“April is the cruelest month,” T. S. Eliot penned in his masterpiece, “The Four Quartets.” When I moved back to Minnesota in 1999, my brother warned me that November, March and April were the worst for outdoors lovers. But I’ve found my consolations: Ice skating and trail clearing in November and spring cross-country skiing in March and April.
April is the month that great birding commences. Northwestern Carlton County hosts wonderful viewing sites during April waterfowl and May warbler and shorebird migrations. Our lakes, rivers and swamps offer safe harbor. I imagine these travelers looking down and spotting the perfect lagoon or resting place, as we do when wilderness backpacking or canoeing. I’m not willing to share all my favorites, but here are several suggestions.
First, the Kettle Lake access south of 210 between Sawyer and Cromwell. A messy early spring approach: Four-wheel drive recommended and please drive gently. On April 17, Brandon Eilers and I spent the morning here, driving leisurely past two sandhill cranes rummaging in the hay fields and Brewer’s blackbirds fluttering in ditch-side trees. Brandon spied a red fox with a grouse in its mouth, crossing the road in front of us.
We stopped where the road turns west, disembarked and listened to a snipe diving above us. National Geographic’s Field Guide to Birds of North America describes this mating call: “(In a) swooping display flight, vibrating outer tail feathers make quivering sounds!” Over and over he dove above us, so fast we couldn’t glimpse him. Further along, we encountered a living grouse pursuing his intended with a comical dance.
It’s always magic to arrive at the Kettle Lake landing with its DNR informational billboard. The minute you open a car door, you hear hundreds of trumpeter swans bellowing. On the ample lake spread out on all sides, swans are rising and alighting, resting before heading for the far north. In smaller pools along the shore, we spotted hooded mergansers among the earliest returning waterfowl. The year’s first hermit thrush sang on high.
This past Sunday, I returned to Kettle Lake to see how it’s host population had changed. It was quite subdued. Just a few swans, mallards, a marsh hawk hunting low across the lake margins, and newly arrived tree swallows swooping above looking for bugs. I spied a mating pair of blue-winged teal, a treat. By walking some of the service roads, I found the woods full of returnees: White-throated and song sparrows, ruby-crowned kinglets, and flickers. Along the Kettle River above the lake, I flushed my first great blue heron of the season.
It wasn't a good day for bird photography, too dark. The best candidate was a huge porcupine high up in a bare, slender tree. I stalked her as best I could, snapping photos. Returning from Kettle Lake, I spotted her on the ground and snapped again as she climbed back up the same tree.
To my surprise, I bagged several firsts for the year just walking out my front door that morning. A handsome rough-legged hawk flew up to a visible perch, perhaps attracted by throngs of purple finches and goldfinches, chickadees, woodpeckers, and pine siskins at our feeders, possibly breakfast. In the woods not far away, a barred owl hooted for the second morning in a row. To our amazement, we’ve had yellow-rumped warblers at our suet feeder every early morning!
Our water-soaked quadrant of the county offers many other birding sites. Our rivers including the Kettle that flows south and the Tamarack which flows west. Most springs, Rod and I canoe the Tamarack west to Wright. Through two small lakes and meanderings, we encounter bird treats: Swans, mating ducks and sometimes early arriving shorebirds like the solitary, spotted or upland sandpiper. One year, a bittern tried to obscure herself in the cattails and then flew up, offering us a lovely view. Swamp-pumpers, my grandfather called them.
If you’ve not encountered Mary Oliver’s gorgeous poem, “Wild Geese,” here it is, perfect for the season:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
(Source: Many web versions, YouTube, Vimeo and more.)