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Birding With Ben

image of author and her son

A road trip for the birds brings together a mother and her son.

By Mary Kroll
Photography by Mike Dvorak

Our binoculars move in unison as we watch a flock of dunlins swipe the sky above us. Suddenly, jarringly, the birds reverse course in unison. Could they be afraid of us? I hardly think Ben and I resemble predators, standing there in our tennis shoes munching on Twizzlers. But the birds are definitely spooked.

Then we see it. Soaring casually near the flock is a peregrine falcon, looking for lunch. The flock frantically switches direction, corralled like skittish calves by the peregrine. Then, the falcon is gone. Perhaps it isn't hungry, or it has spied other prey. The manic shorebirds skitter to a relieved, exhausted stop on a nearby sewage pond.

Yes, we are standing next to a sewage pond. By choice.

For many people, birding may seem like a leisurely activity with walks through colorful, trilling woods that lead to views of birds (which hold long poses while you thumb your Sibley's field guide). Actually, birding is partly a procession of small-town sewage ponds. Shorebirds -- the birds we were looking for that spring day -- find food and refuge at these less-than-aesthetic places. To bird there, you must lift binoculars and hold your nose at the same time.

And I'm addicted to it.

It's all Ben's fault. Ben is my 20-year-old son, a fine man in the making and already an accomplished birder. As a kindergartner, Ben boarded a cavernous yellow school bus, unbalanced by his oversized backpack, clinging to a Peterson's bird field guide. He couldn't read, but he would try to match the birds he spied from the bus with the pictures. By age 10 he was rattling off the warblers he saw in our back yard -- magnolia, blackburnian, Nashville. Frankly, I thought he was making the names up. But like a dutiful mom, I peered through his outstretched binoculars and assured him, yes, I could see the white eye ring. Sure.

As Ben got older, it occurred to me that he knew what he was talking about. I watched as he fell in with a group of seasoned birders in Grand Marais, high-fiving each other like division champions when they found a black-legged kittiwake (a small gull) in the harbor. Ben held his own on field trips, and other accomplished birders would fully accept his identifications when announcing their "roll call" of birds at the end of the day. Clearly, he wasn't making anything up.

We're into the second day of a three-day birdathon, and the sky is overcast. It seems as though Ben is navigating our car under a giant swash of rain. To the north, south, and west I see clearing, but Ben has a destination in mind and keeps us pinned under clouds, as if he were consulting a divining rod, not an atlas, for directions.

Finally, we arrive at a sprawling wetland in Kandiyohi County. It looks like any other spongy grassland. "Let's call some rails," Ben suggests, as he pulls out a CD player and slips in a bird-sound disc. The faux Virginia rail crackles loudly. Right away, a bird returns the sound. Ben and I share smiles; and then, suddenly, the rail is at Ben's feet. Quickly realizing its mistake, the bird turns on its nonexistent heels and skitters off through the grass.

"Let's consider that our mascot for the trip," I suggest. "We could name it Roger. Roger the Rail." Ben smiles and shrugs. I think he sometimes wonders why he's birding with such an amateur.

Later in the day, his quick "Oh, wait, pull in here" has me making a fast right into the flooded parking lot of a cement manufacturer. Not exactly my idea of habitat, but I strain to see what Ben has sensed. Then I notice the sand and silt, washed in from a nearby flooded stream, forming small islands among the standing water. Shorebird habitat? Ben spies a beautiful, brownish shorebird with a black chest and face mask. It is busily turning over stones with its bill. Aptly named, the ruddy turnstone is looking for insects and grubs. I sometimes think Ben has bird ESP.

We meander through southern Minnesota. The area is spackled with small towns and their grain elevators rising next to railroad tracks. We stop at each crossing to listen for the distinctive coo-cooo-coo of the Eurasian collared-dove, an exotic bird from India that was introduced into the Bahamas in the 1970s and migrated to Florida. Its range now spreads north into Minnesota. In these small towns, Ben and I find convenience stores with microwaveable hot dogs and lilac bushes the size of urban condominiums, but no calling doves.

Doves or not, I love the march through these small towns, with their modest homes and gardens lined by neat rows of rhubarb. We leisurely drive from bird feeder to bird feeder, checking chickadees and nuthatches off our list, moving on before we alarm homeowners who might wonder why we are staring at their yards with binoculars. We stand on street corners and listen for the distinctive twittering of chimney swifts overhead, as locals crane their necks to see what we find so interesting.

Our final stop is a cemetery, where we look for warblers and other flitting things. I can identify many of these small birds, but sometimes I'm not sure. Some warblers are yellow with olive streaks, or yellow with blue-gray wings, or gray with yellow heads, or gray with yellow rumps. They are a maddening puzzle. I pretend I know them anyway. Ben is happy when I locate a new warbler flitting among the branches of a Norway spruce, and he identifies it before I make a bad guess.

Sewage ponds. Parking lots. Cemeteries. These days are so sweet, with my son. They last from sunrise (warblers move in the morning) to late at night (owls). They are long days, full of moments and scents of raw sewage. But none of this matters as long as I'm birding with Ben.

Mary Kroll writes and birds near Long Prairie. Her son, Ben Fritchman, birds from Thunder Bay to Luverne, often on the same day, but is currently interrupting his birding life with studies at North Dakota State University.

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