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Villa Maria Retreat and Conference Center

Warbler Weekend 2008

Paul Spreitzer and Sally Heuer leading a walk at Hok-Si-La Park

A Peaceful Retreat

A non-birder friend of mine asked me what I had planned for my long weekend, and I told him that Joann and I were going out of town for "Warbler Weekend".  He wanted to know what the heck "Warbler Weekend" was, and so I explained to him that it would be two days of non-stop fun and exhilaration, and a great chance to commune with nature.  "A lot like the Burning Man festival, but with more trees and less public nudity," I said.

In truth, "Warbler Weekend" is the premier yearly birding event of the Saint Paul chapter of the Audubon Society (SPAS).  For over thirty-five years, birders from the Twin Cities have been spending a May weekend at the Villa Maria Retreat and Conference Center in Frontenac, Minnesota.  The Villa, which has served as an Ursaline Sisters convent, is situated on a beautiful 70 acres and adjoins Frontenac State Park.  Accomodations are comfortable, if spartan, and the Villa's staff serves cafeteria-style meals to the birders.  Mass is held in the chapel on Sunday morning.

But it's all about the birds, of course.  The Villa is very nicely located along the Mississippi River in a prime area for spring migration.  In addition to the Villa grounds themselves, which are quite good for birding, Frontenac State Park, Sand Point Trail, and Lake City's Hok-Si-La Park provide excellent birding opportunities. 

Friday Kickoff

Friday night we were treated to a presentation by the Nature Conservancy on their efforts across the world and the country, and especially in Minnesota, to preserve critical habitat of all types.  A particular focus of their organization has been prairies, and they've done a lot of good work in our state in this respect.

After the presentation, the birders gathered to watch the spectacle of Chimney Swifts returning to roost in the Villa's chimney.  As he's done for several years, Paul Spreitzer did his best to count them as they spiralled and dove into the narrow opening.  I believe that he counted 107 on this evening.

After the return of the swifts, Clay Christensen led a group of about twenty birders on an "owl prowl."  Clay was armed with a small tape player that plays recordings of owls vocalizations, a spotlight capable of illuminating a fair-sized city, and his sense of humor.  We wandered around for awhile and did hear a Barred Owl somewhere far in the distance.  It didn't seem to respond to the tape, but one a Field Sparrow did with a sharp "cantabirdgetsomesleeparoundhere" call. 

Knee Deep in Water, or Where's the Sand?

Paul Spreitzer on the boardwalk trail to Sand Point

At 6:30 am, most of the birders gathered in front of the Villa to join a group for a pre-breakfast walk.  Joann and I chose to follow leaders Paul Spreitzer and Sally Heuer on a walk through Hok-Si-La park.  It wasn't crazy birdy, but we did see a few warblers  The Blackburnian Warbler was a highlight, and we saw our first-of-year (FOY) Common Yellowthroats.  We also saw a FOY Baltimore Oriole

After a short hour at Hok-Si-La, it was back to the Villa for breakfast.  We overfed, and planned our next excursion.  Joann and I decided to follow Paul and Sally again: this time, to Park Point.

A group of birders at Sand Point We knew even before we made the 70-mile drive from the Twin Cities that one of the three favorite spots might be inaccessible.  The level of Mississippi River was quite high, and the trail to Sand Point was flooded.  If we could get to the "boardwalk" portion in our knee-high rubber boots, then we might be able to get to the point for a look at the river.  Well, we were able—just barely—to get to the boardwalk, but only about a hundred years of it was above water.  Still, we enjoyed the walk and did see a few birds including FOYs Blue-winged Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and across the road from the Sand Point trailhead, a Field Sparrow.

Frontenac State Park and a Return to Hok-Si-La

After lunch, we struck out on our own for the State Park.  The rain that was forecast for Saturday afternoon and evening started to manifest itself.  It was just a very light drizzle for most of the time we were at the park, and didn't interfere with our birding much.  We ran saw another group of eight birders from our SPAS group and joined them briefly.  Shortly after we did, a couple of us had the interesting experience of seeing a Red-tailed Hawk from above, as it flew away from a tree on a steep bluff overlooking the Mississippi River at a distance of perhaps 50 yards below us.  Later, Joann and I rejoined the group of birders just after they had identified a Black-throated Green Warbler.  We got just a brief look at it.

We left the State Park and decided to drive to Hok-Si-La for another look around that park.  We almost decided against it (a nap sounded good at the time), but the rain was starting to pickup a bit, so we knew this brief time would be our last chance to bird before morning.  And there was no guarantee that the morning would be any better.  So we passed up the opportunity to take an early nap.

We're very glad we did!

Cape May Warbler When we returned to our car after a short, but moderately productive walk through the park, we were met with a very nice surprise and our first lifer of the weekend, a Cape May Warbler!  A least one male was feeding in an white pine on the edge of the parking lot, no more than eight feet off of the ground.  Because of the light rain, I hadn't carried my camera on our walk, but after making sure I'd had a good look, I dared to retrieve it from our car.  I thought that the bird would probably fly off as soon as I did, but I was wrong.  The bird stayed around and helpfully posed for a few photos.  I snapped more than a dozen in hopes of getting one or two decent shots.  I think I did.

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The Warbler of Assisi

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Dr. Ray Faber's Henslow's Sparrows

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Sunday Morning Warblers: Singing in the Rain

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