Tuesday 4 January 2022

The Midwest - Day 9 - Duluth, Superior and Minneapolis-St Paul

So, a change of plan. Run away from a winter storm, get south of the front in case of severe disruption, and make the best of the birding wherever I end up. I had a day and a half to get potentially as far as Chicago, nobody yet knew quite how large this storm was going to be, nor the exact track, but the predictions last night had been that Minneapolis would be right in the middle on Friday afternoon. Guess where my hotel was booked for on Friday night?

Evening Grosbeak

I started off at Sax Zim again, at Mary Lou's feeders which were the closest side of the bog to where I had been staying in Grand Rapids. Early morning these were really busy, with loads of Evening Grosbeaks visiting. Wonderful birds, improbably colourful against the monochromatic scenery, almost unreal. Across the bog I drove a few roads in a further abortive attempt at Ruffed Grouse, but I had long way to go and unfortunately I had to move. Next stop Duluth!

I drove out to Park Point (at the northern end of which had been my accommodation for this evening, now cancelled) and did a bit of birding. A few ducks, a few Redpoll, and a few Bald Eagles out on the ice of the inner channel. And a white blob which turned out to be a Snowy Owl, so I did get one in Minnesota after all! 

The obvious bridge over into Wisconsin was closed so I had to take the next one over. Good thing I did, as I noted that it was called the Richard Bong bridge, which reminded me that my research before leaving had noted three Snowy Owls at the nearby Richard I Bong Memorial Airport. Somehow this had not translated onto my plan nor onto my map as a visible pin, but a name like that sticks in the memory. I found where it was and went straight there, a fortunate turn of events as right by the sports facilities was a Snowy Owl sitting on a chain link fence. A Northern Shrike was in close attendance. Superb! 

I could only find one bird, I suppose it is possible that the bird I'd seen on the ice earlier on was another of the original three, but suffice it to say the morning was going rather well. Didn't take long for it to go downhill mind you. At my next stop about ten minutes away towards the Wisconsin side of the big sand bar, a battered saloon pulled up next to me and a scruffy guy pulling on a cigarette wound his window down. "You police?" with a kind of knowing smirk suggesting he'd made up his mind already. "Er no, I'm bird watching" I offered, wiggling my binoculars at him. "What were you doing with the big camera at the airport?" I sensed a conspiracy theorist.... "Taking a photo of an Owl, did you see it?". This went on for some time, as if photographing an Owl had never happened in Wisconsin before, but eventually he seemed to decide that I wasn't a Federal Agent after all. "Just checking" he said  "Just making sure". Just making sure? What if I had said I was with the Feds? Probably a good thing I hadn't decided to piss around, you know, asked him what he thought about vaccinations, if he liked Kamala Harris, that sort of thing. That said the Chevy could have absolutely crushed his wreck of a car. Then again he probably had a gun. I got the hell of there and went to Wisconsin Point. He didn't follow, probably went home to put out a warning on me on Facebook. There are some strange people out there, and in America you ideally need to steer clear of certain types.

Does this look the interior of a police car to you?

Wisconsin Point was excellent. As I drove out to the end there were Bald Eagles everywhere. In the line of trees that circle the landward side of Allouez Bay I counted 123 bird, mostly adults. Also my first Mourning Doves of the trip, and lots of gulls although not the white-wingers I had been secretly hoping for. The prior week there had been both Iceland and Glaucous here, but today I could only find Herring and Ring-billed.

By now it was early afternoon and I wanted to make St Paul before dusk, 150 miles away. The long-running radio variety show 'A Prairie Home Companion' had broadcast from the Fitzgerald Theatre on Exchange Street for over 30 years, and visiting was a kind of pilgrimage for me. The show itself is perhaps an acquired taste, very Midwest but the liberal side. I first heard short segments of it on Radio 4 many years ago, essentially 'The News from Lake Wobegon" monologue, and from there graduated to listening to a whole two hour show on American Public Radio. It is a mixture of music, poetry and comedy theatre, but not cutting edge acerbic comedy - rather gentle old man comedy, with a subtle homely humour that I find incredibly appealing, about people, food, religion and the weather, all centred on Minnesota and far more enjoyable than in-your-face satire or people trying to be on-point funny. There are one-off sketches as well as oft-repeated situational sketches, made-up sponsors, guest musicians as well as a stellar in-house band, radio actors and a sound-effects guy, and I suppose that gradually it just seems to grow on you. You begin to feel as if you have been to Lake Wobegon, as if you know its Scandinavian-descended inhabitants - Clarence Bunsen, Darlene at the Chatterbox Café, Pastor Inquvist (now Pastor Liz), the Krebsbachs, Daryl Tollerud, Norwegian bachelor farmers, the Sons of Knute and many many more. For years and years it was wildly popular all over the US, and the show would tour annually around the country.  APHC was a weekly show, it moved with the seasons and they are all online, so I am still listening to them today, and still giggling away. It sustains me and I inflict it on my wife and children as often as I can, and even though the American side of my family hail from California and Utah, personally I feel Minnesotan. Oh Yah. All I can suggest is you try a few episodes for yourself, but don't quit too soon. 

I had planned to stay right next to the Fitzgerald, but figured I could at least see it before heading east and away from the storm. I arrived just before dusk. It was all closed up of course, but I was just pleased to be there. Oh Yah. 
I drove the final 200 miles in the dark, through Eau Claire to the small town of Wisconsin Rapids. I was 320 miles and two days further forward on than I had planned to be, and had decided to visit "Chicken Place" after all.