Expectations were highTuesday morning as Dave Lambeth prepared to lead a group of birdwatchers on a stroll through Sertoma Park along the English Coulee in Grand Forks.
Life in the bird world moves at a frantic pace in the spring, and big things were happening, said Lambeth, Grand Forks, a founding member of the Grand Cities Bird Club who’s widely known as “the dean of local birders.”
Peak among the week’s birdwatching developments was the arrival of warbler species, he said.
“In my mind, this coming week is the best week of the year for birding,” Lambeth had said in an email announcing the walk.
Adding to the attraction, rain in the forecast for later Tuesday and most of the next day likely would result in a flight delay for birds migrating through the area, Lambeth said, a phenomenon known as a “fallout.”
“These birds really do move through on a pretty tight schedule,” he said. “They can be held up by north winds, rainy weather will slow them down, but if they want to go, as soon as the weather breaks at all, they’ll go.
“We’ll see how it plays out.”
Despite the looming weather change, birdwatching conditions Tuesday morning were nearly perfect, with a mostly clear sky and light wind. The distinctive “conk-la-ree!” call of red-winged blackbirds, which thrive along the English Coulee, was a constant through the rumble of heavy equipment working nearby at the construction site of the new Altru Hospital.
Canada geese, many with goslings in tow, also were vocal in making their presence known.
No wonder, then, that Sertoma Park has become one of Grand Forks’ premier birding destinations.
“There’s a variety of habitat,” Lambeth said. “It’s a real magnet. The coulee itself makes things a little ‘buggier,’ which is probably good for birds. I like it because the trees are not so tall, and especially if I have groups, it’s a little easier.”
A retired UND biochemistry and molecular biology professor, Lambeth has been leading bird walks throughout the spring migration; Tuesday’s morning hike was the fourth so far this spring. He also moderates a listserv on the Grand Cities Bird Club’s website that’s available for people to document their birdwatching news and discoveries.
Typical for this time of year, there’s been a noticeable change in species makeup from week to week as birds pass through Grand Forks en route to breeding areas farther north, Lambeth says.
“Waterfowl really grabs the attention in late March and the first week or two of April; that’s maybe the peak activity” for ducks and geese, he said. “You start seeing warblers basically in late April, and then the variety increases.”
On a really good day, birders might encounter as many as 20 different warbler species when the migration hits its peak, Lambeth says.
“Only four or five nest would nest here locally,” he said. “The rest are moving through going to Canada most likely or northern Minnesota to nest.”
Turnout for the weekly spring bird hikes has ranged from as few as four people to as many as eight, Lambeth says, the number that joined him Tuesday morning.
Most fall into the category of novice but eager to learn, including Kathleen and Tim Ness of Grand Forks.
Karen George of Grand Forks joked, “I can yell ‘bird,’ but I can’t tell you what it is.”
Birdwatching excursions are nothing new for Lambeth, who says he’s out every day and has led and hosted birding events of various kinds for years. These days, Lambeth says, he prefers leading hikes through bird-rich areas such as Sertoma Park over vehicle caravans to more rural destinations.
“This is a good size for a group,” Lambeth said. “You get 20 out here, and it gets to be too big.
“I do less caravaning,” he added. “With caravans, if you’ve got five or six cars out there, the first car stops, the second car is trying to figure out what’s going on and people in the third car have no clue why people have stopped, and it can be kind of frustrating.
“So, it’s better to go someplace where everybody can get out and walk around.”
Tuesday’s hike had barely started when Lambeth spotted a red-headed woodpecker, his first of the year.
“Nobody has reported a red-headed woodpecker yet locally,” he said. “They’re migrants, they nest here, and there’s probably three or four pair along the Greenway. It’s a species there’s quite a bit of concern about. They’re declining so they’re concerned about their future.
“I don’t know why (they’re declining),” he added. “It’s an argument for not cutting down every dead tree or every dead branch.”
The hike along less wooded portions of the park served up a variety of species, including catbirds and a brown thrasher. A mallard hen and her brood swam in the coulee along with a wood duck leading her single duckling.
Warblers took center stage in a wooded area of the park that local birders call “The Magic Circle.” Four or five yellow warblers were singing to mark their territory, and common yellowthroats, a magnolia warbler and an American redstart also were spotted.
Most warbler species have warbler as part of their name but a few don't, including yellowthroats, American redstarts, ovenbirds and water thrushes, Lambeth said.
Colorful birds with fine voices, warblers are popular among birders for many reasons, he said.
“A lot of it has to do with color,” Lambeth said. “There’s a great variation in the pattern of coloring and the kinds of colors you see, and I think a lot of it is just the challenge of trying to find these birds. They come at the time that the leaves are coming out, and they’re very active, on the move all the time, so it’s a bit of a challenge to get your binoculars on one of these warblers and get a definite identification.”
A Philadelphia vireo flitting among the branches also was Lambeth’s first sighting of the year.
“That’s a good one,” he said. “By good one, consider yourself lucky to have seen it.”
Tuesday’s hike yielded 26 species -- a good number, but not as good as it can be, Lambeth says. For warblers, the best was yet to come, but the morning walk in the park still was time well-spent.
“It was a beautiful day to be out,” Lambeth said. “This is what we really appreciate when we go through these rather long, cold and often very windy days through the spring. To have a day like today is just wonderful.”
On the Web:
Birds seen Tuesday
Here is Dave Lambeth’s listing and tally of bird species observed during Tuesday morning’s bird walk through Sertoma Park in Grand Forks:
Canada goose, 10.
Wood duck, 10. (Only one duckling in the brood, Lambeth’s first of the year.)
Mallard, 25. (Two broods, first of the year.)
Red-headed woodpecker, 1. (First of the year.)
Downy woodpecker, 1.
Alder/willow flycatcher (Traill's flycatcher), 2.
Least flycatcher, 1.
Philadelphia vireo, 1.
Barn swallow, 5.
Black-capped chickadee, 2.
House wren, 1.
Ruby-crowned kinglet, 1.
American robin, 2.
Gray catbird, 5.
Brown thrasher, 1.
American goldfinch, 5.
Chipping sparrow, 2.
Swamp sparrow, 1.
Red-winged blackbird, 5.
Brown-headed cowbird, 2.
Common grackle, 10.
Common yellowthroat, 2.
American redstart, 1.
Magnolia warbler, 1,
Yellow warbler, 5. (Now on territory, especially in Magic Circle.)
House sparrow, 2.