just a glance away from encountering enlightenment.

As part of the festival there were a number of off-site field trips to different birding hotspots. Their were trips to the Turtle-Flambeau area, the Little Turtle Flowage, the Van Vliet Old Growth Hemlocks, Frog Lake, the Presque Isle Ponds, and the Powell Marsh.

I chose to go on a Powell Marsh group hike and when we got there we had barely left the parking lot before being stopped in our tracks by all the songs around us, which is normal birding pace according to Gerth.

"You make it about 20 feet before you stop, and then sometimes you go backwards, so you don't really make it far birding," she said.

But the distance you do cover is full of discovery. Surrounded by songs of a wild spring concert, we searched the trees for the composers, and there was a sense of celebration when one was spotted at work, engaged in wonderful singing.

I reaped the benefit of being with birders quite skilled with their ears and binoculars. It was remarkable how Gerth, who has a master's degree in natural resources and zoology, was able to fluidly connect a song to a species and then diagnose the sighting. She saw every detail of the plumage and was able to report to the group exactly what to be looking for. Color pattern. Tail shape. Flight pattern. And she set lyrics to the chirping with mnemonic devices like "Please, Please, Please to meet you."

"I rely so much on habitat and sound cues," Gerth said.

As a beginner, even with Gerth's guidance, birding was tough. Songbirds are small and fly fast in thick cover. Most of the time of I just saw dark spots darting through the trees until I was able to put the glass on them, and even then I had trouble seeing the complex patterns. But when I did, or when I was able to decipher a specific song from the rest, it was a scientific thrill, like discovering a new species, of which there were so many.

There were chestnut-sided warblers, yellow warblers, yellow-rumped warblers, song sparrows, swamp sparrows and clay-colored sparrows. There were catbirds, kingbirds, flycatchers, red-winged blackbirds and red-eyed vireos. And there were American goldfinch and Canada geese.

'People and Birds of the Midwest'

Nothing grants a species individuality like these names and later in the day, the keynote speaker of the Birding Festival, author Michael Edmunds, described the complicated history of birds and bird classification in the Midwest.

In his presentation, "People and Birds of the Midwest," Edmunds explained how the transformation of bird names from technical latin titles to the folksy, description-based names of today was influenced by the common people's close relationship to birds.

He said birds have always been a creature of the people, and bird names began to represent the common's interactions with them. Over time birds often became known by what they sounded like, looked like, or who discovered them rather than by an ambiguous scientific term.

"They had to have names instead of what your great-great- grandparents called them," Edmunds said, stressing that Latin names would not have caught on with common people.

Over history, Edmunds explained birds have been central to all aspects of Midwestern life. They are the earliest depicted animal on Midwestern rock drawings.

They have been respected as religious symbols and even seen by ancient cultures as spiritual travelers, able to pass through different realms of existence, and they've also been simply revered for their beauty and studied by all who encountered them, whether on an expedition or on the farm.

But from 1870-1900, the dawn of the shotgun, birds were over-hunted to meet the demands of restaurants and hat manufacturers.

"It was possible to kill large amounts of birds," Edmunds said of the shotgun age.

Beginning in 1918, to stop the damage being caused by market gunners, Edmunds said a movement to protect birds began, started by bird supporters and backed by government regulation.

That momentum, and the birding spirit, has carried on to this day and was alive and well at the North Lakeland Discovery Center Birding Festival, especially when the next guests made their appearance.

Other presenters

To help illustrate her presentation on Wisconsin's raptors, Danielle Christensen, environmental educator at Trees for Tomorrow, brought along Apollo, a red-tailed hawk.

"He was struck by a car in 2009," Christensen said of the accident which caused cataracts to develop in Apollo's eyes. Because of the impaired vision, Apollo must remain in captive as he would not be able to secure food on his own.

Nevertheless, he was a specimen to be seen. Sharp beak. Sharp eyes. The epitome of alert. And he's a member of a very impressive species.

Christensen said raptors talons are designed to interlock, meaning they naturally close in.

"It takes more energy for him to open his fist than close it," she explained.

This prevents them from dropping the prey they were designed by nature to locate.

Everything about a raptor, whether it be a hawk, eagle, osprey, or owl is designed to effectively hunt, Christensen explained. They see with tubular eyes which give them telescopic vision, and they have large ear canals that hear the faintest sounds. They soar and glide and dive with little sound and their beaks are sharp as blades to tear flesh.

And they have an imposing presence, whether seen perched in a tree or, especially, on a caretaker's arm.

In addition to the raptor discussion, there were presentations on wild bird rehabilitation, pollinator gardens, bird song identification, and birdhouse building. There were also bird banding demonstrations and kids' birding activities.

The whole day was a thorough and fascinating look into a world of endless excitement and discovery.

From in the field action to fascinating history and face-to- face interaction, the 15th annual Northwoods Birding festival was definitely a sight to see.

Jacob Friede may be reached at or

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