"Hundreds of white pelicans were circling above us," recalls Kao Thao, naturalist at Fort Snelling State Park. Thao says he was leading a group on a canoe trip when the migrating pelicans took off and flew like a thick, white cloud above the stunned onlookers.
"And, of course, I didn't have my camera," adds Thao with a grin.
This morning, Thao is my guide and storyteller. Once a week he leads an outing -- by foot or canoe -- for park visitors in search of nature, birds, and other wildlife in this 3,000-acre riverside park in the Twin Cities.
Because I'm on my first birding trip, I have checked out one of the park's birding kits from the visitors center. The kit includes beginner and advanced birding guides, the park's bird checklist, and Nikon Action 8x40 binoculars in a tote bag. I'm ready to explore the park in search of my first bird.
We hear it before we see it. A red-bellied woodpecker perches above us on a branch, and I mark it on the checklist. As we stroll through the Minnesota River floodplain, Thao points out patches of ground cleared of leaves and grass, with upturned soil exposed. He explains the scratchings were made by wild turkeys.
The search for more birds proves to be difficult. While I scan the trees with binoculars, Thao tells me about his favorite birding experiences. A rare sighting of a snowy owl is his "greatest treat" to date.
Thao says he's seen more people in the last year birding at Fort Snelling State Park, and he's had more visitors ask questions about birds. Several other naturalists at state parks across Minnesota have noticed similar upswings in birding visitors. The trend inspired DNR interpretive operations coordinator Bryce Anderson and metro regional naturalist Judy Thomson to develop birding kits for beginning birders, which were distributed to nine central region state parks and 11 state parks and two state recreation areas in northwestern Minnesota in May 2006. Funded from sales at park Nature Stores, the kits are free for visitors to use. Anderson says the kits have been a hit and naturalists would like to put them in all state parks within a year or two.
As Thao and I continue to search for birds, he suggests I try birding again during peak migrating times of spring and fall, when birders have spotted more than 300 bird species. But kits are in high demand then, so Thao recommends calling ahead to check on availability.
In the last hour of our birding excursion, on the shore of Snelling Lake, we spot a large brace of ducks in the distance. Some are mallards, but mixed in are ducks of another species. The sun reflects a harsh light off the water, making it tricky to distinguish the birds clearly. It looks like they have a reddish head. Canvasback? Redhead?
After a few minutes of looking at possible ducks in my field guide and determining beak color, I check my last bird -- redhead duck -- off the list with satisfaction.
Megan Nelson, editorial intern